Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in the 17th century but often called the first modern novel, was about a dotty old guy who thought he was a hero and rode around Spain attacking windmills.
Here in the 21st century, no such thing could happen, of course. But Cervantes’ book — at once a classic quest narrative and a satire on the genre — forms the chassis of Salman Rushdie’s new road trip novel, Quichotte.
Rushdie’s 14th novel, Quichotte is already long-listed for the Booker Prize. It reminds me of some of my favorites among his books — Midnight’s Children, The Satanic Verses, The Moor’s Last Sigh — in its postcolonial, cosmopolitan, exuberant and encyclopedic mashup of cultures, history, magic realism and family sagas. It fearlessly charges into scary territories like immigration, politics and sex, all in luscious prose. And it is LOL funny.
Rushdie’s native India is a setting for some of the book. But he has lived in the United States for almost 20 years now, so, like his last novel, The Golden House, this one draws much from American politics and even more from American pop culture, especially television.
Quichotte borrows its core idea, though, from Don Quixote, which is one of those classics more cited as influence than actually read these days. Rushdie is far from the first to be inspired by it. As he explains in a note at the front of the book, its title (pronounced key-SHOT) is the French version of Quixote’s name, a title shared with Jules Massenet’s opera about the befuddled knight-errant. Americans might be more familiar with Man of La Mancha. Pretty much everyone will be familiar with the quest narrative, for which humans seem to be hardwired.
Whose quest is it? The book’s title is a nom de plume adopted by one of its central characters, Ismail Smile. An aging immigrant from India who works as a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical company owned by his cousin, he’s losing his mind but not his longing for romance.
Smile/Quichotte sets out cross-country in his high-mileage Chevy Cruze on an utterly improbable quest to win the heart of one of the biggest stars in show business, a beauty several decades his junior called Miss Salma R. “We may be after a celestial goal, but we still have to travel along the interstate,” he says.
Quichotte is as addled as his namesake, and it’s not an effect of aging. Don Quixote was driven mad by reading too many tales of chivalry; Quichotte’s confusion is caused by “his love for mindless television,” Rushdie tells us. He “had spent far too much of his life in the yellow light of tawdry hotel rooms watching an excess of it, and had suffered a peculiar form of brain damage as a result. ... he fell victim to that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies becomes smudged and indistinct.”
Lonesome Quichotte longs for Salma’s love and believes the screen has taught him how to win it, as he explains in a disquisition on the strategies employed on The Bachelorette and The Bachelor. He also longs for a son and believes the same sort of TV-taught magical thinking applies.
So he travels to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming (cue Close Encounters theme music) and, while observing the Perseid meteor shower, snaps seven chicken wishbones and “the miracle occurred. The longed-for son, who looked to be about fifteen years old, materialized in the Cruze’s passenger seat.”
The boy appears in black and white, like an old movie. At first no one else can see him; if he gets too far away from Quichotte, he pixelates. But soon his form, and his attitude, solidify, and in chapters the boy narrates, Rushdie finds another angle to look at the nature of storytelling. The boy, whom Quichotte names Sancho (what else?), is conscious — unlike most other fictional characters — that he is himself constructed out of the memories and knowledge of his “father.”
“I know things. Educated things,” Sancho tells us. “But how do I know so much, being the teenage son of a seventy-year-old, and born just the other day? I guess the answer is, I know what he knows. If I listen inside myself I hear his book learning and all his favorite TV shows also — I know them all as if I watched them myself.”
As for Salma, Rushdie tells her story as well. A third-generation movie star in India, she came to the United States to star in a hit TV series about spies, then left acting to host a daytime talk show, ascending to Ellen-and-Oprah-level success. She is also a third-generation sufferer of bipolar disorder, prescribed a cocktail of drugs by her doctors and self-medicated with painkillers. Despite her dazzling beauty and great wealth and legions of adoring fans, she is desperately unhappy. And when she starts getting courtly love notes, written in a beautiful old-fashioned hand, among her fan mail, she’s intrigued.
All of these expansive stories — Quichotte’s, Sancho’s, Salma’s — were created, Rushdie tells us, by “a New York-based writer of Indian origin who had previously written eight modestly (un)successful spy fictions under the name of Sam DuChamp,” also known as Brother. Besides being a sort of metafictional stand-in for Rushdie, DuChamp is himself a fascinating character, whose story weaves in and out of those of the characters he is supposedly writing about.
Atop that is Rushdie himself, the creator of all of them, conjuring them on the page as Sancho was conjured on the car seat, out of his brimming and restless mind. In one three-page span, he knits together allusions to Pinocchio and Moby-Dick, the Odyssey and Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, looping them deftly into the book’s careening forward motion.
What of the power of storytelling? In Quichotte, it’s one of the questions that underlies all else. What’s the slippery line between a fiction and a lie? Does story give order to reality, create it or distort it? Or is this rambunctious and wise novel just a road trip to the end of the world?
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 396 pages, $28
Meet the author
The Oxford Exchange presents Salman Rushdie, in conversation with Tampa Bay Times book editor Colette Bancroft, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Tampa Theatre, 711 N Franklin St., Tampa. Tickets $42 single admission, $52 double admission; all ticket packages include a presigned copy of Quichotte. (813) 274-8286. tampatheatre.org.