SALMAN’S GONE QUIXOTE IN THE USA

 

Salman Rushdie’s 14th novel, Quichotte, offers a familiar mish-mish of postmodernist self-reflexive preening and strenuously outlandish literary invention. The surprise is that it’s rather good. Based loosely on Miguel de Cervante’s 17th century Spanish “anti-novel”, Don Quixote, it unfolds in a US of the near future in the aftermath of civic breakdown. Ismail Smile, an Indian-born pharmaceutical salesman who has suffered a stroke in old age, watches too much reality TV and has become besotted with a former Bollywood heartthrob called Salma R (a homonymous near-miss to “Salman”). Having renamed himself Quichotte after his Spanish archetype, he embarks on an ill-fated picaresque adventure to declare his undying love.

 

 

Rushdie’s Quichotte is a 21st century knight errant lost in a false image of the world. What he takes for reality is “really” an unreality based on TV dating games and porno stations. The pollution of reality by junk culture and the media is of course nothing new in literature. (Counter-culture gurus such as William Burroughs and J.G.Ballard long ago portrayed existence as a giant theme park dominated by TV sitcoms and soft drink commercials.) Rushdie, typically, extracts a measure of humour from life’s high-speed information mosaic. Quichotte, a “brown man born in America longing for a brown woman”, effectively channel-hops his way towards Salma R as he checks into motels and neon-lit dives in Tulsa and Wyoming. Sightings of his beloved on YouTube or WhatsApp send him into raptures. Is she really for real? At one point, Quichotte spirits into existence a make-believe son to replace the one he never had, his own Sancho. In a battered Chevy he and Sancho set off together for New York.

 

 

The novel, longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, crackles with wickedly effective pastiche and pages of broad satire. Both Left and Right are ribbed by Rushdie for their harping on identity politics. (“Isn’t everyone a person of colour?”, protests an Indian human rights lawyer. “What am I? Colourless?”) Strange things start to happen on the way to Salma R in New York.  A waitress transforms into a fairy; Jiminy Cricket pops up from Pinocchio, speaking Italian. Quichotte, it turns out, is the invention of an Indian immigrant author called Sam Duchamp, or Brother, who writes indifferent spy thrillers and is himself apparently half cuckoo. In imitation of Cervantes, Rushdie incorporates cock-and-bull digressions on the nature of truth and fib-telling. This is very much a Don Quixote for our times, made up of a dizzying multiplicity of half-finished fictions.

 

Beneath the gallimaufry of the fabulist and the funny are grave reflections on America’s opioid epidemic. Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc, the family-run company from which Quichotte has been sacked, encourages “off-prescription” use of OxyContin in the poor white Trump heartlands of Appalachia and the Midwestern Rust Belt counties. From there, abuse has spread into suburban enclaves with their teenage “Oxy” pharm parties. Salma R herself is tempted by the Fentanyl opium poppy derivative which killed Prince. Will she survive? Graham Greene’s novella Monsieur Quixote, where a Spanish priest motors across Spain with a Marxist ideologue at the wheel, is clearly an influence as Rushdie follows his “Galahad quester” on his mock-heroic misadventures. The novel flaunts its own cleverness, as one might expect from the author of The Satanic Verses, but it’s a wild, enjoyable ride.

 

 

This review first appeared in the London Evening Standard on 27 August 2019