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Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Published by Random House on September 3, 2019

Quichotte is about the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment, meaning, or whatever it is that people search for, often fruitlessly, even when the quest is delusional and obsessional. It is also about reconciliation or its absence in familial relationships, the “destructive, mind-numbing junk culture” in which we live, the twinned topics of immigration and racism, and “the intertwining of fictional and ‘real’ realities.” Salman Rushdie offers stories within stories, crossing and combining genres: a family saga bumps up against a search for alternate universes; a quixotic quest joins a love story with elements of fantasy and mystery. A little Cervantes, a bit of Camelot, some Arthur C. Clarke, a couple of parodied Lifetime movie plots, a sprinkling of mythology, any number of classic crime novel themes — Rushdie pulls it all together and makes it fresh and relevant to the contemporary world.

In a style he has perfected, Rushdie mixes references to Greek classics, Eastern religions, and American/Bollywood pop culture (music, television, movies, and sometimes even a book) in sentences that are surprising, entertaining, and insightful. Rushdie portrays America in all its complexity, illuminating each America — the one where education is valued and the one where education is brainwashing, the one where vaccines keep kids safe and the one where vaccines are a con game, the one where only white skins matter and the one that embraces diversity — by placing America today into a larger historical and cultural context.

He does this by nesting stories within stories. The central story revolves around Ismael Smile, a pharmaceutical salesman who retires involuntarily at the instruction of his employer-cousin, who still has Smile make occasional discreet deliveries. An Internal Event befuddled Smile’s memory, leaving him unable to separate constructed from actual reality. His life consists largely of watching television, a pastime that sparks his obsession with Salma R. He becomes “a brown man in America longing for a brown woman.” Thinking himself unworthy of Salma, Smile decides to write her a series of letters, using an assumed name, to recount his exploits and win her admiration. He eventually comes to understand that by becoming worthy of the woman he loves, he might feel worthy of being himself.

Smile writes his love letters using the pseudonym Quichotte, the French version of Quixote. Constructing an alternate reality is consistent with the age in which he lives, the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, where even the host of a scripted reality show can become president.

Salma R., a Bollywood actress who starred in an American television series before becoming America’s next Oprah, is further proof that Anything-Can-Happen. Rushdie gives her a full and amusing history and makes her smart, beguiling, and capable of foiling all the men who want to control her. Salma embarks on her own quest, one that she can only fulfill with opioids supplied, coincidentally, by Quichotte’s former employer.

The next nested story, a level removed from Smile’s, reveals that Smile is the imaginary construct of a writer who has turned his attention from spy novels to serious literature. The aging novelist, born in India and now living in New York, identifies himself as Brother but writes as Sam DuChamp. He tells the reader about his broken family and suggests that “broken families may be our best available lens through which to view this broken world.” Brother conceives Smile as his alter-ego, just as Brother is presumably Rushdie’s. Brother also confides in the reader that Smile’s encounter with apocalyptic oblivion is Brother’s attempt to explore the topic of death, which will soon enough visit Brother and everyone else, bringing an end to the world, or at least to its perception, a distinction that presumably has little relevance to the dead. Brother eventually travels to London to meet with Sister, from whom Brother has been estranged for 17 years, since a falling out over the division of their inheritance.

Smile imagines he has a son named Sancho. Some chapters are narrated by Sancho, who takes on a reality (and a quest) of his own. Sancho is vaguely aware of a creator lurking behind Smile, an entity he thinks must be God. Of course, Rushdie created Brother who created Smile who created Sancho, which must make Rushdie the father of all gods — or at least imaginary gods, since Smile does not believe in a deity, and thus neither does Sancho. Nor does Sancho believe in Jiminy Cricket, even when he finds himself taking (or rejecting) instructions from the Italian insect who wanted to be human.

So there’s the setup, all packed into the first quarter of a novel that, being one of Rushdie’s, is dense with ideas. In his delightfully meandering prose, Rushdie observes the world’s peoples and problems, including America’s ugly history of racism and white supremacy, and its British counterpart in Brexit. Rushdie (through DuChamp) opines that modern stories must sprawl to reflect a world connected by communication, travel, and immigration. His story suggests that migrants are made to feel unwelcome by those who do not travel, including English citizens who share a “wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo–Saxon and all English skins were white.” Characters discuss identity and the difficulty of preserving an old identity while absorbing a new one.

Rushdie touches upon the use of wealth to create OxyContin addicts (Smile’s cousin and former employer is modeled on, although a lesser version of, the Sackett family), Russian hackers, the hidden shame of child abuse in families that shelter abusers, fear of death, the loss of mental faculties, and whether family members can ever forgive unforgiveable offenses. Perhaps the novel is so multifaceted that no single story can be explored in depth. Perhaps the story’s treatment of the opioid epidemic and of racism directed at immigrants is too cursory to be revealing. Perhaps the characters are reflections of their times rather than realistic characters a reader will care about (Rushdie does not create sympathy for Smile in the way that Cervantes built sympathy for Don Quixote). Perhaps the plot is a mad swirl that never quite settles. Notwithstanding all the objections that, perhaps, a reader could lodge against Quichotte, the book stands as an absorbing and amusing indictment of a divisive “junk culture” that probably deserves the clever ending Rushdie imagines for it. Rushdie might leave a reader dazed, but he always dazzles.


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