Quichotte by Salman Rushdie
Consider it Patient Zero, or Pandora’s Box: all of Western Literature can arguably be traced back to Cervantes’s 1605/1615 masterpiece Don Quixote. A picaresque novel about a mad knight errant and his squire Sancho Panza, Don Quixote is hailed by most literary scholars as the first Western novel and the most influential novel in history. Over the next centuries, its impact can be traced through literature around the world, seen in the work of Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Gustave Flaubert, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, to name a few major figures. Conceptualize now the impact these figures have on literature today, and one begins to see the breadth of Cervantes’s reach. Don Quixote is the base of a colossal tree, endlessly limbing.
Now, imagine if we could flip that tree over and grow those shoots back into a single stalk — if there were a way to capture all the tales that emerged from Cervantes’s tome and smoosh them back into a single book. To reach out through the classics to the pulps, to sci-fi, to television, to daytime soaps and fake news and celebrity tabloids and recognize that all this oversaturation is just layers of stories on stories, all of which can be traced back to one determined hidalgo’s quest, over four hundred years ago. With Quichotte, Salman Rushdie aims to complete this quixotic feat and find a singular meaning in a book that, literally, might mean everything as we know it.
Quichotte toes a spectacularly dangerous line between crackling genius and career-ending idiocy, eventually becoming one of the ballsiest, most confounding and most contemporary novels ever written. A hot mess of pop culture references, Quichotte spazzily tackles not only the Cervantes story and its influence on literature but also America’s penchant for celebrities, suspicion of immigrants, and addiction to opioids.
As the narrator explains in one meta-joke early in the novel, “Quichotte would be his belated end-of-life attempt to cross the frontier separating low culture from high.” This sentiment will be troublingly familiar to readers of Rushdie’s disappointing recent works: 2010’s Luka and the Fire of Life felt a little too much like a bad episode of Adventure Time and not enough like Rushdie’s 1990 classic Haroun and the Sea of Stories; 2015’s Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights felt built upon Marvel Universe fanfiction and dad jokes. Quichotte steps back into this tone but finally gets everything right: Rushdie’s prose, at last, is appropriately goofy and lowbrow and uses its shifty tone to achieve powerful, resonant results.
Set in the “Age of Anything-Can-Happen,” Quichotte is a television addict who suddenly, illogically, declares his love for one Salma R, an Oprah-like celebrity who shoots a talk show in New York. He sets off on a quest to make her his, driving a trusty Chevy Cruze across contemporary America and making a series of stops throughout the heartland. Like how Athena was born from Zeus’s head, Quichotte creates a sidekick son from his overstimulated imagination, and, of course, names him Sancho.
A second layer to Quichotte adds more head-spinning charm: a writer, pen name Sam DuChamp, steps out of his comfort zone writing spy novels to try a poppy take on Don Quixote. But he, like his fictional subject, “fell victim to a rare form of mental disorder…in the grip of which the boundary between art and life became blurred and permeable, so that at times he was incapable of distinguishing where one ended and the other began….” It’s easy to try to fashion the writer into a stand-in for Rushdie (Sam DuChamp, after all, reads like an autocorrected anagram of the author’s name), but the writer’s story unfolds in tandem with his classical homage: events in the writer’s life are transformed into adventures for Quichotte and Sancho. And, perhaps, the opposite happens: “every quest,” Quichotte explains, “takes place both in the sphere of the actual… and the sphere of the symbolic.” Reiterated by another character later in the novel, “all of us are in two stories at the same time…. Life and Times. There is our own personal story, and the bigger story of what’s happening around us. When both are in trouble simultaneously, when the crisis inside you intersects with the crisis outside you, things get a little crazy.”
Rushdie’s story meanders episodically, primarily focusing each chapter on a particular character in Quichotte’s (and Quichotte’s author’s) family network. Some of these moments unfold better than others, but Rushdie’s thematic commitment and confidence leave little room for readers to dwell on anything they might find dumb or unpleasant: in a channel-surfing zap, Rushdie quickly moves on to the next scene, barrelling through stories of Ionesco-like mastodons, drug deals, and hackers seemingly straight out of an episode of Mr. Robot.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie remains a step ahead of any potential criticism readers may send his way. His characters openly explain “the picaresque tradition, its episodic nature,” and discuss the “metamorphic roguery” used to “encompass the multiplicity of human life.” Brilliantly, what emerges from all this roguery is a story about family and about the narrative and trials of a person’s life. Rushdie eventually frames existence itself as a quest, and suggests that while Cervantes used storytelling to teach generations about life, we can use our lives, ever-changing, to learn how to tell stories anew.
“It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided…. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world…. And these broken people–we, the broken people!–may be the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth, wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain.”