In his prologue to the second part of Quixote, Cervantes chastises the author of an apocryphal book based on his famed character’s adventures. Don Miguel complains that the tome exploiting the character was literary bullshit, and asks the reader for help and sympathy: if you meet him tell the writer of that book the story of a mad man of Sevilla who used to catch dogs to insert in them a slim pointy cane ‘in the part that, by blowing, he would inflate the pup till it looked round as a ball.’ The mad man would then release the dog and address his reunited audience asking: ‘Do you now, sires, believe it is an easy job to inflate a dog?’ In turn, Cervantes questions the reader: ‘Do you think then it is a simple task to write a book?’.
No, both things are hard to do. Now, if the writer is good enough and works like a mad man the result will be fine (and sometimes funny.) Salman Rushdie knows it, and tries his hand at it. So what comes out of Quichotte—a novel built with elements of various genres— is a man in the last part of his life written by another man in the last part of his life that, a trick the author knows well, is actually written by Rushdie (in the last part of his life.) In his patient style, we can almost hear what all of them have to say, their voices mixed in this long peculiar book of travels.
Everything is at play inside these pages. The author, his name, his past. Or reality shows, racism, climate change. Whatsapp, migration, and opioids ... you name it. Quichotte aims to hold inside whatever makes a part of the present of our world. Therefore, Rushdie himself is also at play in his book; not just his name in a feminine version (Salma R., a TV celebrity from Mumbai) but a few well-known bits of his life and perils. No autobiographical passages, though, or maybe a little. Just taking all to piece the puzzle of existence, love, madness (many kinds of) and the life of a young man born from his father’s fantasy.
The travel starts, as in the classic this book is ‘a little loosely based,’ with a man reaching the winter of his life and, perturbed by so many TV shows watched in his free time, losing his marbles and falling in love with a lady on the screen. Smile, an NRI going all over America as a medical sales rep, then changes his name and starts his love quest. He will travel everywhere like knights used to do in other lands and times, proving himself worthy of miss Salma R.’s affection.
From this point on, Salman Rushdie will take you on a path with bifurcations every now and then. The first of them when Brother enters, an American Indian writer of spy fiction who for a change tries writing the story of Quichotte and his quest. Fiction and reality are presented both as parallel layers. In a way, the author is making these two men play hide and seek in front of you, between the lines ... now you see me, now you don’t ... until you care not at all.
Playing his game, Rushdie plays Cervantes’ game (What’s real? What’s not? or Real enough?) and makes fun of many things, or uses real facts (a racist killing here, an opioid crises there). Embarking on a long reflection of getting old, being loved, or more simply put: what’s worth to live for and what’s not.
Our times in a nutshell
How Salman Rushdie keeps using stories and facts of the present needs to be pointed out. He always does so in a casual way. Though he never tries to catch up with times, it’s more like he picks things (a tablet, a U2 song) that he later uses to create a ‘real’ atmosphere around his characters.
Like the immense migration humankind is undergoing for all the wrong reasons (war, hunger, genocide) creating a deep multidimensional crises that affects us all.
These migrants from poor ‘dark’ lands trying to survive...
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 (pp. 54-55).
Actually, a universal parade passes before the reader. The clown ruling the White House comes in for a cameo or two, an Italian cricket too, and countless references to popular culture; I mean, the American popular culture that’s becoming increasingly ours. This time, the writer brings in something new to his style. Factoids and numbers pop in the narrative the way they do when you pass the cursor over a digital interactive map, a well designed website or the app of your preference. Annoying at some point.
But this manifest will of packing everything, slowly, never makes the container explode. Rushdie keeps bringing elements in. The reader can’t forget he’s talking about today, us. Up to the point you can’t tell what’s really real, simply real or in which layer we are set in any given chapter (maybe in all.) Not much to do, keep reading and follow the man into the cave.
At times the author seems to abuse his rhetorical skills. Lack of a word for a writer that indulges a lot in explanations (in his conversational style) we can say Salman Rushdie ‘talks’ too much sometimes about what people and things are.
The constant appeal to his readership, almost every step of the way, is what the British-Indian author uses to sustain the tension between his lines and you. Showing his clean hands and letting you know he’s about to make one more of his tricks. Again. And again. That’s why you have to pay close attention and be as smart as you can to follow him (and laugh.) That’s probably why many critics didn’t like Quichotte.
Sancho in technicolor
There we go. Quichotte drives his car crossing half of the United States, from town to bar, from hotel to little city. The gallery of characters is not just a portrait (nor mere descriptions of landscapes Rushdie paints for you). That lady screaming racist slurs is just what you get sometimes, a unidimensional person afraid of others. But he is not alone to bear witness, like the other knight five centuries ago. Bursting in the passenger’s seat goes Sancho, his teenager son, born out of the old man’s craving for company, someone to share his wisdom with.
First a simple black and white young man, no body and no past as well, this boy is in fact the center and goal of the novel. Like in his other novels, Rushdie gives a character metamorphosis while the plot moves on. He enters into the narrative and becomes unsettled (a boy without a mom) only to start reflecting upon life, meanings and senses. And he falls in love too, just like his dad.
Sancho is not like his old namesake, a simpleton taking care of his master. Drawn on Hamlet and every other passionate young man, Quichotte’s son becomes a person, in flesh and blood (and colours too,) carrying an ID and a small amount of cash. The complications and the twists of his life following his father make him the deepest character of the book. What happens to him, and the questions he asks about himself will set the tone for a novel in which an old man is in love with a TV star, because not everything in life (real or not) can be fun or light.
More into the book, the question that will cross the lives of Sancho, Quichotte, their author (Brother) and his son (Son) will be about that fundamental relation. What is a father without a son? Or what are a father and a son?
And love? Well, there’s Salma R. This poor rich famous woman addicted to opioids and dejected. For Quichotte she is the Grail, the trove at the end of a quest from West to East. Oh, they will meet as the older couple did in Spain. Or Brother, the author in the book, who will get a new lease of life (and creativity). Not without loss and pain, he will have a son, Son once more. And their reconnection will parallel Sancho and Quichotte’s.
Does the book end well? We have couples and families reunited, sometimes having harder times than they expected. We have a world turning absurdity into a normal state. Yet, we still have impossible dreams. Who knows? ... only if you read the entire book will you understand why and how Salman Rushdie inflates a dog.