‘Qui­chotte’: Rushdie’s take on ‘Don Quixote’ for 21st cen­tury

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Spotlight - BY CO­LETTE BAN­CROFT Tampa Bay Times

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 keySHOT) is the French ver­sion of Quixote’s name, a ti­tle shared with Jules Massenet’s opera about the be­fud­dled knighter­rant. 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-andOprah-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.

Ran­dom House/TNS

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