"Quichotte, an aging traveling salesman obsessed with the "unreal real" of TV, falls in impossible love with a queen of the screen; while obsessively writing her love letters, he wishes an imaginary son, Sancho, into existence. Together they set off across America in Quichotte's trusty Chevy Cruze to find her and convince her of his love. Meanwhile, Quichotte's tragicomic story is being told by the author who created him: Brother, a mediocre spy novelist in the midst of a midlife crisis. As their stories intertwine, we are taken on a wild, picaresque journey through a country on the edge of moral and spiritual collapse. Just as Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirize the culture of his time, Rushdie brings us a new twist on a classic. Quichotte is a profoundly human love story and a wickedly entertaining satire of a corrupt age in which fact is so often indiscernible from fiction. With unforgettable characters and riveting suspense, this dazzling novel showcases an essential storyteller at his brilliant best"--
Sounds like a relatively straightforward modernization of Cervantes’ classic social satire Don Quixote, right? It is, but then this is a Salman Rushdie novel, meaning that nothing is quite that simple. As it turns out, the character of Quichotte is the invention of Sam DuChamp, an unremarkable author of spy fiction, who is writing this picaresque as a way to redeem the mess he has made of his own life. So, the book Quichotte is a story-within-a-story with more than a few twists in its intricate, parallel plotline. Above all else, with this saga Rushdie has produced his own sendup of life in the 21st century. And what a skewering, take-no-prisoners look it is, focused on such timely issues as immigration, racism, climate change, obsession with the media, family conflicts, opioid addiction, mental illness, the problems of aging, fears about the end of the world, and, of course, the quest for love.
Following The Golden House, this novel continues the author’s recent trend of setting his unique brand of social commentary in a modern setting, rather than the historical context he has used in much of his earlier work. Overall, I found Quichotte to be a well-written and extremely well-crafted story; Rushdie is truly a masterful stylist of fiction and he has long been one of my favorite writers. Certainly, the points he wants to make come through loudly and clearly in a narrative that is wonderfully creative and entertaining. However, it is also not without its flaws; the entire tale felt a little bloated at times and the author is perhaps too heavy-handed in his portrayal of the racism and ethnic hatred that defines the American public. So, while it does not approach Midnight’s Children as the best of Rushdie’s esteemable catalog, this is a book that I can happily recommend to both fans of the author and those new to his work.
The interesting thing, of course, is what he does with this state of affairs. And being Rushdie, it's not the most obvious approach. Instead of telling us about the bad things he sees in modern life, he takes it for granted that we already know about the evils of social media, intolerance, Trump, climate catastrophe, racism, pre-cooked opinions, television, etc., and he focusses instead on the way our minds equip us to deal with such things by shifting away from reality into the realm of myths, stories, and romantic quests. Which naturally enough leads him into the Quixote story, but again we don't get the Quixote story "straight", we get an imaginary novelist who has created an imaginary modern Quixote (or rather "Quichotte", because Massenet is in there somewhere as well) character, and the imaginary modern Quichotte character creates an imaginary Sancho. And we see the process of fiction working as it's made explicit how the Quichotte shares some - but not all - of the character and background of the novelist, and implicit that the novelist shares some of the character and background of the equally imaginary Rushdie who is writing him. And so ad infinitum.
And just for fun, we soon realise that there's all sorts of other intertextuality going on here - people falling out of aeroplanes, an Italian talking cricket, a Romanian troubled by
Although connections with actual issues of the modern world are mostly fairly sketchy, there is one trendy topic that Rushdie develops more fully, opioid abuse, something that obviously ties in with the general discussion of reality and detachment from it. And there's a tech billionaire who indulges in space-travel fantasies, but Rushdie is careful not to imply that he has anything to do with bookselling.
Depressing, uplifting, entertaining, puzzling - basically, it's the Rushdie recipe we're used to, maybe a notch darker than the last two or three books, but as rewarding and challenging as ever.
This novel stirs a myriad of emotions as it touches on a multitude of current concerns - be it climate change, depression, love, our own mortality, politics, corruption, racism, immigration, opioid addiction - to name a few. With a simple phrase like this "Many years ago when the sea was clean and the night was safe" Rushdie evokes a poignant reality. Or just think of the phrase "Picnic on the railway track" - which says so much about the world as it is. The way he paints the picture is truly remarkable: no fake feelings or words (even though it's part fantasy), everything is raw and real with this author.
Without giving much away, I would say that the structure of the narrative is unusual. But admittedly, there is never a traditional line of story for this writer. And yet it's captivating - I didn't want it to finish. (But finish it did, with an unsettling denouement, at that...). Sancho is here too! and through him Rushdie questions the status quo, giving an innocent take on the world as Sancho sees it, poking fun (subtle and not so subtle) on politics and life in general, with his mind that goes in different directions all at the same time, as he, Sancho, is "brought to life" by the author of this "book within the book".
I want to finish with a quote from the novel about our state of affairs: "... this is the way things are these days in America: that for some of us, the world stopped making sense. Anything can happen... truth can be lies. Everything's slip-sliding around and there is nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart at the seams. For some of us, who have started seeing the stuff the rest of us are too blind to see. Or too determined not to see it. For them, it's a shrug, business as usual, the Earth's still flat and the climate still isn't changing. Down there on the street, cars full of shruggers are driving around, shrugger pedestrians are walking to work..."
This is very much a book of the moment, with all sorts of references to Trump, Brexit, the Sackler family, etc. All of them indirect, as I recall, but perfectly precise. On the other hand, I sadly suspect that these trends are not as evanescent as many of us would prefer, so this book may prove more timeless than it seems.
It's a great fun read. It's really human, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters. All the wild cosmic event actually highlight the intimacy instead of disintegrating it.
I liked Quichotte more than I'd anticipated I would. I'd heard fans of the author say this was certainly not his best work, and since I didn't find his “best work” all that appealing, I thought this would likely be terrible. Rushdie lets his imagination run away in this metafictional romp, and that provided some level of enjoyment. Also, unlike Midnight's Children, I found the story and the characters entertaining enough to stay mildly invested. The story within a story within a story was crafted well and showed significant intelligence and creativity.
And yet it feels like this story tries too hard to be relevant and humorous. The level of absurdity reaches epic proportions from time to time. There's a scene involving the transformation of people into humanoid mastodons. Because it appeared out of nowhere, I had to read this chapter twice to make sure I hadn't misunderstood. I'm sure this scene is meant to highlight the continued existence of mob mentality akin to our prehistoric human nature or some junk. I don't know—briefcase-totting mastodons are probably best left to the likes of Murakami.
My overall feelings of Quichotte is that the novel is wildly imaginative, but lacks heart. There is what seems to be an attempt to find the pulse of “America” in these pages, an effort which involves highlighting multiple isolated events of the same ilk, ie, the prejudice and hatred of America. Rushdie displays an extensive familiarity with the America that bears the hood of hatred, but he doesn't breathe life into the dark forces, nor into those who stand in opposition. In a story about the creation of characters, Rushdie stops short of creating a soul. It's an entertaining story at its best moments, but Quichotte fails to deliver either magic or profundity.
Overlapping Quichotte's quest is the quest of his author - Sam DuChamp, mediocre spy novelist with his own quest for love, family reconciliation and redemption. Gradually the quests of the author, and his characters start to merge.
This entertaining stuff, with the familiar themes of Don Quixote adapted to an America with an opioid crisis, an existential crisis worse than a climate emergency, obsessed with real or imagined cyber-warfare and populated by tech entrepreneurs who may be geniuses or charlatans. It also has Rushdie's usual puns, exotic wordplay and references to other works (in this case Ionescu's Rhinoceros gets a lively work over).
So why then, did I find it hard to engage with for more than a few pages at a time? I don't know but I did. It took me far longer to read than it really should of done. But recommended, none the less
There is much I don’t like about the way he writes:
- he frequently feels it necessary to remind us how wonderful intelligent, well-educated and well-read he is;
- he appears to assume his readers are a little bit stupid and need things spelling out to them (yes, we are actually told, at one point, that the book is about “the destructive, mind-numbing junk culture of his own age... Impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationships, sibling quarrels,..... Indian immigrants, racism toward them, crooks among them; about cyber-spies, science fiction, the intertwining of fictional and ‘real’ realities, the death of the author, the end of the world.”;
- he comes across as really rather arrogant and pompous;
- his maxim seems to be “why use 10 words when 1,000 will do?”
More specifically, in this book, in which an author of thrillers is moving into a new genre by attempting to write some kind of Sci-Fi/Fantasy version of Don Quixote (with a bit of Pinnochio thrown in - I kid you not), the novel-within-a-novel approach has resulted in an abnormal amount of repetition. Rushdie’s fictional author is basically writing his own autobiography, word for word. So Quichotte could quite easily have been half the length it is. Except that then, it wouldn’t have been able to have the ending it had.
So, I feel I should have absolutely hated this book. There were times when I was close to giving up on it in frustration. It’s verbosity drove me mad at times.
And yet, now that I have finished it, I feel that I will suffer from a book hangover. I will miss Sam Du Champ, and Quichotte and Miss Salma R. (I won’t, to be honest, miss Sancho, though.)
In short (not a word often associated with Salman Rushdie’s novels) I did actually really enjoy this novel.
“Maybe this was the human condition, to live inside fictions created by untruths or the withholding of actual truths. Maybe human life was truly fictional (...)”
In his 14th novel, Salman Rushdie is playing with fact and fiction within a fictional novel and cleverly demonstrates what we do in our so called real life to re-narrate reality, to shape it according to our needs and longings to make it take the form we would like it to have. Especially when it comes to the author’s family, we get a typical example of a family history which is told in a certain way and shaped by omission and half-truths, something that is all but unusual. Pop-culture in the form of TV has for many years created another variety of reality, everybody knows how easy it is to edit film material to get a certain message across and how easily nowadays pictures can be photoshoped to have somebody appear in a desired way. Fake news and alternative news have become a widely accepted accessory phenomenon of factual news, thus, our assumed reality is full of fiction and we are simply a part of it.
It is not just this intelligent and highly entertaining interplay between fact and fiction that makes the novel an outstanding read, it is also the masses of references to classic literature, pup culture, film, music, current issues like racism or the opioid crisis that turn the read into a roller coaster ride. His letter writing protagonist on his quest through seven valleys compulsorily seems to have fallen out of time completely - yet, that’s exactly what makes Salma R become interested in him.
Rushdie does not show the slightest respect for any limits of genre, his Quichotte is a road novel as well as a chivalric romance, popular literature and documentary of current America, philosophical essay and modern version of a great classic novel. He is most certainly known for finding literary ways of criticising the world around him in which he also succeeds with his latest novel. Apart from the plot, his witty and playful narrator adds to the humorous tone and earned him a well-deserved place on the shortlist of the 2019 Man Booker Prize.