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Salman Rushdie: a novel with furious speed and teeming detail. Photo/Getty Images

Quichotte: Salman Rushdie recreates Don Quixote in the mad spirit of our times

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel is an elaborate tale of a man stalking a television star in Trump’s America.

Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote was the first modern novel, an epic realist comedy bursting with pathos and hilarity, cruelty and romance. The wandering knight and his long-suffering sidekick, Sancho Panza, endure as figures of charm and solidity even as they are amusingly knocked about, tortured, thwarted, fooled and spellbound. In his quest for love, with his chivalric fantasies and poignant ridiculousness, Quixote maintains his tragic dignity precisely because he’s ludicrous.

Cervantes devised his marvellous structural innovation in Part Two of the two-volume novel, as Quixote and Panza encounter characters who already know them, because they’ve read about them in Part One. The novel is a satire of Cervantes’ Spain and of medieval romance.

In Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte, Quixote is an itinerant old man, Ismail Smile, who takes to the road after being fired from his sales job with a dodgy drug company. In his youth, Smile has wandered the world as far as Australia, where (in one of my favourite lines) “he swam amid the sentimentality of dolphins”. Now, he lives in Trumpian America, a society in decline, its structure weakened by demagoguery, nationalism and racism, its population addled by drugs and trash culture.

Having had a stroke, Smile has taken to dreaming his way through hours of television. He begins his knightly quest after falling in love with a beautiful Indian-American TV star, Salma R, to whom he writes romantic letters, signed Quichotte. He dreams up a son, Sancho, who comes into being first as a figment and then as a “real” character, and they set off in a Chevy Cruze to win the hand of the lady.

Just as Jorge Luis Borges, in his tale of storytelling, invented his own “Author of Quixote”, Rushdie gives us his own fictional writer. Quichotte is being written by Sam DuChamp, an Indian-American writer of modestly successful spy fiction, also known as Brother. The story of Brother, his London-based sister, Sister, and his son, Son, will echo or mirror or be refracted off the story of Quichotte, Sancho, Salma R and Quichotte’s sister.

So, we enter a narrative labyrinth bursting with inventiveness, comedy and exuberance. Also, it has to be said, drowning in clutter. It’s a book to be criticised not so much for cruelty (although there are beatings) as for exhausting over-abundance. Do we need to be told the population count of every town Quichotte drives through, simply because it can be found online? But perhaps the irritating superfluity of the age is Rushdie’s point. We’re not only tortured by the content of the information (the news is all bad), but also by its ubiquity.

It’s tremendous fun, even if there’s a slight disconnect between sombre family events – estrangement, illness, reconciliation, death – and the shallow characterisation required by the novel’s furious speed and teeming detail.

Unlike some of his literary contemporaries, Rushdie is too witty (and non-addled) to go in for humourless grand statements. Instead, he throws himself into the mad spirit of the times: this is inventiveness fuelled by surfeit, easy access and the paranoia generated by the insane connectedness of the information superhighway. Conspiracy theories are our personal fictions, waiting to be found. The universe, c’est moi; Quichotte leads eventually to QAnon, if only you keep googling long enough.

QUICHOTTE, by Salman Rushdie (Jonathan Cape, $37)

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.