Salman Rushdie: Quichotte
Our hero’s real name is Mr Ismail Smile which, given that Smile is an anglicisation (or, more accurately, an americanisation) of Ismail, his real name is Smile Smile (or Ismail Ismail). This is one of the numerous feeble jokes Rushdie makes throughout this book.
His cousin, Dr. R. K. Smile, is an Indian immigrant to the United States, like Ismail. However, Dr R K Smile has become very successful, having founded a pharmaceutical company, selling, among other things, opiods. As we later learn his methods have not always been strictly honest and legal. Any similarity with the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma is entirely deliberate, even to the extent that Mrs Smile, Dr R K.’s wife, is eager for her husband’s firm to promote the arts.
Dr R. K. has given his cousin a job as a travelling salesman and even though Ismail is not a particularly good salesman, his cousin nobly keeps him on, not least because he can afford to.
Ismail has never been married, though he would have liked to been, and has not had much success with the opposite sex. However, he has now fallen in love with Salma. Salma was a successful Bollywood star but she has moved to the United States and made a very successful TV spy series and now has her own talk show. Ismail, whose life is devoted to watching TV, is determined that he can woo her (he is some thirty years older than her) and marry her.
The results of his wooing are varied. When he mentions this to a client, the client complains to Dr. R.K., who decides that it is time for Ismail to retire. He is given a very generous pay-off and pension and, indeed, he is happy to retire, so he can devote himself full-time to Salma.
As the title tells us, he sees himself as a latter-day Don Quixote, trying to woo his Dulcinea. He decides his real name will not do and changes it, not to Don Quixote but to Quichotte, the name of an opera by Jules Massenet, one of his late father’s favourites.
Quichotte, as we must now call him, travels around the US looking for some luck from a falling star and manages to pick up an imaginary son whom he calls, naturally, Sancho, though Sancho, as we see, seems to be more Pinocchio than Sancho Panza.
Salma is aware of Quichotte because he has written a love letter to her. She receives many such letters but she spots this one, as it is written by hand in a fine copperplate and is not semi-illiterate, unlike most of the others she receives. (This gives Rushdie the opportunity to mock the standard of US education.)
It is, at this point, that we learn that Quichotte is entirely fictitious (in terms of the book) invented by an Indian-American writer called Sam DuChamp (leading both to Sam the Sham and Marcel Duchamp jokes) but we will call him Brother, says Rushdie). Brother has written some mildly successful spy novels. He was, like Rushdie, born in Bombay and clearly is a self-deprecating pastiche of Rushdie himself though there are many differences between the two. Brother is estranged from both his son and his very successful London-based lawyer sister (over an inheritance).
We now follow a few stories. Primarily, we follow Brother/Sam DuChamp, and Quichotte and Sancho. Both stories inevitably overlap (and presumably overlap with Rushdie’s own story) and, indeed, Rushdie plays games by having Brother not only obviously being aware of the Quichotte story but seeing how the story he is writing is influencing his own life. Both deal with sister issues, as both Brother and Quichotte have been estranged from their sister (half-sister in Quichotte’s case) and both deal with the estranged son issue.
We also follow Dr Smile’s story, which does not turn out well, as well as Salma and her relationship with Quichotte and Evel Cent. Cent is a scientist who is predicting the end of the world but has discovered how to transport people to a parallel world. He would seem to be based in part, on Elon Musk (Musk/Scent), though taking Evel Knievel‘s first name. As the author (Brother) tells us, he will play a greater role as the book progresses.
Quichotte is, of course, trying to win his love Salma, and perform various tasks to prove himself In this case, they seem to be based on The Seven Valleys of Bahá’u’lláh. In the afterword, Rushdie tells us the idea came from The Conference of the Birds. The idea of the valleys drifts in and out, though Quichotte does not seem to be handle them very well and nor does he meet a windmill.
Meanwhile, Sancho/Pinocchio is trying to become a real boy and not succeeding very well, despite the help of Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy. He does, however, seem to have an idea of how things function in the real world. I have noticed that conscience isn’t a major requirement in human affairs. Ruthlessness, narcissism, dishonesty, greed, bigotry, violence, yes.
Frankly, this book did not really work for me. Rushdie is all over the place with it. Cervantes would not recognise this book in any way, not least because Quichotte’s tale draws its inspiration from TV, particularly game shows and reality TV, rather than the tales of knights of old.
We drift from fantasy to science fiction to TV tropes to the road novel to post-modernism to Trumpism and back again. He does make his point in criticising, in particular, the United States (and to a small measure the UK and India) for a whole host of sins, such as racism, violence, intolerance, Internet lynching, mobbing, conspiracy theories, celebrity culture, crappy TV, widespread corruption, hacking and the increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies became smudged and indistinct.
While Trump is not named, he is referred to: In response to real events the series introduced a wholly imaginary chief executive who was obsessed by cable news, who pandered to a white supremacist base, and who had played golf with Salma C’s predecessor and talked locker-room shit to him about girls. Trumpism, however, does colour much of the book.
What is Rushdie trying to do? It is not clear. Telling clever jokes, in-jokes and making cultural references seems to be one of his aims. For example, a Japanese-American NSA thug has a series of names all related to Japanese cinema, which some people will get and others will not or England is another country. They do things differently there. Yes, we get it.The book is full of these cheap jokes, some undoubtedly taken from US talk shows.
Don Quixote may have been a figure of fun but he worked because he had a certain nobility and because Cervantes was a brilliant writer. Quichotte’s aim in life seems to be to obtain audience tickets for 50 Central, The $100,000 Pyramid, The Chew, The Dr. Oz Show, and Good Morning America and win the heart of Salma, but not by carrying our brave deeds.
The main problem is that Rushdie jumps around, as mentioned above, and you can never be sure what he is trying achieve. His main inspiration seems to be US TV shows, his main aim to make cheap jokes. While the book certainly was not boring and, in many ways, original, ultimately, it was a great disappointment. As you can see from this list, others have done it much better.
First published in 2019 by Vintage