It takes an audacious author to decide that one of the greatest books ever written will be a guide and model for a new novel, updated for our time. Don Quixote, published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, is the book Salman Rushdie decided to probe for ways in which contemporary US and Indian society might be examined and assessed. Given how well some parts of Cervantes’s work hold up – the speech of the shepherdess Marcela, for example, declaring why she will not be judged by her looks – and the overall beauty of the language detailing Don Quixote’s quests, it would be reasonable to expect that any author wishing to have their work compared to that great story would try to match the original work for depth of character, humour and coherence. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for Quichotte to seem heavy-handed and laborious by comparison.
The plot of Rushdie’s novel is convoluted and often inclined to trip itself up while reaching for a necessary piece of clarification. Central to it is the story of a pharmaceuticals salesman called Mr Smile Smile (the first of a series of irritating names characters are given) who adopts the persona of Quichotte and decides to carry out deeds which will endear him to a television star called Salma R (how the heart sinks on reading that name) and, despite a notable age difference, win her everlasting love. He is also keen to reconnect with his sister, known for no good reason as The Human Trampoline, with whom he fell out about the division of an inheritance.
In place of Don Quixote’s obsession with books about chivalry, Quichotte is fixated on junk television programmes about which we hear a lot throughout the novel. “Television is a god that goes on giving,” he says. Because, in emulation of his model he needs a sidekick, he wishes a son into being, named, of course, Sancho. Such a fantastic occurrence is possible because this is “The Age Of Anything-Can-Happen!” This is also why so many other incidents – people suddenly turning into mastodons and rampaging around the streets of a New Jersey town, for example, an occurrence later justified as a nod to Ionesco’s Rhinoceros – can transpire without the patient building of a richly realised novel in which such episodes would seem conceivable. Events simply materialise and the hapless reader must accept them.
Within this novel, the imagining is done by a writer called Sam DuChamp, a one time author of spy novels who has now undertaken the writing of the book we are reading. He, like Quichotte, has a sister (called Sister, so he becomes known as Brother) from whom he is estranged – one of many parallels between the characters that we will discover throughout the book – and a son who is also out of contact with his father, but with whom contact will increase as the life of Sancho, his “fictional” substitute, dims. This layering of the narrative and the use of post-modernist-type tricks allow for many instances of authorial intervention. These are sometimes used to explain the form and content of the novel: “He said he was trying to write about impossible, obsessional love, father-son relationships, sibling quarrels, and yes, unforgivable things; about Indian immigrants, racism towards 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 . . . And it’s about opioid addiction too,” Brother tells Sister.
That’s a fairly comprehensive summary of the themes of the novel, but none of them is investigated with any depth and the fluctuations in interpersonal relationships never achieve the emotional resonance that might be expected. “Love will find a way” is repeated a few times, but it seems like television love, superficial and inconsequential. Quichotte used to be a reader of great literature, but a stroke affected his character and “This was when he began to speak in TV references, and his grasp on reality loosened.” There is undoubtedly a strong element of satire in all of the references to television and the way in which it has distorted the reality of “reality”. As a result, much of the novel feels as if written by someone whose understanding of the world is gained solely by watching television.
As the novel proceeds, the links to Don Quixote weaken and become, at best, a superficial guide to how Quichotte might see himself and order his life. But what Quichotte the book lacks is, above all, the attention to language that Cervantes brought to his sublime work and the charm of his main character, however deluded he became. Quichotte can only strive for a magnificence that Don Quixote has in abundance.