Quichotte: Salman Rushdie, you’re no Cervantes

Book review: Rushdie’s satire lacks emotional resonance and attention to language

Salman Rushdie: In place of Don Quixote’s obsession with books about chivalry, Quichotte is fixated on junk television. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Salman Rushdie: In place of Don Quixote’s obsession with books about chivalry, Quichotte is fixated on junk television. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

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.

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