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The multiverse of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Quichotte’

Salman Rushdie speaks on the making of his latest novel, an inspired take on ‘Don Quixote’, set in a Trumpian universe of alternative facts and fake news

Author Salman Rushdie.
Author Salman Rushdie. (Photo: AFP)

Sometime in 2015, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare (who died a day apart in 1616), Salman Rushdie was re-reading Cervantes’ Don Quixote to write an introduction to a collection of stories inspired by the two European greats. He would also be speaking about them during the double anniversary year. Rushdie, now 72, is by no means a believer but he had a moment of epiphany. He felt he had “met" the old fool and his imaginary son, around whom his latest novel, Quichotte, takes shape.

Cervantes’ novel contains a universe. Rushdie’s work, over the years, has also sought to squeeze multiple universes into his plots, containing the ambiguities, cruelties, pleasures and miracles of life. Sometimes, as in Midnight’s Children (which won the Booker Prize in 1981 and the Best of the Booker in 2008), this universe helped a continent find its voice (as Clark Blaise put it in a review of the novel in The New York Times). At other times, Rushdie’s brilliant plots disturb the universe, as in his reflections on migration and its aftermath in The Satanic Verses (1988), which led to a fatwa from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, forcing Rushdie into hiding for a decade.

“Don Quixote is astonishingly modern, even postmodern—a novel whose characters know they are being written about and have opinions on the writing," Rushdie says in an email interview. “I wanted my book to have a parallel storyline about my characters’ creator and his life, and then slowly to show how the two stories, the two narrative lines, become one."

A Salman Rushdie novel is usually not what it might seem to be. It is a multilayered, multi-textured saga, teeming with characters, rich with allusions which can be ancient and contemporary, drawn from classics and popular culture, referring to the eternal and the ephemeral. It contains stories within stories, told by an unreliable narrator. Rich with wordplay and references that can keep doctoral researchers busy for years, Rushdie’s latest work of fiction, Quichotte, has all these elements.

Stories within stories—like in Arabian Nights or Kathasaritsagara—are characteristic of Rushdie’s writing. The exuberance he showed in his early years has continued to flourish. In The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), Moorish Spain and contemporary Mumbai coexist; in The Enchantress Of Florence (2008), easily his most deeply researched book, Renaissance-era Florence sits alongside Akbar’s court; and, more recently, Two Years, Eight Months, And Twenty-Eight Nights (2015) brings together myriad stories from Spain, Britain, Bandra and beyond. Quichotte remains firmly entrenched in this tradition.

Published within two years of the release of The Golden House (2017), which captured an America on the cusp of Donald Trump’s presidency, Quichotte is a picaresque novel about the world at a fin de siècle moment, weaving in a family tale, a spy novel, a science-fiction fantasy and a commentary on our time. Quichotte, the protagonist, is the Don Quixote of our time, an old man in contemporary America, accompanied by an imaginary son called Sancho, in search of love.

Quichotte is a name the old salesman takes on; his real name is Ismail Smile—where Smile itself is a Westernized form of Ismail—and he is longing for his Dulcinea del Toboso, a former Bombay star of an American talk show, Salma R. One would think, in the logical course, the twain would never meet. But Quichotte is not deterred by realism; he is a dreamer. He talks candidly regardless of consequences, even if what he says endangers him. He embarks on his journey in a country where people who look darker than the palest white are immediately suspected of being terrorists, where fake news has so distorted reality that it is difficult to agree on what’s real and what isn’t.

This is a recurrent theme for Rushdie. As it was in 1987, when I interviewed him in his hometown Bombay (the city is now known as Mumbai but it is stubbornly Bombay in Rushdie’s novels and vocabulary), for The Indian Post, as The Satanic Verses was taking shape in his mind. “It’s very difficult to establish ideas of morality in a world which has become so uncertain that it is difficult to even agree on what is happening…whether that reality is good or evil, right or wrong," he told me. “Angels and devils are becoming confused ideas." The Satanic Verses was about a crumbling moral fabric; Quichotte is about trying to remain steadfast to some certainties in a crumbling universe. And one of those certainties is love.

But there is a story within the story. Quichotte, you see, is a character in a novel being written by a novelist called Sam DuChamp, also an Indian immigrant in America, who combines Cervantes’ Quixote with Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael!"), in a plot that pays homage to Farid ud-Din Attar’s The Conference Of The Birds and salutes Arthur C. Clarke. There is even an Italian-speaking cricket called Jiminy in a nod to Pinocchio.

Numbing the senses of a hyper-charged and pained America is the opioid crisis. Quichotte sells opioids, made by a company run by a relative of his (who fires him when he fears Quichotte is becoming unhinged). And it is the urge for Fentanyl that offers the possibility of a meeting between Quichotte and Salma. To that, add cybercrime, terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the senseless murder of a software engineer in an American town, and a desperate desire to move to a parallel universe among those who foresee doom, where they can start afresh.

Quichotte, outwardly at least, captures Rushdie’s own journeys, but it is not autobiographical. Salma R., with a name that playfully sounds like the author’s, is strongly drawn, like Padma, Saleem’s muse in Midnight’s Children, Aurora Zogoiby, the tempestuous painter in The Moor’s Last Sigh, the sorceress Qara Koz in The Enchantress Of Florence, or the mesmerizing singer, Vina Apsara, in The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999). She is a fiercely independent woman who is troubled but lives on her own terms.

Rushdie himself warns against seeking parallels with his own life. “My desire for autobiography ended with Joseph Anton," he says, referring to his 2012 memoir. In Quichotte, we visit Breach Candy, where Rushdie (and Midnight’s Children’s Saleem Sinai) grew up; there is London, where Rushdie spent a large part of life, from the late 1960s to the late 1990s; and there is America, Rushdie’s home since. The novel arises out of his life, with the “three places that have been most important to me, how they used to be, and what they are like now". Emphasizing the central theme of Quichotte, he says: “It’s also a recognition of the fact that for me, family relationships, the love and failures of love within families, have been as important as romantic love. Brothers and sisters, fathers and sons, are at the heart of the novel."

Quichotte: By Salman Rushdie.
Quichotte: By Salman Rushdie.

Some writers leave their cities, but then again they don’t. James Joyce left Dublin, never returned to it, but wrote about the Dublin of his mind; William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha county in Mississippi; and Gabriel García Márquez imagined Macondo in Aracataca, Colombia. The Paris Ernest Hemingway wrote about in his novels was so real that his posthumous memoir, A Moveable Feast, read more like a novel. Rushdie’s Bombay has changed so much since it became Mumbai that it has lifted the city centre from the south to further up north. The city he paints seems almost fictional, even if loved by those who knew it then.

If the novel is not autobiographical, but parallels parts of Rushdie’s life, the plot itself explores parallel universes. Drawing on the Silicon Valley billionaires who want to live out sci-fi fantasies, the novel has an entrepreneur offering an escape from the scary present for those with the means to test the limits of the present, to create their own futures. There is a bit of Narcissus in this desire, but also the hubris of an Icarus, in attempting to defy all odds. Rushdie says: “It is a parallel space that they hope to enter. And, of course, fiction lives in a parallel space to whatever we now mean by reality, so I was writing about the possibility of crossing the frontier between those two universes."

There is an end-of-the-time sense in the novel, too, with a future that looks like the past as the present remains tense. Conscious of the gravity of our time, Rushdie says: “We may be arriving at the end of a particular world, the world I—and you—have lived in all our lives. Technology and the collapse of old structures are unleashing that ending, and who knows what a new world might be like if we survive to see it."

One recurrent theme in Rushdie’s fiction has been his uncanny ability to capture the zeitgeist—the spirit of the moment—and then weave a tale around it. The Ground Beneath Her Feet began with a paparazzi scenario not vastly different from the pursuit Princess Diana faced during her lifetime. Fury (2001) was the quintessential pre-9/11 novel, capturing America as it was on that crisp morning when two aeroplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, demolishing the twin towers. It was published, in fact, on 11 September 2001—“an alarming coincidence which transformed it from a contemporary satire into a historical novel on publication day," Rushdie says.

“I have always been interested in the dangerous game of writing right up against the present moment and trying in some way to capture it," he adds. “In Quichotte, I use many different manners of the novel—the picaresque, the absurd, the spy novel, the science-fiction novel, the realistic, emotional drama—throwing many different kinds of net, so to speak—to try and capture a panorama of surreal, metamorphic time, if I can. And no, I don’t have any revisionist urges. The book is what it is."

In 1983, when I first interviewed Rushdie, I asked him if he saw himself as an “Indian" novelist. He had said he was fine with the description, except that in the years to come he might write a few novels that may not be about India. What happens then?

His later novels did move away from India—he became a global novelist; the world became his playground. In our recent exchange, Rushdie says: “I resist nationalist labels but it’s true that during my 20 years of life in America, I have taken it on as a subject, and so, to paraphrase the opening of (Saul) Bellow’s (The Adventures Of) Augie March, ‘I am an American, Bombay born.’

“Perhaps the most exciting aspect of American literature right now is the way in which immigrants from everywhere and writers of color are revolutionizing the American novel." He feels inspired to join this wave of new, transformative writing. Bombay remains Bombay when he speaks; colour becomes color when he writes.

Quichotte ends at a tantalizing moment: It is an end, or a beginning, depending on the reader’s point of view. “It is not a novelist’s duty to offer hope, particularly in an increasingly tragic time," Rushdie says. “But if you want to look for hope in the novel, you will find it in a third parallel dimension, which is love."

What will tomorrow bring? Another novel? “Who knows?" he says. “Maybe another 19 books. Maybe none."

Quichotte will be released in India on 29 August.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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