Thursday 19 September 2019

Quichotte: Salman Rushdie’s timely and timeless Don Quixote for the modern age

Rushdie draws on elements of science fiction in a biting satire that takes aim at Trump, #MeToo and the social-media generation

Rushdie’s humour: at once Python-esque absurdism and Bollywood family comedy
Rushdie’s humour: at once Python-esque absurdism and Bollywood family comedy
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

When we look back - if we get to look back - today's climate of mayhem and dwindling certainty will either be viewed as an axial turning point or just another blip in the undulating fortunes of mankind.

Many would argue that there is great cause for panic right now, even just from the prospect of environmental ruin, and yet human society continues to shrug its way forth and assume someone else will fix things; all will work out in end, now pass the remote.

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But an optimist is merely someone who doesn't understand the seriousness of the situation, as Terry Wogan put it. Could any literary character be more due a reboot than Cervantes' patron saint of blind hope and vaulting nobility, the knight from La Mancha himself, Don Quixote? Not as far as Salman Rushdie sees it. And even just a few pages into the third title in six years from arguably the greatest novelist alive, it quickly becomes hard to disagree.

Delusions can be charming, unless they have the potential to get you run over by a bus. The Quichotte of the title (we are asked to use the French pronunciation "key-SHOT" in a typically impish pronunciation guide from Rushdie) is an elderly TV addict of Indian origin, living in America. He forms an all-consuming obsession with a mega-famous small-screen goddess who has relocated from Bollywood to a US primetime summit, second only to Oprah. Miss Salma R has left a difficult past behind her and is now all-powerful in a way only comprehended in the entertainment age. Winning her hand becomes a grand quest for Quichotte. And why not? As some "authority" on the box had confirmed, "It was the Age of Anything-Can-Happen."

"There were no rules any more… Old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcomes of elections… Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents. The water might run out."

And a TV star might miraculously return the love of a foolish old coot, Rushdie continues. Or should we say, Sam DuChamp, the sci-fi writer who is penning this picaresque epic. Just as Cervantes struck upon Don Quixote after years in the writerly doldrums, DuChamp is assembling his greatest work and using it as a cypher to understand ongoing family discord and take on a whole host of matters, from "Errorism" (those enemies of contemporary reality that include everything from anti-vaxxers and climate loonies to Fox News and the US President) to "Indian immigrants, racism towards them, crooks among them".

Because DuChamp is a science-fiction writer (and because Rushdie is drawing from a broad literary well that takes in luminaries of that genre such as Katherine MacLean and Arthur C Clarke), the parallel worlds begin to speak to one another, and the information exchange flips here and there.

There is so much richness at play, from the wry Pinocchio inflections he places on Sancho, Quichotte's ready-made 15-year-old son and squire, to the multitudes of playful narrative threads that unspool over the course of this extraordinary novel.

Rushdie, 72 and very much earning the right to give both his eastern and western homelands a going-over as he watches them steadily implode into outright dysfunction (as he sees it), is scathingly hilarious in that unique manner of his - at once Python-esque absurdism and Bollywood family comedy.

Indeed, it can take a while to get through Quichotte, what with all the breaks required to put the thing down and chuckle. How does sub-stalker chivalry fit into the #MeToo world, for example? (Like a square peg in a round hole, it seems.) Guns don't kill people, people kill people, as the idiotic mantra goes, but what would the guns say if they could talk? And just how blatantly stupid are red-neck, red-state, red-hat white supremacists in America's interior? Never more so than under Rushdie's lacerating pen.

The episodic nature of Quichotte means that it is a work that you sit down with and allow to take you on a saunter, the point of which is gradually teased out amid all the fun and games. There is deep poignancy here though, as quarrelling siblings on both levels of the tale are reunited and the need for love supersedes so many other considerations.

Fittingly, with almost no more superlatives left to tag on to Rushdie at this stage in his imperious career, his amazing 12th novel is an homage to writers and writing ­­- a book about books and how they can provide the room to manoeuvre in among complex moral and ethical entanglements.

There are reams of references at work here, allowing the staples of literature to sit side-by-side with a modern world where cyberwar has resulted in "the pollution of the real by the unreal, of fact by fiction" and the social media generation is wilfully ignorant of anything that preceded the very latest post as evidence of a person's moral standing.

"The loom of life was broken," one character considers. "Yesterday meant nothing and could not help you build tomorrow. Life had become a series of vanishing photographs, posted every day, gone the next… Character, narrative, history were all dead. Only the flat caricature of the instant remained, and that was what one was judged by."

The spell being cast all the while by the author at the top of the metafictional tree is of course that they're actually not dead at all - character, narrative and history. In fact, as the world falls apart around us, they are more relevant and enjoyable than ever.

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