Quichotte by Salman Rushdie review – a literary hall of mirrors

Junk culture references abound in Rushdie’s frisky rewrite of Don Quixote

No, it’s not a type of canape. It’s Quichotte as in Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century proto-novel, here reimagined by Salman Rushdie as a 21st-century post-novel. Realism, apparently, is no longer up to the job of describing our nutzoid world. As one character suggests, “the surreal, or even the absurd, now offer the most accurate descriptors of real life”.

We’re not in La Mancha any more but Trumpland. Our knight errant is a dapper old duffer named Ismail Smile who loses his job as a pharmaceutical salesman and sets off across America with a teenage son he has dreamed up named Sancho. Ismail hopes to win the heart of a young TV star named Salma, a fellow Indian-American, whose chatshow has made her “Oprah 2.0”. He has never met her but he sends love letters under the pen name “Quichotte”, believing “love will find a way” of bringing them together.

Just as Cervantes’s hidalgo lost his mind after reading too many romances, so Quichotte has had his brain addled by trash TV. But even the most unlikely romance seems possible in the “Age-of-Anything-Can-Happen”. On their travels, Quichotte and Sancho duly encounter racists, opioids, humans who turn into mastodons, crickets who speak Italian and guns that talk.

But their quest is soon revealed as a story within a story, written by an Indian-born spy novelist as a late-in-life attempt at experimental fiction. The Author is tormented by his estrangement from his son and his lawyer sister, “Jack”, who is dying of cancer in London. Rushdie argues that such broken migrant families are the “best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth”. Broken times they may be, but as India, America and Britain lurch to the right, their fates appear conjoined in a globalised world.

Don Quixote is often credited as the first realist novel in western literature. One of the tropes of the realist novel is the clash between illusions and reality – the individual who must adjust their ideals in order to live in the real world. But here, Quichotte must adjust to a post-truth world, where “visions and other phantasmagoria are to be expected”.

Rushdie’s Booker-longlisted 14th novel is certainly the work of a frisky imagination. We end up in a literary hall of mirrors, as he flirts with every genre he’s ever clapped eyes on, paying dues to Alice in Wonderland, Moby-Dick, Pinocchio, Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and Nabokov’s Lolita. The prose is dense with cultural allusions, too: Candy Crush Saga, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, the model Heidi Klum, Men in Black, etc. The novelist’s natural bent has always been towards the encyclopedic, but now he has graduated from encyclopedia to Google. Quichotte ends up suffering from a kind of internetitis, Rushdie swollen with the junk culture he intended to critique.

At times, he sounds like your dad reciting hip-hop: “We don’t need no stinkin’ allies cause we’re stupid and you can suck our dicks… We’re America, bitch.” More often, his references feel dated. When Salma tries an opioid spray for the first time, it’s like “graduating to a Rolls-Royce after years spent behind a Nissan Qashqai. It was colour after a lifetime of black-and-white, Monroe after Mansfield, Margaux after Hobnob, Cervantes after Avellaneda, Hammett after Spillane…”

While Quichotte is funny, it’s rarely as funny as Rushdie thinks it is. Sometimes, it reads like the work of a man trying to have the final word on everything before the world ends. Or at least before he ends. Still, even if you feel overwhelmed, you can’t help being charmed by Rushdie’s largesse. Let’s not get into whether the four-times divorced novelist who drooled over various “hot” women in his memoir is a bit of a horn dog. Let’s just say he is. But he is also the best of his generation at writing women. Both Salma and Jack are witty, opinionated and complex. When the Author tells Jack that he’s writing about an ageing man who becomes obsessed with a younger TV star, she says: “I’m glad to hear you are capable of sending yourself up.” After, he makes “the usual literary protest, he isn’t me, he’s fictional” and she replies: “It’s better if I think you’re lampooning yourself. It makes me like you a little bit more.”

I suspect Quichotte will make readers like Rushdie more. When he tones down the boisterousness, he is capable of beautiful, lucid prose. If only there were a way to disable Google on his computer.

• Quichotte by Salman Rushdie is published by Jonathan Cape (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Johanna Thomas-Corr

The GuardianTramp

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