Book review: Quichotte, by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie PIC: Hannelore Foerster
Salman Rushdie PIC: Hannelore Foerster
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In his most personal book for years, Salman Rushdie’s quixotic adventure mines his own experience of exile and dislocation

Quichotte, an Indian-born American, for years a travelling salesman for a pharmaceutical company, has spent so many hours watching cable TV in motel rooms that he has succumbed to “that increasingly prevalent psychological disorder in which the boundary between truth and lies becomes smudged and indistinct.” Well, yes, perhaps, but his name reminds us that even if this disorder is common now, it isn’t new: Quichotte’s original tilted at windmills. Any fictional world can take on its own reality. People lived in novels before they lived in soaps. We live now, Rushdie asserts, in the “Age of Anything- Can-Happen,” and we may indeed recall a Prime Minister (Tony Blair, actually) calling for the release of a character sent to prison in a popular soap, though I am not quite certain that Mr Blair believed she was actually banged up.

Outlining the plot of a Rushdie novel is a futile exercise in a brief review. Apart from other considerations, though Rushdie is a storyteller and often an engaging one, he has never been much concerned with the architecture of a plot. His novels begin and go on and go on and you can’t see why they should ever end – in this respect like Don Quixote itself or indeed any soap opera that has been running for decades.

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Quichotte becomes besotted by the gorgeous Salma R, star of Bollywood, then Hollywood, and now of (unreal) Reality TV, and sets off on a road-trip across America in search of her, determined “by deeds, as well as grace, to win her heart.” It may seem an unlikely, even mad, quest,but in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen no more so than any other wildly improbable ambition.

Quichotte, however, is not only a fictional character in Rushdie’s novel; he is also a fictional character in a novel within the novel. This is being written by an expatriate Indian novelist, long resident in the USA, who calls himself merely “Brother.” He too is engaged on a novel about “the way we are crippled by the culture we have made.” At the same time he has become aware of his loneliness; “an empty cloud filled the space where family should have been.” In particular he thinks of his childhood in what was then Bombay and of his sister (known only as Sister) from whom he has been estranged for 40 or more years. Seeking reconciliation, he discerns disquieting parallels between his quest and Quichotte’s absurd one, and both he and his fictional creation come to experience a sense of deprivation in their self-chosen exile from India.

Striking this note makes Quichotte Rushdie’s most personal novel for years, perhaps indeed since Midnight’s Children, the novel which won the Booker Prize in 1981 and made his name. It has, admittedly, some of the characteristic faults that have marred other novels, notably the self-indulgence of extravagant language and the dissociation of his fiction from any experienced reality. Here, however, perhaps by siting everything in this book in his Age of Anything-Can-Happen, what does happen, paradoxically, comes closer to probability than has often been the case. One has the impression that Quichotte is less a work of extravagant fancy, as so many of his novels have been, than a truly imaginative response to his own experience of exile and dislocation.

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The plot, as I say, is unimportant, but then, as Walter Scott asked, “what is a plot for but to bring in fine things?” There are plenty of fine things here, even if you may find your eye scanning many passages quickly rather than reading them word for word: there are, as in almost all of Rushdie’s novels, many lists in which the first sentence does enough work but the work is repeated again and again.

Those readers who have stuck with Rushdie will surely be delighted. Others who, weary of his extravagance and verbosity, have abandoned him, might be advised to return. There are passages, especially those in which he tracks back over Brother’s family story, which are as good as anything he has written. Meanwhile, even the sternest of critics should acknowledge his commitment to the art and craft to fiction. Quichotte is, to me, a surprisingly enjoyable novel. - Allan Massie

Quichotte. By Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Cape, 416pp, £20

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