Exactly four centuries later, Salman Rushdie arrives with his fourteenth novel, Quichotte, a variation on Cervantes’s masterpiece.
Don Quixote, the first great modern novel, was the product of a world that, as Georg Lukacs noted, had been abandoned by God. Confronting the terrible loneliness that had befallen upon the world, the man faced transcendental homelessness. There was no succour available, except an inward journey to reclaim the soul that had been lost in the chaos created by modernity. Thus began Quixote’s journey, an unnamed quest that had no fixed coordinates or maps to guide the traveller. Yet, as the knight moved through uncharted territories, his journey defined the future trajectory of the novel. From then on, the most significant yardstick for a novel was to be its ability to discover the human self.
Exactly four centuries later, Salman Rushdie arrives with his fourteenth novel, Quichotte, a variation on Cervantes’s masterpiece. The chaos of modernity has been replaced by the anxieties of post-truth era, with the world finding itself in a greater and seemingly unmanageable turbulence.
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Doubts and distrusts have grown manifold. New gods and demigods have emerged with a range of demons. The world needs a new novel, a representative voice of the crumbling planet. Rushdie knows that the story can be told only in fantasy, a grand meta-fiction, a labyrinth of intertwined characters and lives. The interiority of characters can only be achieved through an inverted mirror.
At the centre of Quichotte is a writer called Brother who, having written eight cheap spy-thrillers, now wants to write the story of a lunatic lover and his ‘doomed pursuit’ of love. This book, Brother hopes, will be “radically unlike any other he had ever attempted”. Brother, who writes under the pen name of Sam DuChamp (he shares his last name with a famous painter), creates an old salesman Ismail Smile who is enamoured by reality TV star Salma R, his Dulcinea. In order to woo her, Ismail begins writing her a series of letters under the pen name Quichotte.
One sees a terrific plot at hand. A writer creates his alter ego, who, in turn, creates another alter ego. Brother’s life often overlaps with that of Quichotte. Both are Indian-American — one real, one fictional. Both were born in Mumbai. Both are old men of the same age. Both are lonely, moving towards what they believe is impending doom.
Since Brother once had a son who “had vanished long ago like a ghost”, Quichotte also creates for himself a fictional son, Sancho. Sancho knows all about Quichotte. Sancho, indeed, knows everything that Quichotte knows, because all the memories of the fictional father are planted in the head of the fictional son.
Yet, Sancho cannot avoid wondering that “just as Quichotte had invented him, so also somebody else had invented Quichotte”. It also gets complicated for Brother, who is often unable to face that Quichotte is his mirror image. He begins to believe that “just as a real son could become unreal, so also an unreal child could become an actual one, while, moving in the opposite direction, a whole, real country could turn into a ‘reality’-like unreality”.
The duo embarks on their journey and a day when “cursive script was becoming obsolete, like typewriters and carbon paper,” Salma R receives a love letter that was marked by its “beautiful penmanship”.
The novel enters into world politics, social media turmoil, gathers several layers, bringing in a jumbled matrix of veiled and obvious references ranging from Donald Trump, MF Hussain and Elon Musk to many personalities of the past and the present. It often leaves the reader with lost threads, but the essential quest for love remains firmly embedded.
After sending a few letters to Salma R, Quichotte sends his photograph to her as she discovers that “Quichotte was the spitting image of her maternal grandfather”, who had molested her when she was a mere 12 years of age.
The gods that had deserted the world of Cervantes also make an entry. We learn that a veil of maya hangs between “the gods and the mortal man and women”. “The truth was that the fabled world of the gods was the real one, while the supposedly actual world inhabited by human beings was an illusion.”
All realities are tenuous, fictions are the only certitudes. Hence, the eternal desire for love can be realised only in the realm of fiction, through the pen of a spy-thriller writer. Brother is deeply aware that “Salma was all fiction”. He would not be able to manage more than a few fantasy women as the “real thing seemed now well beyond his reach”.
Yet, Brother goes on to elaborate transactions of Quichotte with the world, his long travels along the US country with Sancho in search of Salma R. Everything is maya, being recorded by fingertips pirouetting on the keyboard.
It’s obvious that Rushdie wants to write the definitive novel of his time. His chosen form of a jumbled post-modern fiction is also apt. He has sufficient gunpowder, only that it doesn’t really explode. The satire often seems unwieldy, the references clumsy. Don Quixote recorded an epic quest for interiority. Quichotte makes a stab at it but manages to reach just the tail.
The novel ends with a variation on the famous line of Hotel California: “There they stood in the doorway, on the threshold of an impossible dream: Miss Salma R and her Quichotte.”
The reader, sadly, is also left waiting on the doorway. But that’s not the whole truth, or fiction. There is now a clear pattern. The recent works of several eminent contemporary novelists reflect the anxiety that has gripped them. Over the last two decades they have consistently plunged well below their own creative standards. It could well be the search of the great novel of the 21st century.
George Orwell composed a near-obituary of the novel in 1936 when he wrote that “at this moment the prestige of the novel is extremely low…the novel is likely, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised, and hopelessly degenerate form”. Of course, in the next 15 years he went on to write Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
A masterpiece, wise artists have told us, is not the product of a single mind. Several generations come together to contribute their creative energies to bring out a zeitgeist. The Booker-shortlisted Quichotte could be read as another, howsoever anxious, step towards achieving the defining novel of this millennium.
(Ashutosh Bhardwaj is a fiction writer and journalist, and is currently a fellow at Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla.View are personal.)