Quichotte book review: Salman Rushdie struggles to bring the sprawling satire to life
Rushdie has continued in quasi-fantastic, magical-satirical vein but his new novel Quichotte is a development in that it is not positioned as magical realism but explicitly as satire. Whatever ‘magic’ is in evidence is decidedly authorial conceit.
Rushdie has continued in this quasi-fantastic, magical-satirical vein but his new novel Quichotte is a development in that it is not positioned as magical realism but explicitly as satire.
When pointless dialogue or crosstalk is inserted paragraph after paragraph in all kinds of situations, one recognises an acute writer's block.
The contemporary world is a complicated place and one cannot really fault Rushdie for anything except unrealised ambitions although there is enough evidence that he is too exhausted as a writer even to have genuine ambitions.
Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Man Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.
In an interview related to his new novel Quichotte Salman Rushdie insightfully announces the end of realism as a form of literary fiction since it depends on a compact between the writer and his/her readers on the meaning of the world and that is no longer possible with disruptive elements like the social media and fake news emerging. Rushdie himself wrote ‘magical realism’ in Midnight’s Children (1981), his most important novel, a literary form perhaps also not tenable today. Magical realism uses fantastic elements but where earlier forms incorporating the fantastic affirmed a moral order with divinity in command, magical realism is an exploration (like realism) of a godless universe. Its miracles do not affirm, and an instance would be a Gabriel Garcia Marquez ‘fairy tale’ about a ragged angel that lands in a farm; its miraculous powers do not restore a blind man’s eyesight but give him three new teeth, as consolation. Rushdie’s novels were described as magical realism but the magic in them is not backed by faith and they emerge more as satire. In laying out marvellous happenings they debunk the possibility of the miraculous. When Sundari (in Midnight’s Children) born to beggars in Delhi in the first hour of independent India has such dazzling beauty that her mother is struck blind at her birth and her father (who gets only a partial glimpse) has his eyesight so badly impaired that he cannot thereafter distinguish between Indian and foreign tourists! Both anecdotes (from Marquez and Rushdie) provoke laughter but one detects a stronger satirical impulse in Rushdie’s writing. Rushdie has continued in this quasi-fantastic, magical-satirical vein but his new novel Quichotte is a development in that it is not positioned as magical realism but explicitly as satire. Whatever ‘magic’ is in evidence is decidedly authorial conceit.
Rushdie is from Kashmir and lived in Bombay in his childhood and India (especially Bombay) features strongly in his writing. But the memories being faint, he has relied on historical research to fill out his novels with events. They are not like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) or Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum (1959), in which the novelists having greater personal experience of their milieus show more confidence in the political spaces they invent. Marquez is from Colombia but he writes about a fictional space Macondo while Rushdie is tied much more closely down to an actual India of politics; one finds stricter correspondence between recorded socio-political fact and his fantastic inventions.
Quichotte is ‘metafiction’ in that it is not simply a story told but admits its own artifice. A story within a story would be one kind of ‘metafiction’. Quichotte is about a fictional character created by an author, the character and author having separate chapters devoted to them and their lives intertwining. It runs to nearly four hundred pages and needs to be unpacked before one can make sense of it. The novel is a modern day rendering of the Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote about an aged man living the imagined life of a knight of older times, in love with a country girl he sees as a fair lady from the days of chivalry. Don Quixote, his squire Sancho Panza as companion on his travels, imagines windmills are giants and charges at them on his battered horse. In Quichotte, Ismail Smile is a feeble-minded travelling salesman for a pharmaceutical company owned by his cousin Dr RK Smile and Sancho is his imagined son. Smile (who signs as ‘Quichotte’) is infatuated with Salma R, a New York television talk-show host and a former star from Bollywood, and drives to New York across the United States. As a parallel is Quichotte’s creator Sam DuChamp, a writer of cheap spy novels whose life intersects that of his characters.
Rushdie maintains a tone one finds in all his fiction, a tone of wonderment that mimics that of a fairy tale and here is how Quichotte begins: “There once lived, at a series of temporary addresses across the United States of America, a travelling salesman of Indian origin, advancing years….” One could take this to be the literary voice of Sam DuChamp (pen name), the author of spy novels and this causes difficulties since spy novels do not maintain such a tone and a writer would be accustomed to a consistent literary style. Moreover, when Rushdie writes about Sam DuChamp he continues to maintain the same fairy tale tone. This sameness of tone in book after book has been moot because it is an assumed style not suited to all kinds of subjects. Moreover, it supposes a linear narrative that unfolds in the traditional way. Quichotte being ‘metafiction’ the use of the same uniform style is open to doubt.
Quichotte is difficult reading because of the multitudes of characters not differentiated from each other. Moreover Rushdie seems to be engaged in producing reams of narration, especially conversations intended as playful, that are just banter and idle talk. Here is a monologue from Salma R’s aunt Nargis Kumari on the death of her estranged sister (Salma’s mother). Salma comes from a line of film stars: “What a fool I have been,’ Nargis Kumari cried in full tragic-actress mode, ‘to allow a mere man to destroy my closest friendship. What is a man compared to the love between soul sisters? He is a passing shadow. He is a random sneeze. He is a short rain shower on a sunny day. I should have been beside her every minute, sunshine or rain. Now I am as empty as a bottle from which all the wine has been poured. I am a word in a dictionary whose meaning has been erased. I am as hollow as a rotten tree.”
A bit of this might have been amusing but when pointless dialogue or crosstalk is inserted paragraph after paragraph in all kinds of situations, one recognises an acute writer’s block. Rushdie has perfected a literary strategy, knows he has a ready public to lap it up and shower him with eulogies, and simply imitates himself ad nauseam. Moreover, this entire story about Salma rings false since a Bollywood star arouses different expectations from that of an American talk show host. Rushdie names Priyanka Chopra as Salma’s friend and one imagines she is his model but one has only to glance at Quantico to see how different an Indian star’s presence is. Bollywood stars (instantiated by ‘Koffee with Karan’) are not required on public platforms to be scintillating or witty (as American talk show hosts are) but merely pleasant, preferably laugh without reason so they can be taken to be enjoying themselves. Rushdie loves Bollywood but misunderstands it totally: in The Satanic Verses (1988) a Bollywood star plays Hanuman and creates a wave of fashion; trendy men in Mumbai go around wearing tails!
Quichotte is positioned as satire and we have come to have expectations from the genre. In the first place, satire is basically mockery of a certain social or political phenomenon and needs to pick its targets. Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) focussed on Communism’s capacity for destroying its own adherents while Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog (1925) lampooned Soviet expectations that the revolution would culturally engineer the proletariat into refinement. We live in times when there are so many narratives about the world that it is difficult to similarly identify a key area that might be satirised, since the butt of satire should be widely recognised. Rushdie responds by distributing his satirical impulse over a huge number of phenomena in the US, UK and India: racial hatred in the US and the killing of immigrants, mass addiction to opiates, Narendra Modi and cow vigilantism in India, the CIA and its subterfuges, the Brexit imbroglio being only some of them. It feels like Rushdie is hedging his risks and spreading himself too thin.
A way to deal with a writer’s block is to make a demonstration of literary erudition and Rushdie makes references to popular songs, Greek drama, Looney Tune cartoons and arthouse films in page after page. One chapter is set in the town of ‘Berenger’ in Jersey where the protagonist is witness to people turning into Mastodons (prehistoric elephants). The presence of a local character by the name of Jonesco awakens faint memories in the reader since it recalls Ionesco’s absurdist play Rhinoceros (1959) in which there is an epidemic of Rhinoceritis by which people turn into Rhinoceroses; Wikipedia also reveals that the protagonist of that play was called Berenger. All these literary/cultural clues may have critics hunting frantically but it gets us no closer to Rushdie’s ‘central concerns’ which are too widely dispersed.
The contemporary world is a complicated place and one cannot really fault Rushdie for anything except unrealised ambitions although there is enough evidence that he is too exhausted as a writer even to have genuine ambitions. He has spent very little time in India but India features prominently in his writing always; he brings some major issue specific to India and places it at the centre. Dr RK Smile recalls John Kapoor who was jailed in the US for distributing opiates surreptitiously. In Rushdie’s last novel The Golden House (2017) the Mumbai attacks of 26/11 were at the centre of the narrative. This time, the novel is overpopulated by people of Indian origin in the US and UK and although there is mention of Narendra Modi, the BJP and mob lynching, no Indian issue is placed at the centre of the novel. One gets the sense that Rushdie is at a loss, and that the India of today is beyond his comprehension. Reflecting upon it we become aware of our own limitations in understanding the India of today, a country truly at the crossroads. Rushdie, having never got past realism even if he tried to render it ‘magical’, may find it impossible to deal with it comprehensively henceforth.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film.
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