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Slaying giants – ‘Quichotte’

September 10, 2019
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There are certain stories that invite retelling. These are stories that have embedded themselves deeply into the collective psyche, demanding to be told and retold.

The story of Don Quixote has been one such story. Even from its inception some four centuries ago, when Miguel de Cervantes put pen to paper and spun out the tale that would become the most influential Spanish literary work in history, the work deemed by many to be the genesis of the modern novel, the tale of the erstwhile knight errant and his quest for love and chivalry continues to resonate.

The newest exploration of the classic story comes from Salman Rushdie, whose latest novel is “Quichotte” (Random House, $28). It’s a layered metafictional take on the tale, a story that succinctly blends the modern with the postmodern as well as a deft use of a classic touchstone to explore a much more current cultural landscape.

Reality and surreality collide as an elderly Indian-American man, his once-sharp mind somewhat addled by a steady diet of TV and travel, is swept up into a romantic notion – a notion for which he’s willing to cross the country. But there’s more to this man’s world than he could ever know, for despite his own resistance to the idea of a higher power, he is in fact subject to the whims of his own creator – though perhaps not in the way one might expect.

Ismail Smile lives a solitary life as a pharmaceutical rep, living out of a suitcase as he travels the American Southwest shilling for the multibillion-dollar drug company run by his cousin. He is much older than the usual drug rep, kept on as a kindness, though his charm is not inconsiderable – he moves a fair amount of his cousin’s opioid painkillers.

The line between fantasy and reality is blurring, however, leading Ismail to come to a realization: he is meant to be the Great Love of one Miss Salma R., a former Bollywood actress who went on to become one of America’s preeminent television personalities, second only to the great Oprah herself. In an effort to connect with his perceived love, Ismail adopts a persona with which to write her letters – he will become Quichotte, so named after a half-awake hearing of the Jules Massenet opera “Don Quichotte,” based on the beloved Cervantes tale.

And off goes the newly-dubbed Quichotte, ready to put himself through whatever trials and tribulations necessary to prove his worthiness to his beloved. But what is Don Quixote without his Sancho? Through the pure power of regret and a wish spent on a desert-witnessed meteor shower, Quichotte conjures a son out of thin air, a Sancho with whom to wander through the rest of his journey. But despite his atypical conception, Sancho is possessed of more than a few typical teenage behaviors – including a desire to be his own man, a desire thwarted by the tenuous nature of his own reality.

All this is happening at the behest of a low-rent crime novelist sporting the pen name Sam Duchamp who has decided to spread his literary wings and create something altogether different. Quichotte, Sancho and the rest are the product of the writer’s imagination. Instead of his standard potboiler fare, Duchamp is striving for something more meaningful, and in doing so, is pouring much more of his own story into the one being told.

The two tales unfold side by side, each man embarking on a likely fruitless quest to rediscover and reclaim some small part of themselves. Both seek connection, but neither is particularly well-equipped to find it … or to handle it if they should actually succeed in locating it.

Along the way, thoughts and themes that span the American experience enter the picture. The struggles to define cultural identity for South Asian immigrants. The capitalist celebration and human cost of the opioid crisis. The de-evolution of popular culture through the lens of trash TV. The outsized power of talk show gurus and celebrity scientists. The meaning of love, filial and romantic alike. All of it wrapped in a metafictional mélange that lends itself beautifully to thoughtful exploration, using the old and familiar to comment on the new and unexpected.

Seems like a lot, no? And yet Rushdie keeps every plate spinning, moving swiftly but smoothly from idea to idea. There are numerous places where it seems as though one or more of these plates might drop – that they MUST drop – yet the author always arrives in the nick of time, ensuring that everything remains in constant motion, always advancing toward the shared conclusion. Even as the pace accelerates toward a raucous, over-the-top conclusion that is nevertheless somehow perfectly logical, the story stays the course.

The story-within-story writer-as-character trope has long been a mainstay of postmodern fiction, but Rushdie manages to give the conceit some fresh heft. His fascination with the nature of story has long been a central part of his work; that depth of interest lends itself to a narrative meatiness that eliminates any whiff of cliché or gimmickry. There’s a nigh-constant sense of existential overlap as one world bleeds into another in ways both obvious and surprising.

If you’re looking to embrace the ongoing breakdown of the barriers between fiction and reality, it’s hard to argue against a figure like Don Quixote, whose character is fundamentally defined by not just an inability to distinguish between the two, but a stubborn unwillingness to do so. Rushdie lays that classic journey atop a 21st century map; the result is madcap and manic, funny and weird and heartbreakingly sad.

“Quichotte” is an exceptional work, one that searches for hope even against a deeply cynical belief that nothing matters. If it’s possible for a book to be optimistically nihilistic, then that’s what Rushdie has given us with this one.

Last modified on Tuesday, 10 September 2019 21:37

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