Coupling Humour with Anguish Rushdie’s Digital Don Quixote Dazzles and Despairs
SB VEDA <CALCUTTA>
Remakes rarely achieve the heights of the original, be it film, literature or theatre. Still, going by the sheer number of adaptations being churned out each year, it surely must be tempting to create one’s own version of a timeless classic. For recently, there has been a flurry of such activity: no less than Vesna Goldsworthy wrote her version of The Great Gatsby to much acclaim a couple of years ago; around the same time, Amit Chaudhuri penned a somewhat self-indulgent version of The Odyssey; recently, Preti Taneja knocked out an Indian reinvention of King Lear; and now, Salman Rushdie has retold in signature fashion Cervantes’ Don Quixote.
By signature fashion, I mean in the voice of a loquacious opinionated (albeit somewhat self-deprecating) narrator told in a torrent of soliloquies and narrations, critical of past and present, spinning around a plot that is as much device as story, magical realism essential to the tale.
It helps that Rushdie has set this work in an era that seems unreal – a world that would have been unimaginable as recently as five years ago. Indeed, by 2014, many in the media were writing obituaries of racism as the first African American President of the United States, Barack Obama was enjoying the last two years of his second term of office; America, indeed, was poised to make history, once again, by setting Hillary Clinton seemingly on a path to coronation. But, in the autumn of 2016, everything changed. It was as though the electorate whom the pundits could predict with statistical certainty had (to take a metaphor from Rushdie’s novel) turned into mastodons overnight! Today, President Trump has made bullying, misogyny and racism the new normal. So many are still reeling from the metamorphosis – not the least of whom is Salman Rushdie.
Let me not get too far ahead of myself – this is no ordinary critique of our times – it comes by way Cervantes’ classic, which casts the hero as an Indian travelling pharmaceutical salesman named Ismail Smile, who adopts the name Quichotte after composer Massanet’s Francophonic version of Don Quixote (here’s Rushdie doubling down on literary allusion).
Instead of being obsessed with romantic books that turn him mad like his namesake, ‘Quixote 2.0’ is addicted to television shows of all kinds, especially the trashy sort – and this turns him mad. Driving from hotel room to hotel room in his beat-up gun-metal grey Chevy Cruz, his mental powers fading, memories supplanted with TV images burned into retinae, at times he cannot distinguish the world around him from unreal ‘reality’ of the small screen.
Like his namesake, Smile’s Quichotte is gallant, and wants to save the world from its current garbage-incarnation. Born a Muslim, he has rejected his and all forms of organized religion for a higher truth: the pursuit of love, which he feels is the purpose of life. Here Cervantes’ Dulcinea is replaced by an Indian actress/talk show host named Salma R., who has made the ‘wood-bridge’ leap from Bolly to Holly, to paraphrase the author. Smile hopes to win her heart by sending her love letters under the pen name “Quichotte”, believing “love will find a way” of bringing them together. In doing so, their unification will slowly cause the stars to burn out, bringing about the end of the world. Indeed, this lowbrow existence needs to end, and herein lies the heroic nature of the quest.
Salma, however, is no Dulcinea whose idealized embodiment of simple village womanhood in Cervantes’ classic is quite the opposite of the cosmopolitan, damaged, and drug-addicted Salma R, elements of whom are recognizable in certain real-life celebrities.
Still, Smile is overcome by feelings of rapture owing to his love of this iconic femme fatale– so much so, his longing brings into being the holographic image of their future son, appropriately named Sancho after Quixote’s squire. Enlisting his imaginary son’s help in his grand plan to drive across America to New York City to unite with the object of his affection, in a reference to the film, Back to the Future, Sancho asks his apparent father why he should bother helping him. “What’s in it for me?” he says. The hero reminds his digital Pinocchio that his very existence hinges upon Smile wooing Salma R and consummating his love for her. For without their future union, Sancho would vanish into oblivion. And, so the quest is sent hurtling forward in the cockpit of Smile’s company car.
Sancho, too has a quest: to become a real boy just as Pinocchio does in the famous Walt Disney tale. And, lo and behold, Jiminy Cricket appears to help him make his dream come true (in this version, for some reason, speaking Italian). Soon enough, others can see Sancho, and he evolves from being a black-and white moving picture to 3-D Ultra HD form in need of food, clothing and all else that goes with being real. The transformation causes Smile to pledge to bring him up as a human being.
The road trip puts the pair in the path of Trump’s America in all its ugliness. In Kansas, they witness with the shooting of two South Asian men by gun-toting racist, an event quite clearly ripped from the headlines of Trumpian America. Trump, himself, is a character in the book, though not an active one. He occupies a negative space influencing the Americans encountered and looms over the pair throughout their quest to reach Salma.
Beyond pop culture, Rushdie’s thorough knowledge of which is well on display, there are a myriad of literary references present in the novel: mastodons morphing from people is an homage to Ionescu’s Rhinocerous; reference is made to Arthur C. Clarke’s Nine Billion Names of God, Melville’s Moby Dick, Nabokov, Shakespeare, Wordsworth – the list goes on.
We are soon lost in a proverbial hall of mirrors, finding out that the prattling and somewhat bitter narrator in the novel known only known as ‘Brother’ is himself a novelist and Quichotte is his invention. There is a rather odd explanation for his name, which is rooted in generational error. To the extent that Rushdie’s naming of characters has been an essential element of plot (ex., play on Mohenjo-Daro Harappa in the novel Shame) his naming of the protagonist, love interest and narrator, seem random.
After a departure from Indian origin themes for a time, Rushdie in Quichotte has returned to his base. In particular, he comes back to his beloved city, for Salma and Smile as well as narrator Brother are from Bombay (now renamed, we are reminded, along with so much of India that has been reinvented since). Rushdie’s nostalgia for the city is well on display early in the novel. No longer writing in the present, we get a real sense of how Rushdie longs for his now imaginary homeland. Rushdie reflects on India as a profoundly different place, today – darker, oppressive, thuggish – the once pluralistic Mecca, now a Hindu Trumpland. There is no possibility, therefore, of return.
Driven for various reasons to leave their hometown, none of the characters are quite at home in their adopted lands. They suffer parallel social afflictions: in this, Rushdie misses a significant opportunity to explore through these immigrants the subject of migration in the ever-changing digital age. The volatility of place and its effect upon residents, past and present, would have made a cogent theme to explore in 2019. Instead, it is only a footnote and we are hit on the head with Trumpian caricatures emphasizing the environment of xenophobia that envelopes the characters.
Somewhat obscuring the quest is the murky reflection of Smile in the narrator who leads a parallel life. Is Quichotte a shadow-biography for Brother? It seems that this is so: After all, Smile fictionally comes from the same place as his creator. Brother even mentions that their parents might have known each other if one set hadn’t been invented by him. Like Quichotte’s, Brother’s story is a slow descent into fantasy. Indeed, Rushdie says as much: “this bizarre story was a metamorphosed version of his own.”
As did Cervantes, Rushdie as Brother injects his own perceptions, criticism and opinions into the novel. The result is a carpet-bombing of contemporary trash culture in a manner that is as relevant as it might be distracting from the story, itself. The smoke from the explosions never quite dissipates, clarity and emotional substance being collateral damage to the reader.
Illness is a theme that runs throughout the novel. Almost every character is afflicted in some way: Both Quichotte and Brother have sisters suffering from cancer. Salma R is an abuse survivor with Bipolar disorder and is addicted to the opiate Fentanyl. Smile is still suffering the latent impairment, we find out as the story progresses, of a stroke (first mentioned as an “interior event”). It’s not just the individuals who are sick: America as a whole is depicted as diseased, delusional and ultimately destabilized.
Brother is a failed commercial writer who writes under the pseudonym, Sam DuChamp –here Rushdie for all his adoration of popular culture is a little cruel to commercial writers, calling them purveyors of low culture. Brother’s motivation for writing Quichotte, we find out, is to end his career on a literary high note.
The novel at times is laugh-out-loud funny marking a welcome return to form for Rushdie whose earlier works made sense of history in a playful sometimes sardonic way. The book is resplendent with voices but the intensity of the volume at times leaves one with the sense that this time around, Rushdie might be straining to hit the old high notes.
Although the story is a retelling of the Cervantes’ classic, it aims to be so much more – maybe, too much more – and this is where the it starts skidding off the road – the sheer ambition is to grand for the pages: It’s an adaptation of Don Quixote for our times; it’s a satirical depiction of post-truth Trump culture; it’s a road trip novel; it’s a work of science fiction; it’s an allegory on climate change; it’s a work of magical realism; it’s a story of migration during a period of intense hostility to immigrants; it’s a story of love and a family drama; it even has elements of cloak and dagger. The experience is not unlike being in a crowd of people all lighting sparklers at the same time while trying not to inhale the other’s smoke. Lights dance under our eyelids as the fumes get us high. We are taken to the fringes of what can be imagined, and at times lifted out of our bodies to exhilarating heights during the journey. All this before the crash.
Brother, himself, states that in writing the tome, his aim was to create a story with characteristics that are, “picaresque and crazy and dangerous.” If that’s the purpose to which Brother’s real-life counterpart aspires, then mission accomplished. But some may feel it’s something more like a G.W. Bush – Mission Accomplished.
In the end, Rushdie’s 14th novel is a colourful and bewildering road trip, firing through our reality at hyperdrive pace; weathering the craters on the road, as the journey concludes we are offered, courtesy of an Elon Musk-type futurist, a way to a new world. Is it a better world? That remains to be seen. In the passage of overturned pages, we become bloated on literary cream even while seeking to quench a cultivated thirst for meaning that Rushdie has time and again managed to satisfy. For all its literary virtue and entertaining quality, readers of Quichotte may find themselves in this quest, tilting at windmills… Fentanyl, anyone?