‘Quichotte’ retells ‘Don Quixote’ for chaotic modern times

Salman Rushdie’s messy novel pulls in everything from the opioid crisis and white supremacist violence to “Pinocchio” and reality TV. 

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Quichotte” by Salman Rushdie, Random House, 416 pp.

Salman Rushdie’s “Quichotte” is a behemoth of a novel, and with reason. A postmodern dystopian tale, it tackles everything from global warming to the rise of white supremacism to the opioid crisis – which is to say, most of the ills of contemporary society. All this is gathered within a double-frame of a novel within a novel, authored by a crime writer referred to only as “Brother.” The premise is that Brother is composing an updated version of “Don Quixote,” the tale of the famously deluded nobleman of La Mancha, who anoints himself a knight-errant and rides across the country in search of adventure.   

Though “Quichotte” can be enjoyed on its own merits, to understand what Rushdie is up to it helps to have some familiarity with Miguel de Cervantes’ original text. Episodic in structure and peppered with references to its author himself, “Don Quixote” was published in 1605 and is considered one of the first modern novels. When Alonso Quixano searches for brave deeds to perform as “Quixote” in the name of a country girl he rechristens “Dulcinea,” it’s because he has read too many chivalric romances – a commentary on how the over-saturation of fiction (or at least, fiction with idealized plots) can warp our perception of the world. It’s a theme that has resonated increasingly over time. A century after “Don Quixote” took Europe by storm, the Scottish novelist and poet Charlotte Lennox penned “The Female Quixote,” warning of young ladies rejecting sensible marriage proposals under the sway of romance novels. And in our own times, the comedy series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” models its heroine after Quixote – the anthem “West Covina” is an homage to “Dulcinea” from the musical “Man of La Mancha.” That musical is also threaded through the latest season of the series “Grace and Frankie,” as a commentary on how age is shunted aside in favor of youth. There’s also Terry Gilliam’s 2018 film “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” and the list goes on. In other words, everyone has their own Quixote.

In Rushdie’s version, Quichotte (pronounced key-shot) is an avid and indiscriminate consumer of daytime TV. His Dulcinea is the celebrity television host Miss Salma R, who, in this fictional universe, is second only to Oprah. Quichotte’s sidekick, Sancho, is a son born of his desire and imagination, in episodes that deliberately cannibalize Pinocchio – Rushdie is a romantic himself when it comes to fathers and sons. Quichotte’s delusions, and Sancho’s uncertain participation in them, create an opening to introduce surrealist elements that are so often a part of Rushdie’s repertoire. Marcel Duchamp is playfully alluded to, as is Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist play “Rhinoceros” with its insightfully bizarre take on the contagion of fascism. 

Quichotte is also an emblem for America; in other words, an idealist. This analogy gives the novel teeth, showing Quixote not as a harmless romantic dreamer, but as Cervantes wrote him, a man who through his delusions sows chaos that culminates in violence, ironically harming those he would help.

Quichotte isn’t the only violent force at work. Still more threatening is his cousin and former employer, the wonderfully drawn Dr. R.K. Smile, a pharmaceutical head who orchestrated the opioid addiction crisis in a striking parallel to what’s been exposed about Purdue Pharma, the maker of the powerful opioid, OxyContin, in such skin-crawling, horrifying detail (points to Rushdie for prescience). Rushdie is at his best in writing of Smile and the cadre of salesmen and physicians who, out of unbridled greed and corruption, make their trade in abuse and addiction.

Odd to say, though, “Quichotte,” despite how well it captured the opioid crisis, felt at times a bit … well, dated. I couldn’t help but think, hasn’t social media supplanted daytime TV as smartphones have overtaken televisions? Or, if TV is the drug of choice, isn’t binging by streaming more addictive and of the moment? Even stylistically, Rushdie’s writing can seem to me a bit tired (“Quichotte” was shortlisted for England’s coveted Booker Prize for Fiction, so my opinion appears to be in the minority). But the conflation of a fictional author and character, which hints at the slipperiness of the relationship between the real author and the characters he invents … wasn’t this postmodern territory sufficiently mined in the 1980s? 

That said, there’s much that feels absorbing and true in Rushdie’s latest work, including a portrait of a civil rights lawyer who is sucker-punched by a social media mob. Although she plays a supporting role, she was the character in whom I felt most invested. The way Rushdie handles racial animus, too, is as incisive and complex as in his earlier fiction, where in one case, police brutality transforms a man into a literal ass. In “Quichotte,” the question is how whites’ suspicion and antipathy towards anyone with brown skin might provoke an uncoupling from the world by a man like Quichotte. As is too often the case, what’s most disturbing is the way the craziness and violence of the actual world today can threaten to outpace even fiction like Rushdie’s.

Elizabeth Toohey is assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College, City University of New York.

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