‘IDLE READER: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine. But I have not been able to contravene the natural order; in it, like begets like. And so what could my barren and poorly cultivated wits beget but the history of a child who is dry, withered, capricious, and filled with inconstant thoughts never imagined by anyone else, which is just what one would expect of a person begotten in a person, where every discomfort has its place and every mournful sound makes its home?’ So begins the prologue to Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, newly translated by Edith Grossman. It is the novel whose status as the genetic prototype of the modern continues to be renewed by Western novelists who owe their plot to the tragic knight’s quest. No great novel requires a retelling to make it ‘contemporary’, though re-readings make the ‘contemporary’ more comprehensible. One thing that can’t escape a reader of Salman Rushdie is the range of his interests, from the classical to the immediate, in literature, movies and popular culture; and on almost every page of his works there is a literary or cinematic allusion that is a casual note of appreciation, a knowing nod to the greats and the living, a wave or a bow as he, the worthy inheritor, the friendly co-culprit, passes through the ‘ocean of notions’. Memory is indebtedness. Here, in his third novel in four years, he adopts the first knight of imagination, a book-length memorial to fiction’s original quest, in which there is no absolution, only the enduring thrill of the journey itself. The picaresque is destiny, and the great Spaniard may say, in life as well as in imagination.
Quichotte (Hamish Hamilton; 416 pages; Rs 699) a phonetic variation of Quixote, is a picaresque as celebration and submission. At one level, it is the competitive fanboy’s translation of the quest in yet another ‘age of anything-can-happen’, and the anything could be an ignorant racist in an American café or mastodons on the streets of transmutations, talking guns or philosophical insects, or, lives torn apart in the media-induced ‘unreal reality’—or the spreading opioid addiction. Submission because, in the end, the story alone remains, as redemption and reminder, as epitaph and curse, even as the storyteller stands at the edge of a void. Rushdie has seen the void, and survived. The eponymous knight of Quichotte, an adopted name, is a recently retrenched salesman addicted to television, a wanderer and dreamer, a story let loose on the highway of life by a storyteller in the autumn of his craft. ‘He no longer had a fixed abode. The road was his home, the car was his living room, its trunk was his wardrobe, and a sequence of Red Roof Inns, Motel 6’s, Days Inns, and other hostelries provided him with beds and TVs.’ As he dedicates himself to the quest for an Indian-American television star, Miss Salma R, the need for a squire becomes inevitable. He imagines one to perfection, complete in ‘a checked lumberjack shirt and denim jeans with turn-ups,’ his son from an imagined future. Their journey across America, very much Trumpian in its hatred towards immigrants and casual racism, is an adventure in existential revelations sans compensatory mercies.
It is an adventure intensified by the possibilities of imagination itself. The unreal reality that everyone inhabits in Quichotte is the alternative that only fiction can offer. Even for Cervantes, a war cripple, Don Quixote was a private salvation rite after an undistinguished career as a playwright. He had written himself into the knight’s quest, in the contradictory roles of a moral oracle and an intervening cynic. It was a shared quest for the writer and the written. And it is so in Quichotte, too, and the writer, a spy novelist of moderate success called Sam DuChamp, is now writing something radically different, something intimately familiar. ‘Quichotte—the loner in search of love, the loser nobody who believed himself capable of winning the heart of a queen—had been with him all his life, a shadow-self he had glimpsed from time to time in the corner of his eye, but had not had the courage to confront.’ Writing is homecoming, and for DuChamp, who mostly lives in the novel as ‘Brother’, a loner like his creation, it is a painful inward gaze. As his creation drives in an old Chevy in the company of his squire towards his beloved, crossing the multiple stages of awareness, the writer, the estranged Brother, takes a parallel journey seeking atonement. No quest culminates in atonement; in fiction, the Grail is the last unanswered question. Every seeker in Quichotte is trapped in a question.
Reunions are not necessarily poignant, for the original Don or his twenty-first century avatar. Quichotte is a thriller stretching the possibilities of both autofiction and metafiction
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The third seeker is the one madly stalked by Quichotte, Miss Salma R, who ‘came from a family of adored ladies. Think of her family this way: Granny R was Greta Garbo, a great actress who for unexplained reasons abruptly retreated from the world, declaring that she disliked people and open spaces and wanted to be alone. Mommy R was Marilyn Monroe, very sexy and very fragile, and she stole the sportsman prince (a real honest-to-goodness prince) whom Grace Kelly wanted to marry and that became Daddy, who…’ What she seeks is painless liberation from the television make believe to that zone of reconciliation in memory. Her bipolar condition now needs something more comforting than electroconvulsive shock treatment, a quest that will bring her to her seeker.
And caught in this spiralling world of unhinged adults is the boy-seeker, Sancho, son and squire. He is as unreal as the world he has been imagined into, an aberration within an aberration. His most revealing conversation is with an Italian-speaking cricket. On the urgent topics of human form and conscience, he tells the philosophical insect, ‘I’m like the sky at night. The universe has no interest in right and wrong. It doesn’t care who lives or dies and who behaved well or badly. The universe is an explosion. It rushes onwards, pushing, growing, making room for itself. It’s a never-ending conquest. You know what the motto of the universe is? Give me more. I want it all. That’s my motto also. That’s how I see things too.’ Sancho, the ultimate companion borrowed from literature’s most rewarding road trip, is a half-formed life trapped between fiction and mortality. He has been seeking his own beloved, only to realise that a fictionalised self is more powerful than a biologically sustainable lover. Sancho, brought in to someone else’s quest, remains a stifled sigh in a larger tragedy.
They all trace their backstory to Bombay—the city is still spelt in the language of memory. The city of another time, of another India, soothes, but in the converging stories of the seekers, it just provides a backdrop to dark family secrets, the violations and the humiliations. They all escaped Bombay, its cruel motivations, and ended up in America or Britain. This America is a different place, less tolerant of the stranger, and lesser than its idealistic self. As Sancho cries out, ‘America, what has happened to your optimism, your new frontiers, your simple Rockwell dreams? I’m plunging into your night, America, pushing myself deep into your heart like a knife, but the blade of my weapon is hope. Recapture yourself America, shed these werewolf hides and zombie shells.’ Rushdie plays out his picaresque in lands with no mercies, little justice, suddenly deformed and grotesque. Quichotte and his squire are witness to, and unsolicited participants in, multiple mutations, political and cultural. The dissent has not diminished; Rushdie is still in a spirited conversation with all those mastodons charging out of a mad history.
They are as real as the seekers of Quichotte, in which the act of imagination is the only way of reconciliation. The writer, the Brother, becomes a character in a spy story unwritten by him. And in the story he is writing, the wayfarer on a quest is an exaggerated reflection of himself. And within the story, characters imagine their own individual histories. The author is not dead; the author is the story, kept alive by multiple realities. As in Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, the fantastical and the real are separated by a blur in perception. Reunions are not necessarily poignant, for the original Don or his twenty-first century avatar. Quichotte is a thriller stretching the possibilities of both autofiction and metafiction.
The dissent has not diminished; Rushdie is still in a spirited conversation with all those mastodons charging out of a mad history
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In his introduction to Grossman’s translation of what is seen by many masters as the greatest novel, Harold Bloom writes, ‘We cannot know the object of Don Quixote’s quest unless we ourselves are Quixotic.’ We have here a worthy successor to Cervantes, renewing fiction’s first quest. To be alive as a novelist as relevant as Salman Rushdie is to remain Quixotic. The story is the quest.
ENGLAND IS ANOTHER country. They do things differently there.
Yes: we must sojourn for a time among the English, for so long thought to be the most pragmatic and commonsensical of peoples, but presently torn asunder by a wild, nostalgic decision about their future; and in particular, in London, once the most pleasing of cities, now much disfigured by the empty apartment blocks of the international rich, the Chinese, Russians and Arabs who stationed their money in such buildings as if they were parking lots and money an armada of invisible automobiles; and in London, on a street in the west of the city, in a neighbourhood once known for its longhair bohemians, West Indians and quirky local stores, but rapidly becoming too expensive except for the comfortably shorthaired, its quirkiness replaced by the bland façades of frock shops and chic eateries, and as for the West Indians, they were pushed to the margins long ago and now, because of that wild, nostalgic decision about the country’s future, faced uncertainty and renewed hostility. Once a year in this neighbourhood a carnival filled the streets, modelled on the customs of faraway Jamaica and Trinidad, but the intermingled culture the carnival celebrated had changed now, and felt, to some saddened people at least, like a painful reminder of the time before the country broke in half. And yes, let us admit it, our story’s other two countries were badly broken, too, and equally disputatious, and more violent. Black citizens were regularly killed by white policemen in one of these other countries, or arrested in hotel lobbies for the crime of making a phone call to their mothers, and children were murdered in schools because of a constitutional amendment that made it easy to murder children in schools; and in the other country, a man was lynched by sacred- cow fanatics for the crime of having what they thought was beef in his kitchen, and an eight-year-old girl from a Muslim family was raped and killed in a Hindu temple to teach the Muslim population a lesson. So perhaps this England was not the worst place, after all, and perhaps this London was not the worst city in spite of its rising knife crime, and perhaps this west London neighbourhood was still a nice neighbourhood to live in, and perhaps things would get better in time.
An interjection, kind reader, if you’ll allow one: It may be argued that stories should not sprawl in this way, that they should be grounded in one place or the other, put down roots in the other or the one and flower in that singular soil; yet so many of today’s stories are and must be of this plural, sprawling kind, because a kind of nuclear fission has taken place in human lives and relations, families have been divided, millions upon millions of us have travelled to the four corners of the (admittedly spherical, and therefore cornerless) globe, whether by necessity or choice. Such broken families may be our best available lenses through which to view this broken world. And inside the broken families are broken people, broken by loss, poverty, maltreatment, failure, age, sickness, pain and hatred, yet trying in spite of it all to cling to hope and love, and these broken people — we, the broken people! — may be the best mirrors of our times, shining shards that reflect the truth, wherever we travel, wherever we land, wherever we remain. For we migrants have become like seed- spores, carried through the air, and lo, the breeze blows us where it will, until we lodge in alien soil, where very often — as for example now in this England with its wild nostalgia for an imaginary golden age when all attitudes were Anglo- Saxon and all English skins were white — we are made to feel unwelcome, no matter how beautiful the fruit hanging from the branches of the orchards of fruit trees that we grow into and become.
To resume: Here in this west London neighbourhood we may intrude upon a spacious apartment above a restaurant — the very restaurant space, as it happens, from which, for many years, the carnival was organised! The apartment boasts two floors and a large roof terrace, a lateral conversion across the width of two row houses. The lower floor has been opened out to form a single, light- filled, high- ceilinged room, and in the open- plan kitchen and bar in the large room’s north-east corner, mixing herself a dirty martini (up, with olives), we may now see Sister — yes, the Author’s sibling, Brother’s Sister — an immigrant, plainly, South Asian, obviously, and also a successful lawyer with a strong interest in civil and human rights issues, a stalwart fighter on behalf of minorities and the urban poor, who has devoted a good proportion of her time to pro bono work; and it would not be stretching things to say that she might be thinking, as she has often thought, such thoughts as the ones we have outlined above. Of her appearance perhaps the only thing that needs to be said is that her decision to stop colouring her hair was made quite recently, and she has had to get used to the white- haired stranger in the mirror — to her mother, we might say, looking back at her across time and through the looking glass. And now that we have introduced her and set her in some sort of context, let us leave her to sip her evening drink and await her dinner guests, while we retreat into the privacy of these pages to tell her tale.