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Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte

Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte

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“Anything can happen. Here can be there, then can be now, up can be down, truth can be lies. Everything’s slip-sliding around and there’s nothing to hold on to. The whole thing has come apart at the seams.”

Published in two parts, 1605 and 1615, Don Quixote remains the most influential work of literature from the Spanish Golden Age and the entire Spanish literary canon. A founding work of Western literature, it is often labelled “the first modern novel”. In 2002, BBC asked a panel of 100 “leading authors”, Salman Rushdie among them, to list the 10 works of fiction they considered the “best and most central works in world literature”. Don Quixote easily received fifty per cent more votes than any other book, highlighting its endurance.

In an interview from 2018, Rushdie talks about re-reading the novel and how to him “the idea of a man determinedly seeing the world according to his own vision, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, feels strikingly contemporary”. Intended as a satirical parody of the popular taste in literature during his time, the plot of the original by Cervantes revolves around the (mis)adventures of one Alonso Quixano who loses his mind after reading too many chivalric romances and decides to become a knight himself. He recruits Sancho Panza, a simple farmer, as his square and declares a neighbourhood farm girl as his lady love.

Rushdie in Quichotte, his 14th novel, delivers a modern take on the old classic. The title of the novel is the French spelling of “Quixote” and is a reference to Jules Massenet’s 1910 opera, Don Quichotte. Ismail Smile, a travelling salesman working for his cousin’s pharmaceutical company, is inordinately obsessed with movie star and celebrity talk show host, Salma R. after being laid off, he dons the pseudonym Quichotte and decides to go on a cross-country quest across America with his imaginary son, Sancho, in order to prove worthy of her. The Seven Valleys that have to be crossed during the quest are based on Persian Sufi poet Farid-ud-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, a 12th Century work. But being a Rushdie novel, that is not where the outlandish strangeness stops.

Just like Don Quixote takes a meta-fictional turn in its second part, Quichotte also adopts a similar shift in its second chapter. It is revealed that the first chapter was written by Sam DuChamp, mediocre author of a series of middling spy novels, for a new book-in-progress. Known as Brother/Author throughout the novel, with a sister called Sister and a son called Son, Quichotte also becomes an exploration of his own life and the way it intersects with his fiction. This story-within-a-story premise through the use of a frame narrator is then deftly employed by Rushdie to comment on the weirdness of our current world.

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