Years ago I read pretty much all of Vladimir Nabokov’s novels and short stories. Stray words and phrases from his work have stayed with me and might be why reading Salman Rushdie’s Quichotte reminded me of those years.
There are plenty of references in Quichotte to chew on, from Nabokov, Shakespeare and Homer to US soap operas. It’s a multilayered story blurring various narrators’ identities and the boundaries between parallel and increasingly porous stories.
Quichotte starts off as a retake on Cervantes’ 1605 story of Don Quixote, sometimes considered the world’s first novel. Don Quixote is a man of uncertain mental health who has visions and takes to the road with his squire, Sancho. But Don Quixote’s tale is just a starting point for a more complex story in Quichotte. The reinvented modern Don Quixote is Ismail Smile (I smile, I smile), an erudite old Indian American who lives in his car and motel rooms, and is obsessed with junk television. Highly educated and a little unhinged, Ismail Smile works as a salesman until his cousin at Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc fires him. Ismail Smile now has the opportunity to woo and win the heart of Salma R. a talkshow host celebrated as Oprah 2.0.
Advance warning of this story’s slipperiness, the uncertainty of identity, belonging, reality, comes early in the book. Ismail Smile says: “Perhaps this story is a metamorphosed version of his own?”. He wonders if “the writer’s tale was the altered version of his history”. I don’t know much about Salman Rushdie, but would bet that there’s a lot of him in Quichotte. Most of the characters are Indian with some connection to Bombay, so Quichotte might be an elaborate expression of the author’s identity as man and writer, of reality and fiction’s confused subjectiveness. With this in mind I was tempted to learn more about Salman Rushdie and his achievements, but resisted. I’m reviewing the book after all, not the author.
Like the original Don Quixote, or at least the bit of Rushdie’s novel that nods to it, Quichotte is a parody of the nature of chivalry and love. In both stories the hero takes to the road in pursuit of love. The original has a squire called Sancho Panza, and in Quichotte Ismail Smile imagines into being a son called Sancho. But Ismail Smile and Sancho are themselves fictions, creations of a crime novelist whose pen name is Sam du Champs. Author, the writer known as Sam DuChamp, is referred to as Brother by his sister whom he calls Sister. Brother has a Wife, now ex-Wife and Sister is married to a crossdressing man. They call each other Jack and their child Daughter. Ismail also has a sister whom he calls the Human Trampoline, for unconvincing reasons. It’s a reference to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the quintessential roadtrip album.
Author’s Son has disappeared as Sancho has appeared. Sancho wavers from real to unreal throughout the story until he reaches the end of his personal quest. Author and Son are reunited by a secret agent who goes by many names, one of which is Kyle, one of the Men in Black. This movie is about thwarting alien invasions and preventing the destruction of the planet, which is what appears to happen as the book progresses. The secret agent uses various last names. Oshima, Kagemusha, Mizoguchi and Makioka. The first three are Japanese film directors and Makioka might be from the Makioka Sisters a classic Japanese novel.
Nothing is what it seems as these multiple narratives overlap and converge. As in many Nabokov stories names are signals of intent, hints for how to read the narrative. Anderson Thayer, Salma R.’s assistant and bed buddy, might be named after the American painter Handerson Thayer. He painted lots of women and often gave them angel wings. Author Sam duChamps calls his son Son and Son calls himself Marcel DuChamp. Author’s primary character is alternately Quichotte and Ismail Smile. Fake names abound but only Sancho is uniquely referred to as Sancho (I think). Together with Sancho, Ismail Smile visits a town in New Jersey called Berenger. The name echoes Saunière Berenger the fraudulent nineteenth century priest whose story begat the Da Vinci Code. This lie or truth spawned multiple fictions in print and on screen. Ismail Smile and Sancho may or may not have visited Berenger but if they did, they found humans turned into Mastodons and behaving like idiots. Mastodons look like elephants, the symbol of Republican Party, and Trump supporters follow his lead.
As I started to wonder how much of this evaluation was true or prompted imaginings in my head, I started to feel buried and wonder if Quichotte is deliberately overwritten. This is especially true in the book’s early stages where the style is uncertain, repetitious and riddled with confusing and wearying lists. But it’s surely deliberate, a device to mimic a stranger’s encounters with the unfamiliar, of cultural anxieties. Rushdie hints at this often though I think he gets it wrong with Freddie Mercury. Of Author (Sam du Champs) he says: “Yes, the name on the books veiled his ethnic identity, just as Freddie Mercury veiled the Parsi Indian singer Farrokh Bulsara. This was not because the Queen front man was ashamed of his race but because he did not want to be prejudged, did not want to be ghettoed inside an ethnic-music pigeonhole surrounded by the bars of white attitudes.” Freddie Mercury was never in danger of being pigeonholed. He chose his new persona to step away from his Parsi identity towards a persona that was closer to his own reality: music, lots of wild sex and global possibly even interplanetary adulation.
But that’s a quibble. Quichotte’s multiple narrators, none of them reliable, provide possible autobiographical expositions, possible documentations of stuff in Rushdie’s head and memory, what moulded him. The Quichotte narrators show us how stories, our own and others, shape us whether we like or can admit it, or not. And the movie and music references are key to that. Sancho’s reference to slavery from Randy Newman’s Sail Away: “sailed away and crossed the mighty ocean into Charleston Bay” is swiftly followed by Disney lines from Pinnochio: “got no strings on me”. When Ismail and Sancho approach New York city Sancho runs lines in his head from Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman. They are in New York to find Ismail Smile’s love, not Sancho’s. Real or no?
The choice of film titles reflects the author’s interests, experiences, or perhaps that’s just what he wants us to think. The list is long but pretty much all of the movies referenced involve a journey, spiritual, personal or literal, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s through to the Lord of the Rings. But we are told throughout this book not to trust or believe anything anyone says, as when Sancho says to his father “… you’re maybe someone else entirely” . It’s just another means of layering untruths which may be why the Pinocchio references get stronger and more frequent as the book progresses. The lying puppet aided by Jiminy Cricket and the Blue Fairy becomes a real boy and lives happily ever after. Sancho has a different fate.
It’s all quite entangled, the nature of creation and existence, the real and the unreal, the television story and the modern American story of opioid abuse, ingrained racism, corporate corruption, deep state manoeuvres and travel in time and space. And throughout there’s the undercurrent of recast identity for nonwhites in the USA, right down to quoting Creedence Clearwater Revival: “those old cotton fields back home”. This band evolved from an earlier group called the Golliwogs.
As this book progresses, following Ismail Smile and Sancho through the seven valleys (the Seven Valleys is a Persian poem, but the valleys are not the same), it shifts into something between a philosophical treatise and a representation of creative struggle, illustrated by music, television and film references. Sancho reminds us that “Even my birth, my personal origin story, had its roots in fantasy. Is that who I am? A close encounter of the what is it kind? Yeah. I know. Third. Where’s my mother ship?” (Close Encounters).
The musical references suggest subjective multiple perceptions and possibilities, uncertain interpretations, finding voice, who knows. Lyrics challenge the nature of belief and faith as in “will you still love me tomorrow?” by the Shirelles. In Nabokov’s book Look at the Harlequins! he creates a fictional autobiography to show how fiction reflects numerous realities in the author’s mind. Lies and lots of them tangled up with unreal events and people are what fiction’s all about. Fiction’s not truth. In Quichotte when Salma R. ponders her life, she observes that “a Russian writer had said, the one that preceded our birth, ‘the cradle rocks above an abyss,’ and ‘heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour)’”. In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, he tells us “the cradle rocks above the abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).” Rushdie omits Leonard Cohen’s lovely line: “there is a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in” opting for Shakespeare’s sonnet XXX when Salma R. is striving to remember her childhood: “I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought”. The next bit says “And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste:”
You mightn’t like this book and feel your time’s getting wasted in the early pages. I felt that way, but as the various stories unfolded I found myself wanting it to go on longer. As we approach the end of Quichotte time is indeed wasting. The world around the various narratives melts. Celluloid burning into light when the film reel gets stuck. As the book reaches its conclusion the cartoon and the real expand and contract, and more characters from Pinocchio come into the picture. The Blue Fairy warns Sancho not to pursue his quest then changes her mind when Sancho disagrees. Salvation or redemption?
And so it goes on. It is far beyond me to compress much more into a simple book review, but I am sure that there is a whole story in the selection of film and television and song references in Quichotte from the Beatles to Springsteen. The films dominate and here are a few in the order in which they appear in the book: the World According to Garp, Blazing Saddles, Psycho, Ghostbusters, the Wizard of Oz, the Man with No Name, Silence of the Lambs, The OK Corrall, The Godfather, When Harry Met Sally, Paris Texas, To Catch a Thief, Men in Black, Bonnie & Clyde, Who Killed Roger Rabbit. See if you can find them and let me know which ones I have missed, because even these choices might be shorthand hints for the narratives.
This is all a very long way from Nabokov, Homer and Shakespeare, and that’s why Quichotte is so very well worth the read and brainsweat. The book ends with what might be a touching reference to a long forgotten television soap opera. It’s about a fictitious hospital in Boston nicknamed St Elsewhere. In the final episode a little boy shakes a snow globe and we understand that the stories in the whole of St Elsewhere’s 137 episodes happened in his imagination. Quichotte ends with a similar reference: “That other world, which he now understood to be the one he himself had made, was a miniature universe, perhaps captured under a glass dome — a snow globe”.