Salman Rushdie's "Quichotte" - On the Road
Updated: May 25
Salman Rushdie describes the opioid crisis in his new book, "Quichotte." He had researched it for years following a family tragedy. His youngest sister died at 45, of opioid abuse.
“My youngest sister, 14 years younger than myself, died suddenly 12 years ago when she was only 45. And it became clear ... that she had had a much more serious addiction than any of us had suspected, and that her apartment was full of these medications, which had been improperly obtained. It was a great shock. So I became, for obvious reasons, interested in this whole business of opioid addiction at that time. And I’ve been digging into the subject on and off for the last 10 years, and finally got to the point where I felt I was able to write about it.”
I saw Salman Rushdie on Sept 20 2019, at the First Congregational Church of Oakland. Berkeley Arts & Letters and India Currents presented the event. Rushdie was in conversation with Andrew Sean Greer, who won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel "Less."
Part I. The Book Event.
Andrew Sean Greer and Salman Rushdie entered to warm applause and sat down for an engaging and humor-filled conversation where Greer asked Rushdie about a range of topics.
On writing about Don Quixote:
Inviting Rushdie to speak about his subject, Greer mentioned that many have taken a shot at Don Quixote and missed. Rushdie wanted to write a road novel. He started on it in 2016, the "double anniversary of Cervantes and Shakespeare." He had first read Don Quixote at 20 (the J.M. Cohen translation). He mentioned that the new Grossman translation is brilliant. He had to not be imprisoned by Cervantes, and find his own story. Sancho is more Pinocchio: he wants to be a real boy. While Don Quixote is sad faced, Quichotte wants to be cheerful: his last name is Smile!
Rushdie went to most places in the book, and asked son Milan to join him. On the day he went to Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tulsa declared it Salman Rushdie day! (I later learned this was Monday Sept 29, 2015.) He recalled a nasty diner there, and was going to Tulsa again the following week!
On writing about contemporary issues:
He has always been attracted to the idea of writing in the present moment. He quoted Hemingway: “The greatest bullfighter is one who writes close to the bull.” He said this book is right there, next to the bull. On writing about writing:
I always wanted to be a second rate spy novelist. I’ve met a lot of spies at a certain time in my life. “I’ll tell you my real name!” And then they lied. For Brother (the writer of spy novels) the book is a way of working out all the problems in his life. Mortality, sister, son. Greer said he was moved by Rushdie's description of being a writer: “no purpose but to finish this book." Rushdie has never done it before: written about being a writer. On writing comedy: Greer: how to write comedy? Rushdie that his is not gag comedy, it’s character driven comedy. Quichotte rhapsodizes about Sancho in a hilarious section calling him "Ren to my Stimpy" and numerous other clichés.
On television: He doesn’t watch reality TV, but had to watch "some of this shit" to write about it. Did he get to like it? No. It is like the world wide web, he continued. Some of it is admirable, some is deeply reprehensible. Reality TV is artifice. If we keep swimming in this sea, it makes us more confused.
There was time for just a couple of questions from the audience.
His writing process: He said his writing routine is boring, like an office job, 9 to 5. It depends where he is in book. The early stages are difficult. To find the point of entry is very difficult. It's like cutting though a ball. If you find the right plane, it's easy. If not, you just keep hitting obstacles. When rewriting and fixing work, he works 15-hour days. This last period is very intense. The time of day he writes:
He tried waking up early, it was all awful, had to throw it all away. Martin Amis starts very early and is done by noon.
Lunch with Graham Greene:
Rushdie once had lunch with Graham Greene, who had 3 bottles of red wine at lunch. He commented, "I only eat so I can drink more." He spoke a little about that lunch, which was after the Satanic Verses controversy broke out. Greene said to him, "Tell me how you made so much trouble," which put Rushdie at ease. He commented that he loved Greene's work but not so much the Catholic stuff, and went on to say that "The Ministry of Fear" was the "best book ever written about the blitz."
My favorite exchange:
What drives you to write? What else would I do? I have no other talent. Many writers have other talents, he said. Gunter Grass was also an artist. "The only other thing I wanted to do was acting. I think I made the right choice."
It's been a lot of fun to see Rushdie in "The Bridget Jones Diary" and a few other appearances on screen, and it looked like he was having fun. But I'll take another book by him any day.
Part II. Before the Book Event.
I had arrived to the event a little early, and learned from the organizers that Rushdie would not be signing books after the event, but would pre-sign books that they would make available for sale. I had brought my own book (which I had finished just an hour previously, on BART on the way over with my friend Sunita!), hoping to get it signed.
As we conversed, Salman Rushdie arrived. He looked tired, but amiably agreed to a photo.
As he was whisked away to sign books, I realized that the only way to get my book signed was to dash after him. Which, I did. And again, he kindly signed my book.
The venue, a church, was beautiful, if somewhat ironic a location for a Rushdie event. When I mentioned this to a lovely woman sitting next to me in the first pew, she explained that this is a progressive church. A gorgeous Tree of Life decorated the area where the writers were to sit.
Part III. "Quichotte", the book.
My first encounter with Don Quixote was as a child, in an Illustrated Classics book. On the cover was a picture of the knight on a horse, holding a spear, with a windmill looming in the background. After leafing through the pages, I remember being confused and a little bored by the whole thing. Too young for satire, I suppose.
I didn’t pick it up again as the years went by: there was so much to read that was untainted by the boredom of childhood. And then! A couple of months ago, I learned that Salman Rushdie had a new book coming out, “Quichotte” (pronounced key-SHOT), an homage to the Don in the 1605 classic by Miguel de Cervantes.
So I set about investigating translations and one that I could read before Quichotte was published in early September 2019. There have been many translations. A 2003 version by Edith Grossman (which Rushdie called brilliant during his Oakland, CA appearance), has been lauded by many. I found a more recent translation of Don Quixote on Amazon: Gerald Davis’ 2012 version, and got the Kindle edition.
It was a delightful read. I was in splits a good deal of the time, better able to appreciate the satire and parody that had evaded me when I was a child.
I put myself on a timeline for reading Salman Rushdie's "Quichotte." I wanted to finish reading the book before going to listen to Rushdie speak about it. Which meant, being an ordinary mortal without access to advance copies (like half the world on Twitter: Nigella Lawson posted about it! And several others. And seemingly enough people had read it prior to the release date to decide it was worthy of a Booker. How does that even work?!), I had about 3 weeks: between Sept 3 (book release date) and Sept 20 (event date).
There’s a story within a story. (Yes, metafiction, if you want to be all technical.) Brother, from the old city of Bombay, and living in the US, is a writer. Of spy novels. He has a Sister and a Son. Brother has written a story about a man called Ismail Ismail, also from Bombay. who in America becomes Ismail Smile. Mr. Smile is a travelling salesman for a pharmaceutical company, given to watching a great deal of television as he moves from town to town, motel to motel. He falls in love with Salma R, a star of the screen.
He is employed by his cousin, Dr. R.K. Smile, owner of Smile Pharmaceuticals Inc. A few lines brilliantly capture his ruthlessness and his business model. Read this (p74):
R.K. Smile terminates Ismail Smile’s employment with SPI, whereupon Ismail further transforms into Quichotte, after the knight errant himself (the French rather than Spanish version). He devotes himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of his true love, to proving himself worthy of her. Like Don Quixote, Quichotte, too writes letters to his beloved in somewhat antiquated language described pithily as “linguistically competent if overly baroque.”
Th object of his affections, Salma R, is (of course) beautiful and irresistible, and likes her martinis dirty (up with olives).
Don Quixote had his simple-minded, fiercely devoted companion Sancho Panza. Quichotte, out of his imagination, conjures young Sancho, his son. This imaginary child, a teenager when he appears, seeks to understand his own nature, wants to be a real boy. The tugging at the heartstrings, and Quichotte's beauty, began for me in Chapter 6, when Sancho speaks.
Everything Sancho knows is derived from everything Quichotte has experienced. But there are parts of his mind that are blocked, that Sancho cannot access. It is said that the Bhagavad Gita is the crux of the Mahabharata. It is here that Arjuna seeks to understand everything. The world. The universe. Life. Death. Family. Not to equate the divine with the comedic entirely, but so it is with Sancho. He is a newborn, but with language. His thoughts are instantly profound and poignant, as he tries to understand, as it were, the meaning of life.
Father and son decide to embark on a road trip: a journey to Quichotte’s love, Salma R, in New York. “New York or bust. Start spreading the news. We’re heading there like everyone does, to be loved, or broken, to be born again, or to die.” A quest much like Don Quixote’s, as he yearns for his love Dulcinea del Toboso. They travel through many towns on their way to New York, going through the seven valleys (for which Rushdie credits Farid-ud-din-Attar’s “The Conference of the Birds”)
The road trip is in a Chevy Cruze. A word about cars, if you will permit me. I happen to like them. And like to read about them, look at pictures of them, and so on. You get the gist. I enjoyed the image of Salma sinking into her Maybach at the end of a long day. So let me explain my confusion when I read this sentence (on drugs) “….Miss Salma R discovered that InSmile was like graduating to a Rolls-Royce after years spent behind the wheel of a Nissan Qashqai.” Ok, a Rolls is universal. No question there. But what, I asked, scratching my head, is a Nissan Qashqai?! Definitely not sold in the US of A, dear reader. Sold, however, in the UK, I learned. Sigh. If we’re going on a road trip, folks, in the USA, and talking about people and cars here, how about we get the markets right, eh?
A lovely description of the sunset in New York. “The sun sank behind the Hudson and in a moment of silence the three of them stood on the apartment’s terrace and watched it go, the light of the fire dying in the water like a dream being forgotten.” How beautiful is that.
The great painter Aurora Zogoiby makes a cameo appearance. She of the unforgettable lines in The Moor’s Last Sigh, who called India “not so much sub-continent as sub-condiment,” going on to declare, “From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear. They came for the hot stuff, just like any man calling on a tart.” A lovely visit to these pages, indeed.
Another intriguing character is Evel Cent, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, whose given name is Awal Sant. He has made new residences on other planets a reality, not unlike the real-life inventor of the Tesla automobile. In the company’s facility in Sunnyvale, California, there is a door one must go through to enter this new world of unknown possibilities. Rushdie and Evel Cent have their door. Mohsin Hamid, in Exit West, had his windows through which characters went to another reality: a metaphor for migration, escaping from intolerable circumstances. We got to know Hamid’s characters, experienced the pain of their loss, their struggles in new hostile lands. We empathized with them.
It is not as easy to empathize with the characters in Quichotte. In the fashion of Don Quixote, they are more impressionistic than fully realized. The narrative floats from story to commentary. Mind you, the commentary is most interesting, be it philosophy or the current state of disastrous affairs. The story jumps from one person to the next, not lingering long enough to really, you know, engage. Interestingly enough, the one who isn’t flesh at all, is the most engaging and touching of the lot. Our boy Sancho.
Many people have asked me, intently. “How is it? Worth a read? Worth buying?”
Parul Sehgal of the New York Times pulled a Michiko on Quichotte. She didn’t care for it. For how long must we endure, how many times must he repeat, etc. etc. she ranted uncharacteristically. At the other end of the spectrum others have gushed, “His finest yet!” Well.
You decide, yaar. But my opinion? It’s a bloody Rushdie. Of course you should read it. Even if it isn’t pure genius like some of his books, the words still dance off the page, enter your heart and touch it deeply. And pierce your mind at the same time.
Read it because it is a hoot, much like Don Quixote, a tale of great silliness, but also poignant and wise. Read it for Sancho, the boy who wants to be real. Read it for his hopes, his desires, his confusion. His attempts to understand this world. His teenaged self. For me, Sancho is the heart of the book, the one who touches my heart. But then, I have a teenager. Perhaps that is why.
This essay was published in India Currents on October 16, 2019.
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