Even after over 400 years, Don Quixote’s quest has never ended. The ingenious gentleman of La Mancha gets his latest retelling (not long after Terry Gilliam’s decades-in-the-making The Man Who Killed Don Quixote hit screens) from Salman Rushdie, whose metafictional Quichotte takes place in a world that greatly resembles our own (except when it very much doesn’t), during what our romantic protagonist calls “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.”
Anything can and everything does in Rushdie’s expansive take on the classic tale, in which a TV-obsessed Indian-American traveling salesman crosses the country in a Chevy Cruze accompanied only by his imaginary teenage son and the delusion that a pure, fated, earth-shattering love awaits him in New York in the arms of a popular talk-show host, a former Bollywood star named Miss Salma R., his Dulcinea.
He calls himself Quichotte, after Jules Massenet’s opera based on Cervantes’ novel — both aware of the model for his own impossible quest, but also an additional degree removed from it, he is a self-styled retelling of an adaptation of a classic. Adding another postmodern layer is the parallel story of Sam DuChamp (also a pseudonym, but then, isn’t every name in a fiction made up anyway?), a lowbrow crime novelist who finds himself compelled to abandon his chosen genre and write a novel about a TV-obsessed Indian-American traveling salesman crossing the country in a Chevy Cruze, etc.
The stories of both writer (DuChamp, that is) and his subject (dear Quichotte) predict and echo each other’s as time goes on, swirling ever closer together as the novel itself sprawls wider, covering the topics of family dynamics, the Indian diaspora, classic literature, the opioid crisis, racial violence, trash TV, cyber-terrorism, authorship, pharmaceutical fraud, rewriting the past, the blurred line between fiction and reality, redemption, forgiveness, and the imminent end of the world.
It’s a long and lofty list, but Rushdie weaves together all of his subjects, sharply observed, with extraordinary elegance and wit (and, somehow, in fewer than 400 pages). With so many threads in place and such a bizarre journey to follow, Quichotte admirably stays on course; whenever the narrative might begin to go off the rails, Rushdie rights the Chevy Cruze effortlessly, always knowing where he’s going, and always having an extensive catalog of diverse cultural references to cite along the way. That said, what begins as a meandering journey seems to speed to its conclusion in the last chapters — though the final lines will make you gasp.
Cervantes’ hero, who is eternally modern perhaps because he is essentially anti-contemporary, couldn’t be a more inspired transplant into the mad reality of the present day, which Rushdie sends up in terms both universal and highly specific, tragic and hilarious, strange but hauntingly familiar. The world is coming to an end, yes. Real life is less real than TV, where the news is less real than the Housewives. Love is a farce, except on The Bachelorette, where the players are less idiotic than they are in politics. Doctors are killers, killers are everywhere, and our planet is drowning and burning at the same time. At least here’s something worth reading as civilization crumbles around us, before we succumb to our fates. Right? A–