The title, Quichotte, has several meanings. Quichotte (pronounced key-SHOT) is the French interpretation of Don Quixote, the Seventeenth Century classic by Miguel de Cervantes and the inspiration for Salman Rushdie’s latest novel. Otherwise, in the world of narcotic drug use, the phrase Key Shot describes the amount of a substance that can scooped up with a key and snorted to get a high.
Rushdie represents all these and more aspects of life and culture and literature. In his cleverly-written layered story, he explores the pharmaceutical drug industry and both the legitimate and illegal uses and draws the reader into a place of questioning if it’s right to sacrifice one for the other. The author creates a parody of the expected novel format by combining the hero’s quest with the fairytale ending of happily ever after with the stage rendition of curtains and black out at the end of the final act but adds to this a three-way confessional of the author creating a novelist who creates a quixotic character who creates his own fictional son. In this way, he overlays accepted fact with multilayered fiction which comments on real world situations. As a concept, it is a brilliant one, even if the execution leaves the reader a little bewildered by what, if anything, the discussion eventually achieves. Maybe that is the point – that whether recreational abuse or medicinal purpose, the effect of the drug is the same and both leave the user wanting or needing more.
The story features Indian characters journeying through the landscape of the United States and the U.K. and the many faces of prejudice exerted on them, the pressure to succeed that they have inherited from their ancestors, the thinly veiled envy they get from even their supporters when they succeed and the pitfalls awaiting them designed to lure them into an epic fail. All these phases are manifested in the lives of the fictional novelist who writes under the pseudonym of Sam Du Champ to protect himself from the discrimination he expects will be directed towards an Indian author, and the fictional characters he creates in his novel Quichotte. The title is also the alias adopted by an Indian pharmaceutical drug salesman named Ismail Smile who becomes enamored by a TV personality named Salma, a former Bollywood star who has crossed into and achieved acceptance and fame in the US market. Ismail, or Quichotte as he calls himself, conceives of the idea of a son and this offspring is manifested in much the way Pinnochio becomes real from the interactions made with him. Eventually, Rushdie creates fact out of fantasy by using these characters to show how what we speak about becomes real and our fictional narrative can explode in a way that it outgrows our definition of it. In that way, the author makes a bold statement with his book, showing how in a world such as ours, where alternative facts have become news, how political dynamics can be sparred from statements created in the minds of a PR specialist, or when a journalist becomes creative with reporting what really happened. In essence, he shows how when the artist sets out to imitate life, that life begins to imitate the art as well and the artist loses control over where the creation goes.
By mixing the media commentary with the hyperreality of psychedelic drug use and the alternate view of reality that is experienced in a drug-induced state, the author adds an even deeper layer of meaning to the story and it is one that is both meaningful and necessary to contemplate.
However, the story becomes anticlimactic as it refuses to focus, and maybe the swirls that Rushdie paints in Quichotte cannot eventually be expected to be brought back to a single point. Indeed, he posits an end-of-world theory instead, the Nirvana that will be achieved when the hero archives his quest, the black hole that will consumes everything when the universe has expanded sufficiently but the fog that should force the exit into another world, does not resolve the expectations of the reader even when the characters are consumed. For that, the reading experience may be stimulating but ultimately unsatisfying, which is where, I suppose the reader will require another key-shot.
Rushdie’s Quichotte has been shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize and has received all the attention that is to be expected when a former winner such as himself has been nominated. If you’ve read this latest novel, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it. Comment below.