Don Quixote has spawned many adaptations and radical reinterpretations. One of the most interesting literary rewrites was Graham Greene's 1982 novel Monsignor Quixote, in which a recently elevated parish priest tours Spain – not on horseback with a loyal squire but in an old Seat 600 with a former communist mayor.
Salman Rushdie is the latest author to channel Miguel de Cervantes's seminal work. His latest novel, Quichotte, has him following Greene with a comic restyling. Cervantes's hero was a humble nobleman whose obsession with chivalric romances deluded him into thinking he was a knight errant. Rushdie's fantasist protagonist is a homeless and near-friendless travelling salesman of Indian origin whose brain has been addled by mindless television.
He is Ismail Smile, "a brown man in America longing for a brown woman". The woman in question is Salma R, a bipolar former Bollywood and Hollywood actress who now hosts her own daytime talk show in New York. When Ismail is laid off from his job, he adopts the pseudonym Quichotte, gets into his gunmetal grey Chevy Cruze with his son and sidekick Sancho, and embarks on a cross-country quest to track down and win over "the queen of Must See TV".
So begins an inventive pastiche – or so we believe. Rushdie refuses to play a straightforward imitation game. Having tipped his hat to Cervantes, he proceeds to veer away from his source material and infuse his narrative with a diverse cast and big ideas. Rushdie’s trademark trickery manifests itself in chapter two.
We are led into another realm of fictitiousness when Sam DuChamp is introduced as Quichotte’s creator and the writer of chapter one. This second-rate spy novelist has turned his hand to a different kind of novel. Unbeknownst to him, his own story will play out in tandem with Quichotte’s picaresque adventures.
We also hear of the schemes and struggles of a range of colourful secondary characters. Ismail's cousin and erstwhile employer Dr R K Smile is a pharmaceutical billionaire in Atlanta who dabbles profitably in opioids. Scientist-entrepreneur Evel Cent looks to a future in which his XChange Technology will transport the human race through portals to better worlds. Sam seeks to heal family rifts after years of estrangement from his son and sister – the latter a human rights lawyer who is now fighting a losing battle with cancer in London.
As absorbing as these many strands are, the novel works best when Quichotte or Salma are on the page. Salma's backstory charts her early years in Mumbai, her leap of faith to America following her mother's death and her steady rise to become the second most influential woman in America (after Oprah). But she also harbours a dark family secret that rears its ugly head when Quichotte encloses a photograph of himself with his latest love letter.
Quichotte’s madcap road-trip to his beloved in New York is filled with bouts of absurdity. Father and son encounter talking revolvers, ferocious mastodons and an Italian-speaking cricket called Jiminy. Sancho is in actual fact both an imaginary son and a hazy vision (“I look like a bad TV picture”).
Once again, Rushdie implies that his flights of fancy are signs of the times. His last-but-one novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, played out in an epoch marked by so-called "strangenesses". Similarly, Quichotte is set in "the Age of Anything-Can-Happen". Everything is possible: "A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents."
As ever, Rushdie's brand of magic realism will not be to every reader's taste. More problematic, however, is the unchecked exuberance that saturates parts of this novel and other recent works. The plot is sidelined for scattershot stories, outlandish set-pieces and tangential riffs. Lengthy descriptive paragraphs or monologues read like rambling screeds overstuffed with facts, repetitive tics, pop-culture references and literary allusions. When a character introduces himself as Conrad Chekhov, we recall how Rushdie appropriated those writers' first names for his memoir Joseph Anton. We then appreciate anew their ability to tell a streamlined tale without recourse to extraneous detail or showy effects.
While Rushdie is prone to excess, he is also capable of reining it in. His leaner prose produce dazzling results. We get caustically satirical sideswipes and beautiful meditations on love, hope, madness, forgiveness and belonging (“Is there a place for us in this America?” an uncertain Sancho asks his father). Quichotte’s journey is made up of one expertly staged tragicomic scene after another, from his farcical study of “classic” dating TV shows to garner tips for wooing Salma, to his confrontation in a diner with the trigger-happy proprietor and his racist clientele.
Quichotte is sitting on the Booker Prize shortlist. It fully deserves its place because, for all its boisterousness, it is Rushdie's finest novel in years.