Salman Rushdie on Blurring the Boundary Between Art and Life in his New Satirical Novel “Quichotte”

Salman Rushdie resting his chin on his hand.

Photo: Penguin Random House

It’s not an exaggeration to say Salman Rushie has paid a price for writing satire. It’s been 30 years since his novel The Satanic Verses led to Ayatollah Khomeini issuing that infamous fatwawhich thrust Rushdie into the global spotlight beyond his literary fame — and led to a decade of hiding and police protection. (A period he documents in his 2012 memoir Joseph Anton.) 

But the author has never shied away from the satirical, including in his latest, Quichotte, which was shortlisted this week for the Booker.  For this 14th novel, Rushdie uses Cervantes’s classic Don Quixote as a framework to examine and criticize the culture of our time — “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen,” as a character describes it. A time when, “it was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcomes of elections … A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents.” 

Quichotte book cover
Salman Rushdie on his new novel Quichotte.

The knight in this quest is an aging pharmaceutical salesman who renames himself Quichotte (pronounced key-SHOT) and embarks on a road-trip across Trumpian America, hoping to win the heart of a much-younger TV star. (This narrative is revealed to be a story within a story, written by Sam DuChamp, or “Brother,” a mediocre writer of spy novels, in the midst of a midlife crisis.) Touching on everything from reality television, the opiate crisis, Brexit, and the state of politics in America, the UK and India, and containing innumerable pop-culture and historical references, Quichotte, like its story within a story, exists in a place where “the boundary between art and life became blurred and permeable.” 

Here, Rushdie sits down with me to chat about those blurred boundaries and how the idea for the novel took shape.

Athena McKenzie: You’ve described this as a weird book. Why? 

Salman Rushdie: Well, there are parts of it which you could describe as a spy novel or as an absurdist parable or as a science fiction novel. And then there are parts of it which are quite naturalistic, realistically taking on emotional relationships between brothers and sisters and fathers and sons. So it’s that attempt to write a novel that metamorphoses as you travel through it — that’s what I thought was weird.

AM: At one point in the book, Brother describes the book he is writing as an eccentric notion that lodged in his brain and insisted on being written. Has that ever been your experience as a writer?

SR: That’s really me talking in that particular sentence. When I finished my previous novel, The Golden House, which was almost entirely set in New York City, I remember telling myself, “Next time you have to leave town.” I envisioned writing a book which would involve journeying across America. Initially, I wasn’t even sure that it would be a novel. At one point, I even asked my then 20-year-old, now 22-year-old son if he’d like to go with me. I thought it could be a father and son road trip and that might give me the material for a book. It gradually became clear to me that what I was thinking about was was not a non-fiction book, but in fact a novel. 

AM: What happened to change your mind? 

SR: I suppose that the key moment was when I read Don Quixote again, because I’d been asked to write something about it quite separately from the novel. Then these versions of a father and son popped into my head and I thought they were more interesting than me and my boy. It excited my imagination. 

AM: Quichotte, the character, calls this “the Age of Anything-Can-Happen.” Would you say the book explores both edges of that sword?

SR: That’s a very nice image, the two-edged sword. Because clearly one side of it is very dark. We live in an age when literally things happen everyday that no novelist would have the guts to make up — the president of America thinking that the way to deal with hurricanes is to plant a nuclear bomb in them. I mean if I was to present that as a story idea, publishers would laugh at me.

That’s one side of it, but there is another side. The thing I like most about Quichotte as a character is that he’s eternally optimistic and hopeful. He is convinced of this completely cockeyed idea that he can win the heart of this woman, who is an extremely extremely famous and powerful woman. He believes, as he keeps saying, love will find a way. For me, it made the book have a human heart in the middle of an age that is not exactly hopeful or optimistic.

AM: There are many references to a very obvious Trump-like figure but you never name him. Why?

SR: I just didn’t want him in my damn book. He occupies so many of our waking hours anyway, I wasn’t going to put his name in my book. I just quite determinedly refused.

AM: As a writer who someone in power once tried to silence, and given your roles at PEN, do you have anything to say about Trump’s attitude towards the media?

SR: I believe, as everyone at PEN does, that the attack on free expression in America is extremely worrying. The fact that journalists are so routinely abused, and that this Stalinist phrase “the enemy of the people” is hurled at them, enormously increases the danger to journalists. I fear if it goes on, there may be some attack on journalists, which will be, to put it mildly, very regrettable. I do think he’s increasing the risks to journalists who are doing their job. 

AM: At one point Brother is thinking about his nom-du-plume and alludes to Freddie Mercury, who changed his name because he didn’t want to be pigeonholed by his ethnicity. Is that something you’ve ever felt as a writer?

SR: No, I’m actually proud of my ethnicity and I flaunt it.  I’ve never yet managed to write a book which did not have as its central character somebody who was Indian or British Indian or Indian American. There’s never been a main character which was not of the same ethnicity as myself. It’s very much my way of seeing the world. And I brought that world West with me when I came WestActually, one of the things I really admire about contemporary American fiction is the way in which immigrant writers from everywhere in the world are reinvigorating American fiction. Writers of colour and immigrant writers, whether they’re Ocean Vuong or Jhumpa Lahiri or Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s so many writers coming from so many different parts of the world and bringing those narratives and those ways of telling stories into American literature — and really giving it a new vividness, a new life. 

AM: DId your writing change when you came to America? 

SR:  What has changed is the way I do it. When I was younger, I was a writer who needed an enormous amount of architecture. Until I had a really detailed skeleton of a book, I was not able to start putting flesh on it. As I’ve gone on, I’ve become freer and freer and much more willing to to see what happens on the page — to trust the moment of the act of creation. I remember having a conversation many years ago with Toni Morrison, at the time that she wrote her novel Jazz. I asked her that since her novel was called Jazz and jazz has so much to do with improvisation, if that was something she liked to do in her work. Her first answer was, “Well, I like to make people think that’s what I’m doing.” But I pressed her a little bit and she said she actually really responded very strongly to the impulses out of which jazz music came and felt that was something she could do in her writing. So, I thought, “Well, good enough for Toni Morrison is good enough for me.”  

AM: Brother says at one point that creative people have the power to change the world. How significant is the role of the artist in this current age?

SR: I think he’s overstating it, frankly. I myself don’t make as large claims as that. I think what happens is that artists do describe the world and they can become the most powerful describers of the world in the future. If we want to read about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, we read War and Peace. Tolstoy’s version becomes the version. If we want to read about the Jazz Age we read The Great Gatsby. Literature does that — it can capture a moment and describe it for posterity, while giving readers at the time the pleasure of recognition. I’m not sure about world-changing. What I do think is that books can change readers. I think that’s the way in which books change the world. They change the world one reader at a time. And the magic of this is that neither the reader nor the writer knows when it’s going to happen.