It’s always worth trying to laugh at our masters, if only because they don’t like it: Salman Rushdie
It’s easy to be joyously lost in Quichotte — Salman Rushdie’s stupendous new road novel is layered, complex, arresting, asking the reader to suspend her disbelief to experience the faith the writer has in his story. Built masterfully, like a ring of intersecting cycles — of imagination and reality, the plausible and implausible, of love and its futility — this is one of Rushdie’s strongest books yet. A travelling salesman, Ismail Smile, ups his romance game when he sets his eyes on a television star and embarks on a trip to win her. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Quichotte reaffirms that Rushdie rules the literary turf he first discovered and named. Here he tells Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi about Quichotte and how it came into being.
Quichotte carries that mysterious whiff of the enduring beauty of Midnight’s Children — do you think of these two novels as pillar works?
Time alone will tell. When Midnight’s Children came out I had no idea that it would become a “pillar.” I do think of Quichotte as being another panoramic, synoptic work, in which I have tried to gather as much of life and what I’ve learned about it as I can; both thought and emotion. The rest is for readers to decide.
Overtly political writers are pedantic to read. In Quichotte you rap knuckles of many governments without seeming either didactic or prissy. How did you do it?
On the whole I dislike didacticism in fiction, and certainly I’m against prissiness of all sorts. I suppose the answer is that I write, as far as possible, from inside my characters, and that helps to avoid sounding preachy.
Quichotte, in some parts, is satire. But is it possible to satirise anything when satirical lives — for instance, the Kardashians – are dominant discourse (while contemporary literature sometimes feels like forced lunch with a spinster aunt)?
I know this is a thing people are saying these days — that reality has outstripped satire. I simply don’t agree. When I watch the best satirists at work — for example, Stephen Colbert on late night American TV — I see that comedy can get deeper into the truth, and cut more sharply, than even the best reportage. It’s always worth trying to laugh at our masters, if only because they really don’t like it.
While Aurora Zogoiby (a character from Rushdie’s earlier novel) makes a guest appearance, it reminded me that the Mumbai you recreate has been largely replaced. In lieu of social czarinas and Bandra bootlegs stand India’s first family of frauds — our Tik Tok billionaires — and a subsidiary ‘culture’ that feeds off such excess. Is this modern, messy, magic-free India material for a ‘Made-in-Bombay American?’
I don’t know if I’ll be able to write about the new city and country you describe. In many ways the Bombay sections of Quichotte feel like a farewell to the past, and to the fictional world which grew out of the past for me. (However, I’ve thought this before, and then ended up writing much more about India, so you don’t have to believe what I say.)
How long did it take you to write Quichotte, and what is your writing process?
It took two years, but some parts of it began much earlier. The “science fiction” parts have their origin in an abandoned idea for a TV series about a parallel earth, and the opioid theme has its origins in my youngest sister’s death 12 years ago at the age of just 45, probably caused by her dependency on these pills. As to my writing process, I do the work more or less like an office job, except that I work at home. As for the actual writing, I have increasingly learned to trust what happens in the act of creation, much like a jazz musician or a sitar player. I see writing as a process of discovery, not as the execution of a preordained plan. Of course I do have a plan, and an idea of structure, but I allow both to evolve as I write.
I see you post online about losing friends to age, most recently, Toni Morrison. Looking back, in overview, is there a part of you, that says: screw the legacy rubbish, I just want to have more pizza before I get out of here?
Just today I heard of a devastating loss, of my beloved and brilliant editor Susan Kamil, the head of Random House in New York. We are all in shock and mourning. I worked closely with her on Quichotte and there’s no doubt in my mind that the book was improved by her sharp insights, Mortality is an issue for the book’s characters and yes, for their author too.
But it’s not only about the quest for pizza. It’s more that the sense of an ending is a salutary reminder not to waste what time remains.