Extract: Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

Inspired by the Cervantes classic Don Quixote, Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize-shortlisted 2019 novel is a modern masterpiece about the quest for love and family. Here is its first chapter.

It was the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, he reminded himself. He had heard many people say that on TV and on the outré video clips floating in cyberspace, which added a further, new-technology depth to his addiction. There were no rules any more. And in the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, well, anything could happen. Old friends could become new enemies and traditional enemies could be your new besties or even lovers. It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections. A woman might fall in love with a piglet, or a man start living with an owl. A beauty might fall asleep and, when kissed, wake up speaking a different language and in that new language reveal a completely altered character. A flood might drown your city. A tornado might carry your house to a faraway land where, upon landing, it would squash a witch. Criminals could become kings and kings be unmasked as criminals. A man might discover that the woman he lived with was his father’s illegitimate child. A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents. The water might run out. A woman might bear a baby who was found to be a revenant god. Words could lose their meanings and acquire new ones. The world might end, as at least one prominent scientist-entrepreneur had begun repeatedly to predict. An evil scent would hang over the ending. And a TV star might miraculously return the love of a foolish old coot, giving him an unlikely romantic triumph which would redeem a long, small life, bestowing upon it, at the last, the radiance of majesty.

Quichotte’s great decision was made at the Red Roof Inn in Gallup, New Mexico (pop. 21,678). The travelling salesman looked with desire and envy upon Gallup’s historic El Rancho hotel, which in the heyday of the Western had hosted many of the movie stars filming in the area, from John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart to Katharine Hepburn and Mae West. The El Rancho was out of his price range, and so he drove by it to the humbler Red Roof, which suited him just fine. He was a man who had learned to accept his lot in life without complaint. That morning, the TV was on when he awoke with his bright new identity – he had fallen asleep without remembering to turn it off – and the KOB-4 weatherman Steve Stucker was on the air with his Parade of Pets, featuring the celebrity weather dogs Radar, Rez, Squeaky and Tuffy.

That meant it was Friday, and the newly named Mr Quichotte (he did not feel that he had earned or merited the honorific Don), energised by his new resolve, by the opening up before him of the flower-strewn pathway that led to love, was full of excitement, even though he was at the end of a tiring week visiting the area’s medical practices in Albuquerque and elsewhere. He had spent the previous day at the locations of the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services, the Western New Mexico Medical Group and the Gallup Indian Medical Center (which cared for the town’s substantial Native population, drawn from the Hopi, Navajo and Zuni tribes). Sales had been good, he thought, although puzzled frowns and embarrassed little laughs had greeted his jovial hints that he would soon be taking a vacation in New York City itself (pop. 8,623,000) with a new girlfriend, a Very Famous Lady, the queen of Must See TV. And his little quip at the Indian Medical Center – ‘I’m actually Indian too! Dot, not feather! So I’m happy to be here in Indian country’ – hadn’t gone down well at all.

A whole nation might jump off a cliff like swarming lemmings. Men who played presidents on TV could become presidents. The water might run out.

He no longer had a fixed abode. The road was his home, the car was his living room, its trunk was his wardrobe, and a sequence of Red Roof Inns, Motel 6’s, Days Inns and other hostelries provided him with beds and TVs. He preferred places with at least some premium cable channels, but if none were available he was happy with the ordinary network fare. But on this particular morning he had no time for the local weatherman and his rescue pets. He wanted to talk to his friends about love, and the lover’s quest on which he was about to embark.

The truth was that he had almost no friends any more. There was his wealthy cousin, employer and patron, Dr R. K. Smile, and there was Dr Smile’s wife, Happy, neither of whom he spent any time with, and there were front-desk clerks at some of the motels he regularly frequented. There were a few individuals scattered across the country and the globe who might still harbour feelings similar to friendship toward him. There was, above all, one woman in New York City (she called herself the Human Trampoline) who might once again smile upon him, if he was lucky, and if she accepted his apologies. (He knew, or thought he knew, that apologies were due, but he could only partly remember why, and at times he thought that perhaps his damaged memory had got things upside down and it was she who needed to apologise to him.) But he had no social group, no cohort, no posse, no real pals, having long ago abandoned the social whirl. On his Facebook page he had ‘friended’ or ‘been friended by’ a small and dwindling group of commercial travellers like himself, as well as an assortment of lonelyhearts, braggarts, exhibitionists and salacious ladies behaving as erotically as the social medium’s somewhat puritanical rules allowed. Every single one of these quote-unquote ‘friends’ saw his plan, when he had enthusiastically posted it, for what it was – a hare-brained scheme, verging on lunacy – and attempted to dissuade him, for his own good, from stalking or harassing Miss Salma R. In response to his post there were frown emojis and Bitmojis wagging fingers at him reprovingly and there were GIFs of Salma R herself, crossing her eyes, sticking out her tongue, and rotating a finger by her right temple, all of which added up to the universally recognised set of gestures meaning ‘cray cray’. However, he would not be deterred.

Such stories do not, on the whole, end well.

Quichotte is out now.

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