(2019), a novel by British-Indian author Salman Rushdie, follows Ismail Smile, a senile pharmaceutical salesman as he sets off on a Don Quixote
-inspired quest to win the heart of a television personality. This narrative is embedded in the meta-fictional story of Sam DuChamp, the writer who is inventing Smile’s story. Quichotte
was nominated for the 2019 Booker Prize.
Bombay-born Ismail Smile works as a traveling salesman for Smile Pharmaceuticals, a company owned by his cousin, Dr. R. K. Smile. Ismail is nearly seventy years old, unmarried, and childless. After suffering a stroke, he becomes obsessed with daytime television and develops an infatuation for Salma R, a former Bollywood actress—also from Bombay—who now hosts a talk show in New York. Considering how to approach “the matter of wooing a great lady,” Ismail ponders “the classics,” such as ABC’s 196os show The Dating Game
. He begins sending Salma letters, signed “Quichotte,” and after a while, he takes his fantasy a step further, deciding that he has a divine mandate to rename himself Quichotte and set off in his Chevrolet to win Salma’s heart.
As he drives across Arizona, Quichotte spots a shooting star and makes a wish: that he might have a son. A young man—visible only in black-and-white like an old television image—appears in the passenger seat. Recognizing this young man as his divinely granted son, Quichotte names him “Sancho.”
At this point, the novel pulls back to reveal that Quichotte is the invention of Indian-American novelist Sam DuChamp, referred to throughout the novel as “Brother.” Having written a number of modestly successful spy thrillers, DuChamp has decided to write a novel “radically unlike any other had ever attempted,” something truthful, rather than another story about secrets and lies. Quichotte is the result.
The novel’s point of view shifts again: this time to Salma R. We learn her history: the daughter of a famous Bollywood star, Salma came to America in her twenties to take a part in a popular TV show. Now she is a producer, as well as the host of a successful daytime show.
Next, we meet DuChamp’s sister, referred to by the narrator as “Sister.” She lives in England, where she is an MP, having been the first non-white woman elected to Parliament.
Finally, we are introduced to Dr. R. K. Smile. As the founder of Smile Pharmaceuticals, he enjoys enormous wealth, but his business was built on a range of ethically dubious practices, by which he has contributed to the epidemic of opioid addiction in America.
The novel returns to Quichotte and Sancho. We learn that Sancho has a wish of his own: to acquire a physical body and live a normal life. Suddenly, this wish is fulfilled. Sancho wants to leave Quichotte, but he finds he is unable to: some spiritual force binds him to Quichotte. Sancho acquires his own spiritual assistant, a talking cricket named Jiminy.
Quichotte allows “spiritual signs” to lead him to Salma (rather than just taking the highway to New York): “Every quest takes place both in the sphere of the actual…and in the sphere of the symbolic…We may be after a celestial goal, but we still have to travel along the interstate.” Along the way, Quichotte and Sancho encounter racist abuse and opioid addicts. In Kansas, Sancho falls in love and vows to return to his beloved when Quichotte’s quest is over.
Salma’s backstory continues. She was sexually abused by her grandfather as a child: perhaps as a result, she suffers from bipolar disorder and is addicted to opioid drugs.
Upon arrival in New York, Quichotte announces that he must reconcile with his estranged sister, whom he calls the Human Trampoline (or “HT”).
DuChamp, too, decides to reconcile with his family. He learns that his son has been arrested for hacking and visits him in jail. There he discovers that his son was recruited by the CIA under circumstances that mirror the plot of one of his own spy novels. He travels to London to reconnect with his sister, only to learn that she is dying of cancer. During DuChamp’s visit, she deliberately overdoses on opioids to avert a painful death. DuChamp returns to the States.
Having reconciled with his sister, Quichotte devises a plan to meet Salma by exploiting his access to the opioids she needs to sustain her addiction. Sancho decides it is time to reunite with the woman he loves, but as soon as he arrives in Kansas, his spiritual link to Quichotte breaks and Sancho disappears.
Quichotte meets Salma, but cataclysmic climatic change is rapidly bringing about the end of civilization. Quichotte and Salma travel to California, hoping to use a prototype portal machine to escape to another dimension. They succeed in traveling to a parallel Earth, but they find they cannot breathe in its atmosphere, and they die.