NEW YORK - Donald Trump’s name is not mentioned once in Salman Rushdie’s new book, “Quichotte,” which has been short-listed for the Booker Prize - yet the president's presence can be felt throughout.
Titled “Quichotte” (preferring the French to the original English spelling – Don Quixote), the latest work by the famous British Indian novelist portrays an updated version of the main protagonist. Not a delusional, self-styled knight, but an Indian immigrant living in the United States, a former travelling painkillers salesman embarking on a journey to woo a glamorous TV presenter named Salma R. Playing the part of sidekick Sancho Panza in Rushdie’s book is Quichotte’s imaginary son, also named Sancho.
His hero, writes Rushdie, “had eschewed all thoughts of love for what seemed like an eternity until Miss Salma R reawakened feelings and desires in his breast which he had thought he had suppressed or even destroyed.” Leaving his job, the salesman adopts the name Quichotte, starts sending Salma R beautiful handwritten love letters, and goes on a trip across America in his old gray Chevy Cruze to find her.
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The story of “Quichotte” (due to be published by Kinneret in Israel in early 2020) is actually a plot within a larger plot by a mediocre writer of spy stories, who is writing the book in an attempt to rehabilitate his shaky relationship with his sister.
Rushdie, a New York resident for almost 20 years, told Haaretz that for Quichotte, his 14th novel, he wanted to leave the city to get a broader panoramic view of America. The first thing he noticed, he said, is that “the politics are different."
"Secondly, one of the things I felt I had to include in the book, because it’s so prevalent, is the subject of racial hostility, inter-racial hostility. And those are the facts of life these days. Of course there’s also other things, because in many parts of the United States, even in these small towns, people are very courteous, people are very well-behaved, but that seems to stop at the borders of their ethnicity sometimes."
“That behavior doesn’t convey itself across the racial frontier. I mean, I very much like America and I don’t think of the red states [where most people vote Republican] as being simply evil, you know? But I think there’s a great rift in this country. And that rift existed before Trump, and I think Trump in many ways was a product of it. And then he has spent now three years making it worse, so even if he would disappear tomorrow it would still be there. And I wanted to write about this very confused and divided society. And that’s why his name occurs nowhere in the book, because I’m not writing about him, I’m writing about the country.”
In the book, Rushdie writes: "It was the Age of Anything-Can-Happen, he reminded himself. [...] There were no rules anymore. [...] It was no longer possible to predict the weather, or the likelihood of war, or the outcome of elections."
You describe a political situation in which, as you write, anything can happen. Do you really think Trump is that dangerous?
“I’m extremely worried about next year’s election, because I think if he’s re-elected then frankly we’re all screwed. It will mean that the America that people like me have admired and wanted to live in will have changed into another America. I think right now it’s not clear whether Trump is an aberration or whether he is the new normal, you know? And, like many people of my way of thinking, I’m hoping that it’s the former. If next year he can be... I mean, I actually never wanted him to be impeached, I wanted him to be defeated. Because I think that the phenomenon of Trump needs to be defeated. Impeachment could just make 40 percent of the country think it’s a fix. So it’s very important to win the election next year. And then maybe normal service could be resumed in America.”
And on the other hand, you write that this is a situation where it’s no longer possible to predict the results of the election. Are you afraid of the possibility that Trump may steal the election?
“Yes, of course I’m afraid of it.”
How can you see it happening? With the help of Russia?
“Well, I mean, it depends how paranoid I’m feeling on a given day. [Laughs]. No, I mean it’s not so much Russia as the major efforts being made by the Republican Party to deny people votes. Particularly minority groups. It’s much harder for black people to vote in America than white people. Not just black people, but Hispanic people, minorities. And that of course assists the Republican Party, not the Democrats. So I’m worried that there will be an attempt to affect the voting patterns of the election. But you know, I’m actually not, I’m not completely pessimist. I think he is defeatable. I think there are several of the current Democrat contenders who would be able to defeat him.”
Only a few days ago senior American officials, including the secretary of defense, expressed a willingness to begin direct contacts with Iran. How did you take that?
“I sort of have no view about it really. I’m very happy not to have to think about Iran anymore. I’ve got enough countries to think about. I was interested in Iran because they became interested in killing me, but since they’ve seem to have stop being interested in that, I don’t really give a damn about Iran.”
Along with the corrupt political leadership and the supreme ultranationalist leader described by Rushdie, “Quichotte” also gives pride of place to social violence and interracial tension. The author writes, for example: “Black citizens were regularly killed by white policemen in one of these other countries, or arrested in hotel lobbies for the crime of making a phone call to their mothers, and children were murdered in schools because of a constitutional amendment that made it easy to murder children in schools.”
This situation that you describe in the book, of intolerance and racism toward various minority groups, is that something that you feel personally, as an Indian immigrant who has been living in the United States for years?
“The history of the Indian community in America is quite a strange one, because for a long time in the 20th century it was illegal for people of Indian origin to immigrate to America. And then that was changed, and they came here and they became very well integrated. And I know when I got here 20 years ago that many friends of mine who were Indian-American by now, or South Asian-American, would say that they felt much less racial hostility toward them in the United States than they had felt for example in Britain ... I remember a friend saying, almost in embarrassment, that he felt as if he was excused from racism in America, because racism was aimed at another community, it was aimed at the African-American community.
“That, I think, changed to some degree after 9/11 [when] anybody who had brown skin and, you know, wore a turban, became... to some people, [he] looked like a terrorist. And the degree of hostility toward South-Asians – who frankly a lot of people can’t distinguish from Arabs, in the United States – that hostility turned toward them. So there has been more racial tension between white America and Indian America than there used to be. And I felt I just had to acknowledge that, you know? So if I’m going to send a brown man and his son on a car ride across the middle of America, it would be unrealistic for them to encounter no hostility at all ... I think there are three moments when they encounter quite serious hostility, which ranges from abuse to physical danger.”
On the one hand, “Quichotte” is a light, humorous book, sort of surreal like its main protagonist. On the other hand, it is probably one of the most personal books written by 72-year-old Rushdie. Another example of the personal dimension in the book was the decision to present his hero, Quichotte, not only as an Indian immigrant but also as a former salesman of addictive painkillers, opioids, which in recent years have become a national scourge; according to official U.S. government figures, they caused the deaths of 70,000 Americans in 2017 alone.
“My youngest sister, 14 years younger than myself, died suddenly 12 years ago when she was only 45. And it became clear ... that she had had a much more serious addiction than any of us had suspected, and that her apartment was full of these medications, which had been improperly obtained. It was a great shock. So I became, for obvious reasons, interested in this whole business of opioid addiction at that time. And I’ve been digging into the subject on and off for the last 10 years, and finally got to the point where I felt I was able to write about it.”
After many years of researching the subject, how can you explain this mass addiction to painkillers, an American phenomenon of a scale you don’t see anywhere else in the world?
“A part of it is the irresponsibility of parts of the medical profession. One of the things I discovered was not just that there are crooked manufacturers who are trying to sell their products, but that for relatively small amounts of money it was possible to acquire the assistance of doctors – being paid essentially bribes of $20,000 to $30,000 a year. This is not money that changes your life; this doesn’t allow you to buy a house in the south of France. This is a relatively cheap price for your integrity. And yet, quite a lot of doctors ... are involved in prescribing these medications, what’s called ‘off label,’ which means things they’re not supposed to be prescribing. I mean, many years ago I discovered that – if you spend any time in Los Angeles – you know that in L.A. people use these things recreationally and there’s always a doctor who will prescribe something to a movie star. But it’s not just movie stars, it’s really ordinary people who are able to acquire these things from crooked d octors. And so the problem goes right down to the breadth of the medical profession.”
Salman Rushdie was born in Mumbai to a Muslim family (but considers himself an atheist today), and grew up and was educated in England. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008 and has won innumerable awards, including the Booker Prize for his second book, “Midnight’s Children” (1980). But despite his great success, the author in some way also owes his fame to former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who in 1989 issued a fatwa (religious edict) calling for the murder of Rushdie following the publication of his 1988 book “Satanic Verses,” in which the Prophet Mohammed is presented in a negative light.
From being an admired writer, Rushdie turned into a news item around the world. To a great extent, he became the face of Western democracy, and of the struggle for freedom of expression and artistic freedom in the face of the dark forces of extremist Islam. Fearing for his life, he went underground and for 10 years could only move around accompanied by a bodyguard.
Since then, it seems, he hasn’t stopped celebrating. His name has been linked to the names of TV stars and young models, including his fourth wife – the Indian actress, author and model Padma Lakshmi, whom he divorced in 2007. He shows up at Hollywood premieres and parties of the glitterati, and stars in gossip columns as often as in literature sections.
Rushdie admits that he enjoys the good life, but being described as a celebrity is something of an insult to him: “You know, actually, it doesn’t feel quite the way you are describing it, like a kind of celebrity life... I mean, I’m a lucky writer in that from quite a young age, you know, when ‘Midnight’s Children’ came out, I was only 33 years old. And from that time to now I’ve been able to live by my hand, and most writers can’t do that ... I’ve been working very hard. But... yeah, I had nine years of difficulty and now the last 20 years have been better.”
How significant is winning the Booker for you, at this stage of your career?
“I’m always very anxious that the book should find its readers. I’m anxious that as many people as possible should have their attention brought to the book in a favorable way, and that they maybe try to pick it up. I’m lucky that I have readers who... you know, who like my stuff. But I’m always interested in having as many as I can. So, the thing about prizes is that they raise the possibility that people who’ve never looked at your work will look at it. For me that’s the importance of it. It’s allowing the book to find its readers.”
Throughout the book you describe a chaotic situation in which “anything can happen,” and you also stress that it is that very uncertainty that gives the hero reason for optimism, sparks in him the belief that in such a situation he can win the heart of a glamorous TV star. Are you also optimistic?
“Well, I’m not a despairing person. I’m by nature not pessimistic. I believe that the world is changeable and I think, if you are a child of the ‘60s as I am – what we learned in the ‘60s was that by our direct action we can change the world. And I still believe that to be true. I actually am quite optimistic about the younger generation in this country. I think they are very idealistic, they are very motivated ... And I think if we could just avoid blowing up the planet until they grow up, they might get to do a better job than we did.”