At the last event of the Edinburgh Book Festival on 26 Aug, Salman Rushdie took to the stage with Journalist James Naughtie to talk about his new book Quichotte, a modern retelling of the classic novel, Don Quixote.
Rushdie’s version takes place in the U.S, and follows a salesman, deeply out of touch with reality, who is travelling across the country in the hope of finding love.
Asked about his process of writing the book, Rushdie admitted he felt an uncertainty about the book working, something that he hadn’t really feared about his previous books.
“It’s a weird book… I got worried about it” he said. After consulting his agent and sending him the first sixty pages, Rushdie was told it was the funniest thing he had ever written, so he continued the book.
To write his own version of Don Quixote, he had to revisit the original. Rushdie had last read the book when he was in his early twenties. Noting a difference between the original protagonist and his new one, he said “I didn’t want him being an exact imitation”.
While he described the original character as being melancholic, he says his new character is: “charming and useless and borderline nuts… not even borderline”.
Rushdie said his story has a sense of humour in it, he dislikes books that lack a sense of humour.
He also says his book is a “road novel”, a story that focuses on the journey the central character goes on and the things that happen to him along that path.
Acknowledging the weird narrative of the story, he was asked what makes the story congeal and what makes the character relatable. “He’s in the pursuit of love… he talks all the time about being worthy, about being good”.
The setting of Quichotte is the United States and so the conversation inevitably got further away from the book itself and focused more on the realm of U.S culture and politics.
Rushdie said that if he had written the book in the 1960s his depiction of the U.S would have been more optimistic and his characters more capable of handling life, but reflecting 2019 America, he could not do that.
It was suggested to Rushdie that although President Trump isn’t mentioned in the book, his footprints are on every page. “I didn’t want him in my f****** book… he’s in all our daily lives every day.
“If that person can be the President of the United States then anything can happen”.
The Q&A turned into a dissection of what the United States was and is today.
Of the United States Rushdie said, “Sometimes nations have original sin. The original sin of America is twofold. One is the eradication of the original population and the other is slavery, the consequence of – which is racism.
That act has shaped American history and has never really been apologised for, there’s never been any reparations”. Rushdie saw the election of Obama as the beginning of an attempt of an apology, but that in turn “outraged white America as to give it an energy, a kind of energy that it had not had before”.
An interesting moment was when an audience member noted that while Rushdie’s book is pointing towards the failings in U.S culture, he makes the reader laugh and joke about it, almost masking the problem with humour.
He accepted that, but stated his opinion on the importance of humour and of the work of late night television show hosts who create satirical content of American politics: “I’m very grateful for comedians… comedy allows you go deeper, and also to go deeper into people’s consciousness”.
Rushdie expressed his worries for the other two countries the author holds close to his heart which include the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, and of course the Brexit process in the U.K.
Rushdie sees Brexit as one of the greatest mistakes a country has made in his lifetime. At one moment Rushdie spoke about the a delusional “dream of England” that contributed to the leave vote, Naughtie added “and it is England”, while Rushdie replied, “well it certainly is not Scotland”.
Naughtie alluded to the upcoming 30th anniversary of the leader of Iran issuing a fatwa which encouraged and ordered the murder of Rushdie. Rushdie appeared to be bored with being asked to talk about it noting: “it only comes up when I’m talking to journalist.” However, he also quickly remarked of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, “one of us is dead”.
Rushdie says of himself “I’m not good at serious writing, I get bored with it. I have a very low boredom threshold and I don’t want to bore myself… if something bores me there is a good chance it will bore you too”.
Just like his novel, the discussion dealt with some heavy political issues, but had a great amount of humour weaved throughout it. Nothing less should be expected of the literary giant.
Salman Rushdie’s retelling of Don Quixote, Quichotte is available to buy now.