Friday, 28 November 2008

The Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie

You walk in to your local bookshop and bam! it hits you, the rich, warm, opulent cover of Salman Rushdie’s new novel. Instantly, before you have opened the book or considered its title you are transported – as if on a magic carpet – into a delicious, bountiful world where the scent of saffron and turmeric warms the membranes of your nose and golden lakes glisten in the last light of the setting sun. It is a world of myth and fairytale, of kaleidoscopic colours and dreams which dissolve seamlessly into reality.
Then you open the front cover and read the first page, savouring every word yet rushing on, always on, carried with the pace, the flourishing pace of it all.

“In the days last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveller coming this way at sunset – this traveller, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road – might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of a larger fortune – the traveller’s imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that mother-ocean! Nor were there guards at the golden water’s edge; was the king so generous, then, that he allowed all his subjects, and perhaps even strangers and visitors like the traveller himself, without hindrance to draw up liquid bounty from the lake? That would indeed be a prince among men, a veritable Prester John, whose lost kingdom of song and fable contained impossible wonders. Perhaps (the traveller surmised) the fountain of eternal youth lay within the city walls – perhaps even the legendary doorway to paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand? But then the sun fell below the horizon, the gold sank beneath the water’s surface, and was lost. Mermaids and serpents would guard it until the return of daylight. Until then, water itself would be the only treasure on offer, a gift the thirsty traveller gratefully accepted.”

And now you know two things without doubt: that this is Salman Rushdie at his very best and that you want to buy this book. Such an exquisite opening passage has not been glimpsed since Midnight’s Children, more than twenty-five years ago. Were you to pick a page off the floor with no identification as to its author and read this paragraph you would know instantly that it was Rushdie: the flowing prose, conversational and purposeful, the merging of reality and fantasy, the obsession not with what is, but what could be. And then on page three you read the conclusion to a conversation between a mysterious yellow haired traveller and a driver giving him a lift:

“‘Keep your secret,’ he said. ‘Secrets are for children, and spies.’…The stranger got down from the cart outside the caravanserai, where all journeys ended and began…‘And for sorcerers,’ he told the driver of the bullock-cart. ‘And for lovers too. And kings.”

And now to that living, breathing, running-for-the-joy-of-running prose is added that most archetypal of Rushdie concerns: the story. For this is his biggest strength: not only is he a peerless stylist but he writes fantastical stories, fearlessly intelligent and yet so very readable, so very enthralling. Although there are many themes throughout this novel, at its heart it is about the enthralling power of the story to define and change whoever hears it forever. An adult version of Haroun and the Sea of Stories if you will. And just to highlight this, the novel is prefaced by a beautiful quote from Mirza Gharlib, the most popular and influential poet of the Urdu language, which combines the two major themes of The Enchantress of Florence, namely stories and foreignness.

“If there is a knower of tongues here, fetch him;
There’s a stranger in the city
And he has many things to say.”

And all you want to do now is sit down in a comfy chair, open your ears to every sound in the world, and listen. The story being told is without doubt one of Rushdie’s very best.

So you begin to read, and the story engulfs you immediately. A mysterious foreign traveller calling himself Mogor dell’Amore – ‘the Mughal of Love’ - arrives in Sikri, city of mirages, city of the golden lake at sunset, city of ‘red smoke’ buildings, city of victory, bringing with him a story which, he claims, can be delivered to the kings ears alone. Over the following months the tale he tells not only bewitches Akbar the Great, but slowly beguiles the entire city, from the royal court to celebrated artists and the many whore houses. The foreigner claims he is not foreign at all, but the son of a lost Mughal Princess of incomparable beauty: Qara Koz, Lady Black Eyes, a woman rumoured to possess sorceresses’ powers, a woman who enchanted the whole of Florence. His story is intriguing, yet deceptively simple:
“When the great warrior Argalia met the immortal beauty Qara Koz,…a story begun which would regenerate all men’s belief…in the undying power and extraordinary capacity of the human heart for love.”

As the fantastical tale progresses, you read on, transfixed as the lives of two distant cities - Florence and Sikri - are brought together in ways you cannot imagine – or perhaps you can only imagine. Slowly they begin to appear mirror images of each other. From the florid decadence of Sikri to the lascivious temperament of Florence; from Akbar the Great who combines religious tolerance and grave doubt as to the nature of his absolute power with pitiless retribution against those who cross him, to the courts of Florence where the Renaissance is in full swing you witness a world mirroring itself. In Florence, Argalia introduces you to his childhood friend il Macchia – Niccolo Machiavelli – whose struggle to understand the brutality of power leads him to answer those questions Akbar is posing thousands of miles away – how to ensure the people’s love remains loyal, the nature of the varying world religions, his sons constant treachery.

Throughout The Enchantress of Florence it is clear that you are reading a novel which has been carefully, ingeniously set. It is the beginning of the sixteenth century. The Florence whose streets you enter has just enjoyed its prime under the Medici leader Lorenzo the Magnificent, it is the golden age of the Renaissance, a city overflowing with artistic creation and free love. But it is also a city which has suffered from the religious persecutions of Girolamo Savonarola, whose four years of power accompanied the destruction of much of what he perceived as ‘immoral’ art, most notably the 1497 ‘bonfire of the vanities.’

Sikri too, capital of the Mughal Empire in India, follows closely too that of its history. Like the Florentine rulers Akbar is a collector and inspirer of great art, a religious reformer, a widely respected leader. His entire court is reproduced from history, as is the cities eventual doom. Like Midnight’s Children and Shame, The Enchantress of Florence takes the facts of history and conjures a tale around them like a coat of coloured leather lozenges, a cloak which acts as a possible explanation, an idea of how history might have been. Rushdie’s research is exhaustive, the two cities of his chosing spring to life from the page, the famous figures of the age appearing to find their voices naturally, their philosophies and beliefs developing with the world around them. As well as Akbar and his court, the Medici’s and Niccolo Machiaveli, there are references to Queen Elizabeth I, Ghengis Khan, an alternate Three Musketeers and D’Artagnon, and so many others.

And then, toward the end, there appears, out of the mist, the mirage of Mundus Novus, the New World, America. Appearing on the horizon like the vastness of death, a land where the laws of time are only just being created, where lives are still subject to major deviations in its flow. And as the Mughal of Love’s tale reaches its crux, we travel into those mysterious ‘Indies’ in the west, sailing from the known into the unknown “into unreality, into a world of fantasy which men were still dreaming into being.”

Rushdie is a timeless author. He has the ability to bring the past into high definition focus, to construct a history not only more enticing, but more complete than anything you could ever read in a history book. For it contains something beyond mere fact, it has the completeness, the intractability of a story, which can be more real than real life, more clearly enunciated than anything you can see with your own two eyes.

Yet Rushdie is not concerned solely with replicating and supplanting the past but with commenting on the present as well. Somehow, in the midst of staying true to historical fact and constructing a fantastical overlaying plot, he is able to draw out the consistencies between the beginning of the sixteenth century and now, as though they were but a short-haul flight away. For just as the differences between Sikri and Florence shrink with each passing page, so the divisions in our own time appear ever less fixed.

“In the East men and women worked hard, lived well or badly, died noble or ignoble deaths, believed in faiths that engendered great art, great poetry, great music, some consolation and much confusion. Normal human lives, in sum. But in those fabulous Western climes people seemed prone to hysterias…that swept through their countries like diseases and transformed things utterly without warning. Of late the worship of gold had engendered a special type of this extreme hysteria, which had become their history’s driving force. In his mind’s eye Akbar pictured Western temples made of gold, with golden priests inside, and golden worshippers coming to pray, bringing offerings of gold to placate their golden god.”

Rushdie has always been interested in the tentative, error-strewn relationship between the east and west and this is perhaps his most clearly enunciated commentary on the subject, shouted loud and clear in the seductive, silver-tongued voice of a storyteller: . “The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” And furthermore, that “wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path.”

Rushdie’s atheism/agnosticism/healthy uncertainty is all the more appealing since it does not take the form of the rational or the scientific. Like Arabian Nights meets the Qur’an meets the Bible, his is a magical, story-bound view of religion, which wishes to celebrate the elaborate tales people have devised to explain their lives, regardless of their connection with a dogmatic religion. The fabulous wealth of the religious story engulfs the novel, engulfs all the worlds Rushdie conjures, illuminates them in their pristine, glittering best.

“The familiarity with which the supernatural occurrence was received was of course the consequence of such occurrences being normal at that time, before the real and unreal were segregated for ever and doomed to live apart under different monarchs and separate legal systems.”

In The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie holds a mirror up to our present world, to study itself very closely, and to analyse just why we have such fear of foreigners, such irrational nationalism and stereotype of the ‘other’. Similarly, in Qara Koz, he portrays a woman able to command her own destiny in a man’s world. For although it appears that she is a woman whose life is traded as a spoil of war, it turns out that throughout Qara Koz has managed to determine hew own life, to follow her own path. To chose who to love, and when to leave them.

“Qara Koz was a woman such as he had never met, a woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king. This was a new dream for him, an undreamed vision of what a woman might be.”

However, it would be difficult to argue that this is a feminist text, or even particularly progressive in its depiction of its female characters. Almost exclusive they are housewives, whores, or princesses: they live in the shadows, with covered faces or exposed genitals. But then perhaps this is the point: Qara Koz’s ability to make her own decisions and control her own destiny elevates her from this everyday reality of women of the time into the realms of kings, an equal among greats. And in the current times with our (perhaps misguided) western notions of Islamic sexism, this is a distinction worth making.

As always, Rushdie fills his writing with little humorous japes, subtle parodies and acts of satire. Throughout there are certain familiarities with his most controversial novel The Satanic Verses, particularly the idea that the enemy of any religion is not other religions, but the antithesis of religion itself, atheism. And Rushdie is not afraid to poke a little joke in this direction either, to poke fun at his own mistakes of the past. At one point, while Argalia is busy defeating the army of Shah Ismail he pauses for a second, then adds:
“but the name of the Shah who believed himself to be God was not spoken.”

Such playfulness, such wanton joy in the creation of literature. From the lively use of words to the plot itself, Rushdie loves writing, and appears to entertain himself just as much as he does the reader. It is such a pleasure to read his words, as if they were written with magic ink they sparkle on the page, no longer black on white but with the vibrancy of a technicolor day dream.

Entire books could be written on the themes of this novel, on the historical links, on the mirror it provides to our own age. But you would be better off reading it for yourself, for it is utterly brilliant. The conception of this novel is exhilarating. The themes and plot mirror each other throughout, everything finds its replica somewhere later in the text. It is so well considered, so carefully plotted as to make your mind boggle. And alongside the exciting plot there lives a host of great, lovable characters and beautiful prose. In The Enchantress of Florence Rushdie manages to convey the clearest example yet of his world view. Bettered only by his exquisite Booker of Booker winning novel – and in my belief the best book ever written – Midnight’s Children, The Enchantress of Florence is sure to become a classic of this decade.

So you have bought the book and got it home, it feels heavy in your bag, like it is made of gold. And it is. For you are now set for a magical journey so much better than wealth, so much more exciting than life could ever be.
Read it now, you are in for a treat.

8.5 out of 10

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