The Enchanter from the Eighties

March 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

The Enchantress of Florence (Rushdie, Salman)

All men needed to hear their stories told. He was a man, but if he died without telling the story, he would be something less than that…He felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story. There was no story.
Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence, page 89

Every writer sooner or later becomes his own least intelligent disciple.
Jorge Luis Borges, Shakespeare’s Memory

Jesuits at Akbar's Court, Source: Wikimedia

Rushdie‘s book is haunted by the ghosts of several authors. I thought I discerned traces of Umberto Eco, whose Foucault’s Pendulum and Baudolino took me on giddy romps around medieval Europe, dropping celebrity names  along the way like confetti. Now Rushdie has fashioned central characters out of  historical personages before – Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and Zia-ul-Haq come to mind – but never on this scale. Here he presses into service the Mughal Emperor Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar and his courtiers, and then for good measure, Niccolo Machiavelli, the Uzbeg warlord Shaibani Khan, the Persian Shah Ismail, the Ottoman Emperor Bayezid II, Vlad the Impaler, Amerigo Vespucci, Savonarola, and pretty much anybody else who was anybody and was alive in the 16th century.

To this he has added a liberal splash of Italo Calvino, whose Italian Folktales has been acknowledged as a source, but whose influence surely extends beyond that – an indulgent Emperor being regaled with wild tales by a foreign traveller is reminiscent of Invisible Cities, and the names of Rushdie’s chapters are strangely redolent of If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller.

Then of course, there is the customary tip of the hat to Jorge Luis Borges, where the emperor dreams up an imaginary wife with emotions and passions, and whom he accuses, at one point, of dreaming up other men, in turn.

A couple of anecdotes have even been lifted off Abraham Eraly’s Emperors of the Peacock Throne, reviewed earlier in these pages (and duly bibliographed by Rushdie, of course) – the quotable quote about the ubiquity of the poets of Herat, and the incident concerning the Elizabethian letter to ‘Zelebdim Echebar, King of Cambaya’.

Most of all, the book is haunted by the ghostly simulacrum of the Other Salman Rushdie, the outrageously irreverent imp of the eighties who hoorayed and hallooed his way gloriously through subcontinental history and the English language, until it was all deep-fried and chutnified into one spicy, tangy delicacy, called Midnight’s Children. The tortured ballad of East and West is very much in evidence, and the obsession with intelligent whores with supernatural talents continues unabated. The other signature theme I could detect is the mystery of questionable parentage (not paternity, mind you, that would be too common, but maternity; with Rushdie, it is always the maternity that is in doubt)

I suspect that much like in the case of his eponymous heroine, the strain of holding a vast audience in his thrall over an extended period of time is beginning to tell on Rushdie. The Rushdie of 2008 has exerted all his magical powers and conjured up from memory his own former self, and has written a story dictated to him by that insubstantial being – a flickering, fickle flame of a being, which is now a sudden flash of brilliance and now no more than a dull glow, but which, to his credit, never quite goes completely out. A painstaking attempt at rekindling the fading fire of a Salman Rushdie will always be superior to the inspired babblings of a million wannabes.


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