Salman Rushdie’s ebullient historical novel manifests both his dexterous erudition and his bawdy wit.
by Christopher Hitchens July/August 2008 Atlantic Monthly
Illustration by Jacqui Oakley
Salman Rushdie is so much identified with seriousness—his choice of subjects, from Kashmir to Andalusia; his position as a literary negotiator of East and West; his decade and more of internal exile in hiding from the edict of a fanatical theocrat—that it can be easy to forget how humorous he is. In much the same way, his extraordinary knowledge of classical literature sometimes causes people to overlook his command of the vernacular. Here are two examples of wit and idiom from his latest fiction, The Enchantress of Florence. In the first, an enigmatic wanderer, appareled in a coat of many colors, enters a splendid city:
Not far from the caravanserai, a tower studded with elephant tusks marked the way to the palace gate. All elephants belonged to the emperor, and by spiking a tower with their teeth he was demonstrating his power. Beware! the tower said. You are entering the realm of the Elephant King, a sovereign so rich in pachyderms that he can waste the gnashers of a thousand of the beasts just to decorate me.
This is the offbeat manner in which one might start a tale for children, as Rushdie did in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. By contrast, here is Ago Vespucci in Florence, trying by strenuous exercise in a whorehouse to cure his revulsion at the entry of the king of France to the city.
On the threshold of manhood Ago had agreed with his friend Niccolò "il Machia" on one thing: whatever hardships the times might bring, a good, energetic night with the ladies would put everything right. "There are few woes in the world, dear Ago," il Machia had advised him when they were still only thirteen, "that a woman’s fanny will not cure." Ago was an earnest boy, good-hearted beneath his pose of a foul-mouthed rapscallion. "And the ladies," he asked, "where do they go to cure their woes?" Il Machia looked perplexed, as if he had never considered the matter, or, perhaps, as if to indicate that a man’s time should not be wasted on the consideration of such things. "To each other, no doubt," he said with an adolescent finality that sounded to Ago like the last word on the matter. Why should women not seek consolation in each other’s arms at a time when half the young men of Florence did the same thing?
The first extract introduces us to the court of Akbar, Mughal emperor of India. Akbar of course means "great," as Rushdie reminds us with one of many plays on words. As the emperor decapitates a foe "with a cry—Allahu Akbar, God is great, or, just possibly, Akbar is God," he begins to register a terrible melancholy that in turn leads him to try to establish a just city where philosophers will set the tone.
In counterpoint, the second extract takes us to the novel’s other chief setting, which is Florence in the age of the Medicis. Here we find three friends, Antonino "Nino" Argalia, Niccolò "il Machia" Machiavelli, and Ago Vespucci. Here also, amid countless feuds and intrigues, the idea of a politics advised by thinkers is struggling to take shape. But in both places, politics is much more than government, and Rushdie introduces a number of magical and less quantifiable—one might say more enchanting—factors that can also be said to constitute earthly powers. One of these is water, to which all potentates and serfs are in the end equally subservient. Another is beauty: those nasal elements of Cleopatra’s or facial features of Helen’s that can set armies on the march in their own right.
Is power the only justification for an extrovert personality? the traveler asked himself, and could not answer, but found himself hoping that beauty might be another such excuse, for he was certainly beautiful, and knew that his looks had a power of their own.
"The whole world obeys the rule of beauty," as Rushdie phrased it in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but it’s fair to say that the above is the last time in this novel that male pulchritude gets much of a look-in. Not for nothing, in other words, is the book titled for an enchantress. In long passages both bawdy and fantastic, we are shown how the feminine principle makes nonsense of all forms of statecraft, including even the cleverest ones adumbrated in The Prince, and how the distance between the boudoir and the bordello or zenana or harem is disconcertingly short. In a deft reengineering of the Scheherazade legend, Rushdie makes several of his femmes fatales into conjured or perhaps better say incanted figures: seductresses of the imagination who nonetheless exert tremendous power in the "real" world; women of mystical and mythical authority who are projected along the song lines. When the fantasized Princess Qara Köz, who even comes accompanied by an only slightly less bewitching body double, disembarks at Genoa, the toughest admiral of them all is unmanned and Andrea Doria himself "stood open-mouthed as the strangers approached, a sea-god in thrall to nymphs arising from the waters."
The almost cartoonish hyperbole here, of the sort that shows men walking into trees or walls with their tongues hanging out—the "banquet for the senses"; the "autonomy of her great beauty, which no man could own, which owned itself, and which would blow wherever it pleased, like the wind"—has compelled Rushdie to admit to some interviewers that, yes indeed, he was writing somewhat under the influence of his recent divorce from the celebrated heartbreaker Padma Lakshmi. "What a short journey from enchantress to witch," as the narrator says and as many journalists will be eager to interpret it. But this facile reading of the novel ignores a crucial moment, when the great condottiere Argalia, who has protected the protean and fickle Qara Köz through many hazards, comes to the realization that he has to save her from a vengeful mob and must die in the doing of it:
He did not use the word "love." For the last time in his life he wondered if he had wasted his love on a woman who only gave her love until it was time to take it back. He set the thought aside. He had given his heart this once in his life and counted himself blessed to have had the chance to do so. The question of whether she was worthy of his love had no meaning. His heart had answered that question long ago.
So, after all the lurid brothel scenes and interludes of lust and obscenity, where it appears for long stretches as if the world is ruled by crude sexual urgency and its power-related sublimations, we find a shining illustration of the precept of Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, that while love itself may win in the long run, the actual lovers are often betrayed or killed. But then, is this not the very essence of romance?
This is a historical romance to boot, taking in epic sweeps of warfare and conquest and murder and torture, as well as dynastic rivalries and intense struggles over the interpretation of scripture. It veers somewhere between Salammbô and Romola. From the Mughal and Medici lands, it detours to take in the Ottoman and Persian empires and the blood-soaked Walachia of Vlad the Impaler. A six-page bibliography at the conclusion directs the interested reader to the work of Ariosto, of Sir Richard Burton, and of Godfrey Goodwin on the Janissaries, as well as to articles in learned journals on such subjects as "Sorcery in Early Renaissance Florence." The erudition is dexterously deployed, with a heartening leaven of demotic obscenity. "It’s your curse to see the world too fucking clearly," Niccolò Machiavelli is at one point informed by a candid friend, "and without a shred of kindness, and then you can’t keep it to yourself, you just have to spit it out, and to hell with people’s feelings. Why don’t you go and masturbate a diseased goat."
It is the figure of Akbar, however, that is the summa of the novel’s accomplishment. Moody and wise and ironic, he takes on the great imposture of religion and, as emperors should, ponders whether or not it possesses any clothes:
Maybe there was no true religion. Yes, he had allowed himself to think this. He wanted to be able to tell someone of his suspicion that men had made their gods and not the other way around. He wanted to be able to say, it is man at the center of things, not god.
Elsewhere, and with admirable understatement, Akbar objects to the divinity on the mildly stated but massively heretical grounds "that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves." The contrast between him and Shah Ismail of Persia—"the self-appointed representative on earth of the Twelfth Imam"—could hardly be more pointed. In the person of a man who was "by repute arrogant, egotistical, and a fanatic proselytizer of Ithna Ashari, that is to say Twelver Shiite Islam," a man who calls himself "Vali Allah, the vicar of God … Modesty, generosity, kindness: these were not his most renowned characteristics," it is perhaps not fanciful to discern the outline of a prototype Khomeini.
In Florence, too, the hell-on-earth created by priestcraft is coarsely and pungently denounced: young Vespucci capers happily around the pyre on the day that Savonarola is burned and the reign of clerical puritan terror brought to a close.
"The Devil sent us these devils to warn us against devilry," he said on the day the long darkness came to an end. "And they bedeviled us for four fucking years. The cassock of holiness cloaks the codpiece of evil, every fucking time."
In the result, the worlds of illusion and enchantment seem to collapse in upon themselves, leaving a rich compost of legend and myth for successor generations. In a stern reminder and recognition of the watery yet material substratum of existence, the River Arno betrays Florence by going dry for a year and a day, and a similar lethal aridity causes the crumbling of Akbar’s great and noble city at Fatehpur Sikri. In which direction can the parched imagination now turn? A clue may seem to lie in the first name of another young Vespucci of Florence: the "Amerigo" who gave a vague yet unforgettable title to the concept of a new world. Even the hypnotizing Qara Köz, approaching the exhaustion of her magic reign, feels the pull from the West: "She reacted to the new place names as if she were hearing an incantation, a charm that could bring her her heart’s desire. She wanted to hear more, more." That was just how Scheherazade tried to leave her one-man audience, in another proof of where real power resides.