August 5, 2008

Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence

Posted in Booker Prize 2008, Rushdie Salman at 3:37 pm by John Self

Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whom I always find daunting but often rewarding. The last time I couldn’t put off reading one of his books any longer – his 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown – I benefited enormously from the experience. The man was on top form. Shalimar the Clown was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and it was the recurrence of this accolade in this week’s 2008 longlist which had me settling down – or fidgeting down – with Rushdie’s latest.

The Enchantress of Florence will be seen in some ways as typical Rushdie, with its semi-mythical setting of 16th century India and Italy, where real historical figures rub shoulders with fanciful imaginings, like an imaginary wife who is nonetheless alive, or an artist who disappears by painting himself into the frame of a picture. If that sort of thing makes you roll your eyes, then look away now, because The Enchantress is full of it. Fortunately, it’s also full of wit:

The first minister and greatest wit of the age greeted him at the Hiran Manir, the tower of elephants’ teeth. The emperor’s sense of mischief was aroused. ‘Birbal,’ Akbar said, dismounting from his horse, ‘will you answer me one question? We have been waiting a long time to ask it.’ The first minister of legendary wit and wisdom bowed humbly. ‘As you wish, Jahanpanah, Shelter of the World.’ ‘Well then,’ said Akbar, ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ Birbal replied at once, ‘The chicken.’ Akbar was taken aback. ‘How can you be so sure?’ he wanted to know. ‘Huzoor,’ Birbal replied. ‘I only promised to answer one question.’

Akbar is the emperor of the ‘palace-city’ of Sikri, in Hindustan. This “all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster” is nonetheless struck by a crisis of confidence. He is “a Muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher-king: a contradiction in terms.” He longs for a break with his bloodthirsty ancestry – who put him where he is.

He was not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world, a world in which he could find exactly that man who was his equal, whom he could meet as his brother, with whom he could speak freely, teaching and learning, giving and receiving pleasure, a world in which he could forsake the gloating satisfactions of conquest for the gentler yet more taxing joys of discourse.

He is, in short, ripe for the plucking when a visitor comes along, claiming to be an ambassador from Queen Elizabeth, but also bearing a “secret… fit for a king.” This young man – “Uccello di Firenze, enchanter and scholar, at your service” – worms his way into the emperor’s inner circle on foot of his secret. This takes us to around a third of the way through the book’s 350 pages, and I was lapping it up eagerly. As well as Rushdie’s pitch-perfect prose, there was much to reflect on in the presentation of how we value and judge others, and the fine ways in which power can be balanced.

What happens next is that Uccello di Firenze – who has other names – tells the story of three Florentine friends under the rule of the Medici: Argalia, Niccolo (Machiavelli, ‘Il Machia’) and Agostino. He speaks also of the Enchantress of Florence, Qara Köz, and this, I’m afraid, is where Rushdie lost me. I was so eager to get this uninteresting parenthesis over with, and to return to the main story of Uccello and Akbar, that I think I missed the point that Rushdie viewed this Florentine section as the main story. (The clue was in the title.) Unfortunately it never took off for me, despite (or because of) the encyclopaedic detail; it lacked the life and brio of the Sikri sections, and as a result I took little pleasure in the rest of the story, even when it belatedly returned to Akbar at the end.

I was amazed on turning the last page to see a six-page bibliography, with Rushdie citing over 50 sources for the details of the novel: “this is not a complete list of the works I consulted”. (Apparently this was inspired in part by the media-made ‘controversy’ over an uncredited source in Ian McEwan’s Atonement.) So it wasn’t all a froth of invention after all! I might have known, from this warning in the text:

Knowledge was never simply born in the human mind; it was always reborn. The relaying of wisdom from one age to the next, this cycle of rebirths: this was wisdom. All else was barbarity.

As an evident barbarian then, all I can do is cling to the wisdom of Emperor Akbar in conveying to Rushdie what I felt in the end.

A curse on all storytellers. And a pox on your children too.

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59 Comments »

  1. I picked up this book months ago, but like you said, Rushdie is always daunting – even this one which is relatively short! Strange, since I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve read of his and I don’t feel that way about other authors. I almost left this one to read at the end of the longlist too, but I stopped to read the first paragraph and decided to keep going. So far so good, though I’m now even more intimidated to get to the last third!

    By the way, thanks for your thoughts on Child 44 on my blog! Though the book itself doesn’t have me thinking, the inclusion of it on the longlist still has me a bit baffled, seeking for something that I am straining to find!

  2. John Self said,

    Well I find Rushdie blows hot and cold, Trevor. I loved Shalimar the Clown and The Satanic Verses, and though I can’t remember much about Midnight’s Children, I know I finished it, which has to be a good sign! On the other hand I’ve struggled with Shame and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and I’m afraid I have to rope The Enchantress of Florence in with those two.

    Child 44 is a Booker anomaly if ever there was. I’ve written my review which will go up in a few days. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t really find anything to recommend in it.

  3. lizzysiddal said,

    Thanks for that. That’s another off my list. At this rate, I’ll be through the longlist before any of you! :)

  4. Ocky said,

    I’ve got to admit I’ve never read a Rushdie novel. I did try a couple of chapters of Ground Beneath her Feet and thought it a bunch of overblown piffle. Hysterical, indeed. Maybe I’ll try Shalimar, maybe not.

    Thanks for the blog, John. Love your work!

  5. Kirsty said,

    Shalimar the Clown and The Satanic Verses are the very two Rushdies I have lurking on my shelves. Both unopened. It sounds like Shalimar is the one to go for though… I’m just not great with flights of fancy. I’m too much of a realism fan for my own good.

  6. Rob said,

    Rushdie’s always put me off; there’s something self-aggrandising about his style, to the point where it feels hollow, and I feel like I’m only reading as part of some kind of scheme to inflate his ego. I mean, really, a bibliography? “This is not a complete list of the works I consulted”? It sounds like a small boy playing at being Umberto Eco.

    Incidentally, did you ever read Eco’s “Baudolino”? A terrific book, and much overlooked as it followed the horrible “Island of the Day Before”.

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks Ocky and Kirsty. Incidentally Shalimar is pretty firmly grounded as I recall, set in modern day America and Kashmir over the past century. As you’ll see from my review, I did struggle at times, but it paid back in spades.

    It sounds like a small boy playing at being Umberto Eco.

    :lol: Actually Rob, I was so put off by The Island of the Day Before that I don’t think I read Baudolino or indeed anything else Eco has published since. Someone else – was it you? – mentioned Baudolino as far superior fare to The Enchantress of Florence, so that sounds like a recommendation to me.

    After someone mentioned the reasoning behind the bibliography (the Ian McEwan thing), it made more sense, though wasn’t any more attractive as a result: basically Rushdie pre-thumbing his nose at anyone who dares to accuse him of plagiarism. A childish gesture if it’s true. Which also reminds me of the most toe-curling moment in the book. Rushdie as we know loves to make up song lyrics (his hideous collaboration with U2 for The Ground Beneath Her Feet will go down in infamy), most of them cringeworthy, and sure enough there’s a song in Enchantress called ‘My Sweet Polenta’ (“If she was a letter I would have sent her, If she was a coin I would have spent her” or similar). At the end of the acknowledgements, Rushdie gives thanks “to Ian McEwan, with whom I once improvised a song called ‘My Sweet Polenta'”. The smug, self-satisfied image which this conjured up was almost too much for me to bear, and may even have contributed to my overall negative feel for the book.

  8. Rob said,

    I don’t think it was me, although I’m sure I’ve recommended Baudolino elsewhere. I would probably have used the word “romp”. It would certainly have been much more successful had it not been for its awkward predecessor.

    I had mixed feelings about the Mysterious Flame of Queen Whatever-it-was, but Eco’s first two novels, along with Baudolino, still make me feel good about books.

    The story about Ian McEwan and the song reminds me of another smug, self-satisfied anecdote about that lot, from an article by Martin Amis about the porn industry. It’s in the first couple of paragraphs here. (Note how he describes the incident as “regrettably sophomoric”, but relates it in detail anyway.)

  9. I thought Baudolino rather lost its way at about the half way point. The part of the novel set in historical Europe I thought tremendous, funny and fascinating. Once it left Europe though I thought it became a tad flabby, and I increasingly struggled to care. It perhaps didn’t help that I was already very familiar with the fake letter from Prester John, with medieval conceptions of Prester John’s world and with much of the theology addressed in the book (if you’re familiar with one of those, you tend to be familiar with all of them, they’re fairly interlinked). Had I not been, perhaps discovering those things would have made up for the (to me) odd mixing of genres and styles which I thought not wholly successful.

    I felt rather that the second half was a long piece of rather dull exposition, and that after a thrilling first half with much to say about fiction and truth and how they relate and with a nice line in updating the picaresque novel. Overall, I found it quite a disappointing work, though I’d be interested to hear where others found it more rewarding as it may be that I missed something important.

  10. Paul said,

    What a relief to discover that there are others in the universe who find the luvvie backslapping chumminess of ‘Marty’, ‘Ian’, ‘Hitch’ and ‘Salman’ so irksome and annoying.

    Sometimes it feels like we need a Sex Pistols to come along, snarling, sneering and full of energy to kick that bunch of prog-rockers off the stage.

  11. John Self said,

    Well I’m as stout a defender of Martin Amis’s writing as there is these days, outside his personal friends anyway; but yes, that chumminess is nauseating. Paul, you make them sound like celeb golf buddies Tarby, Brucie, Lynchie etc. – perhaps appositely. I recall another reference by Martin Amis to seeing Four Weddings and a Funeral with Salman Rushdie. One of them observed, “This is bottomlessly awful,” but they couldn’t leave because Rushdie’s bodyguards were enjoying it. Or something like that.

    EDIT: Something not quite like that actually. I googled and found an account from the Independent:

    A few years ago, Martin Amis recounted in the pages of The New Yorker how he and Salman Rushdie – then still living under Special Branch protection – had sat out a security delay in a Hendon cinema and watched Four Weddings and a Funeral with what one can only suppose was a sneering determination not to laugh at any cost.

    “Well, that was bottomlessly horrible,” Amis quoted himself saying afterwards. “Why is it so popular?”

    “Because,” Rushdie responded, “the world has bad taste. Didn’t you know that?”

    And here is another angle on that. None of which should be taken as a defence of Four Weddings, which I liked when it came out (I was 21) and would probably dislike now.

    Anyway. Looks like I should read the first half of Baudolino anyway; at least if I don’t like it, I know it won’t improve in the second half!

  12. Isabel said,

    I’ve never read any of his works nor did I go to his lecture at Tulane University this past fall. I am not really interested in his works, although I might try to read this one.

    One of my favorite words in the English language is POX and I love it that you mentioned it in your favorite quotations.

  13. Mrinal Bose said,

    Most novelists get worse as they age. In Rushdie’s case, I see an interesting pattern. If he writes a good book one year, he’s going to give a bad book next year. Remember his first published book? Nobody noticed it. Then he delivered his magnum opus – “Midnight’s Children”. His Shame was awful. But Satanic Verses was brilliant. Ground beneath Her Feet was boring, and I disliked it so much that I thought Rushdie is dead as a novelist. But then he wrote Shalimar, the Clown. An amazing book, and you’re right, John, he was on top form again. So, it’s cyclical.

    I’ve not yet bought the Enchantress. It can’t be good, according to my algorithm. Your review confirms it. Thanks.

  14. Paul said,

    You forgot ‘Fury’ Mrinal. A strangely bad book that James Woods thought ‘exhausts all negative superlatives’, but which I thought at least had the kernel of something interesting. But alas, a kernel was not enough.

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of your Booker longlist reviews John.

  15. John Self said,

    A fascinating – and almost flawless – theory Mrinal, but yes, Fury made it two duds in a row. (Oh, and I’ve just remembered The Moor’s Last Sigh, which came between Satanic Verses and Ground Beneath Her Feet. It was apparently rather good, so two goodies in a row could mean it just came in the wrong place, and should have been published between Ground and Fury, thus reinstating your perfect pattern!) Interestingly, I read elsewhere that Rushdie wrote Grimus in an attempt to win a Victor Gollancz science fiction award: I hadn’t realised he’d dabbled in that medium. Funny that it’s never cited as an example of mainstream writer doing SF (as discussed here.

    Isabel, if you try to read this one, I suspect it might be your last Rushdie.

    Paul, a review of Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 – the biggest surprise of the Booker longlist – will go up later this week, and I’m currently reading John Berger’s From A to X. Only seven more to go then!

  16. Sam said,

    Rushdie’s is a very limited writerly talent, I think. I don’t know why critics (usually taking the cue from the man himself) are so quick to praise his novels for being big! ambitious! fabulous! wonders of fiction. All his novels do is comfirm his inability to take any real risks in his work – certainly no emotional risks, and I’d argue no stylistic risks either; his dictum has always been to ‘go for broke’, but as Chekhov said, ‘Any fool can make it through a crisis, it’s the day to day living that wears you out!’ All Rushdie’s overblown and fattened style does is hide the fact that, despite his arguments to the contrary, he’s incapable of getting at the day-to-day truth of things. He hides this fact with the aid of the kitchen sink.

    ‘Shalimar’ was a case in point. A mess of a book where even the caricatures sounded embarassed to be delivering their lines. The early Kashmiri section showing Muslims and Hindus lviing in perfect harmony was eye-poppingly patronizing and offensive.

    From ‘Shalimar':

    ‘He was taken outside and rifle butts were applied to his person. The father, B, tried to intervene and he also required vigorous physical attention…. Everyone who could scream or cry was doing so…. Others, less vocally capable, contented themselves with moans.’

    Less vocally capable? I think Rushdie’s been flattered for far too long. He believes his own hype, thinks he’s the only one that’s been hard done to. He’s become blind to the pain of others; which renders him not a writer, but an anti-writer.

    Sorry, John. I didn’t mean to use your blog to criticise a writer’s person, but there’s something about Rushdie’s smug, self-satisfied, gurning face that brings out the worst in me. Can’t think what that something might be…

    Really enjoying your Booker reviews! I visit your blog every day!

  17. Paul said,

    John

    The Moors Last Sigh is the novel of his that I enjoyed the most. It could be said that he is a dog chasing its own tail in his work, stories inside stories, stock exaggerated characters, magic realism and improbable things happening, and I know how easy it is to tire of this, but I was just carried along by the verve of it all at the time of reading, much more than Midnight’s Children, Satanic Verses and the others. But to be honest, I read him a lot when I was an eager youth desperate to be literary, and more often than not if I read him now, to use the slang phrase, he just does my head in. Don’t know why. Just one of those things I guess.

    How I would love for John Berger to win the prize. What this whole thing needs is a radical and grumpy piece of gesture politics and finger wagging. I wonder if the Black Panthers still active and in need of a few bob.

  18. Mrinal Bose said,

    I agree Rushdie is sometimes a pompous windbag, a lethal bore, but few writers understand our world as well as he does. And he has the guts to speak his mind. Read his newspaper columns. You’ll come across a very liberal, educated, cosmopolitan and historicist mindset. Writer or anti-writer, he’s kind of irresistible, and it’s not easy to dismiss him.

  19. I am starting A Case of Exploding Mangoes today and then I will plow into Rushdie. Those two are the only ones available in the bookstore over here. I can get a couple more from Amazon. I guess the U.S. doesn’t get into the Booker so much. Thank goodness for The Book Depository. I am not going to read them all and Dove Grey already dissuaded me from attempting Child 44 and there are a couple I don’t even want to read. That is unless you and she insist. Those are the ones that will probably win. Haha.

  20. John Self said,

    Well Candy, you’ll be pleased to see that there’ll be further dissuasion re Child 44 from me tomorrow!

    Sam, I take your point, though (out of context: I can’t recall where it came in the book) the extract from Shalimar seems to me a decent example of using mock-‘authority’ language – as in an official report of a government abuse of power – to flatten the details with convoluted descriptions (“less vocally capable” ) and thereby, through the reader’s ironic understanding, actually enhance the wrongdoing further. George Saunders does something similar, though more successfully I think. Perhaps I’m being over-generous to Rushdie in my interpretation but that’s how I see it. Otherwise I defer to my earlier post on Shalimar which is linked to at the start of my post above.

    I suppose the difficulty I have with Rushdie is that, as he’s now well established in my mind – and through Mrinal’s algorithm – as a writer who blows hot and cold, it means I have to read every single one of his books to find out which is which. And given that they are all significant work to undertake, and often require the reader to get at least halfway through (as I found with Shalimar) to begin paying back, it’s all a bit of an investment with no guarantee of a return. But Paul, I probably will tackle The Moor’s Last Sigh sometime.

  21. Mrinal Bose said,

    That’s the right attitude, John. Whatever we may say against Rushdie, he is still important as a writer, and has got things to deliver.

  22. Sam said,

    ‘stories inside stories, stock exaggerated characters, magic realism and improbable things happening’

    I agree that this is his schtick, Paul, and it’s partly this that many of Rushdie’s defenders – some of my friends it pains me to say – cite when he’s criticised; that he’s writing in a different tradition to that which he’s commonly judged by: the Eastern tradition, following storytellers like Scheherazade and works such as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with it’s episodic chains-of-events and linked story-cycles. ‘Concentric, not linear!’ a friend reprimanded me once. I’m not really sure what the proper response to this is, other than to say that it’s a bit convenient that the vast majority of the audience he writes for aren’t familiar enough with this tradition to criticise him. But that’s not Rushdie’s fault. Unfortunately. I suppose you could say that there has to be some commonality to all story-telling regardless of cultural differences, for otherwise we’d never enjoy stories from other cultures.

    Thanks for your response, John. I see what you mean, and I still disagree, but I won’t go into the reasons why – as you rightly say, this isn’t the ‘Shalimar’ thread.

    ‘he’s kind of irresistible, and it’s not easy to dismiss him.’

    But, Mrinal, let’s at least try!

  23. John Self said,

    the Eastern tradition, following storytellers like Scheherazade and works such as ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with it’s episodic chains-of-events and linked story-cycles.

    Interesting you should mention this Sam. On my shelves I have The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine, whose last novel I, the Divine I thought was terrific. The Hakawati with its strings of stories (Lebanese in source) seems explicitly to recall the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ and so on – which actually has partly put me off reading it because it’s a tradition I’m so unfamiliar with that I feel unsure I’ll be able to appreciate it properly. That, and at 500+ pages and half a dozen Booker contenders still to go, it’s going to be a while before I get to it anyway.

  24. Having enjoyed Eco’s Name of the Rose alot, Foucault’s Pendulum enough to read more; I have to admit Baudolino was probably enough to ensure I’ll never read anymore Eco, other than perhaps re-reading Name of the Rose. Thought it dreadfully tedious, where only some possibly mistaken sense of duty persuades one to keep going to the bitter end.
    I did enjoy Moor’s Last Sigh at the time quite alot, thoughmy instinct is he’s probably a diminishing returns kind of writer. One extracts his substance relatively quickly. Though perhaps I’m wrong.
    I’m not sure there’s any real substance in Amis to extract. One of the many fruitless, sterile “great men.”

  25. Paul said,

    Sam

    I’m not sure that I buy that line about Rushdie writing in a non Western tradition, and therefore he has to be judged on the basis of Indian oral or narrative culture. Firstly, the kind of fiction he writes does have a counterpart in the Western Novel (let’s accept for a moment these divisions, the truth is that The Novel breaches them, but for now, let’s accept them for the sake of argument), right from the time of Sterne, the beginning of the English novel, this exuberance, digression has been there. It also overlooks just how much the Novel was influenced in the West already by the translation of works like Arabian Nights, the ever revealed, continuously revealing revelation and narrative inside narrative even finding echoes in modernist works like Proust.

    It also doesn’t account for how three novels can be traced backwards from Midnight’s Children (which is the ever template of his subsequent work), that is, the brilliant All About H Hatterr by GV Desani, a picaresque neglected classic written in the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, a work of true linguistic miscegenation, Hindi and English falling into a vibrant embrace that impressed writers like TS Eliot and Saul Bellow immensely (it is a true neglected modern work of some brilliance), that Rushdie himself acknowledges he worked off; then there is also 100 Years of Solitude and The Tin Drum, both of which lit the fuse of his ambition and vision.

    There are three young Indian writers of some brilliance who have written what for me are the best critiques of Rushdie; the excellent Amit Chaudhri, who quietly deconstructs the stale idea of Rushdiesque vision being emblematic of Indian essence in literary terms, that the noise and bombast is a mimetic reflection of Indian immensity and multifariousness. Chaudhri sees Rushdie as an icon, partly self inflated, that blots out for people inside and outside India, the true multiplicity of Indian literature, as well as the silences and solitude of Indian experience. Pankaj Mishra’s review of ‘The Ground Beneath Her Feet’ is an essential, and corruscating, read, and the novelist Siddhartha Deb takes up some of the themes Chaudhri meditated on earlier in an essay that I don’t hesitate to reccomend for its insight on Rushdie and the modern Indian novel in general.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/arts/main.jhtml?xml=/arts/2005/08/14/boindia.xml

  26. John Self said,

    Paul, to be fair Sam is not putting forward that point himself but citing it as something Rushdie’s defenders latch on to – though of course you probably realised that and wanted to respond to it anyway! And I’m grateful for the reminder of All About H Hatterr, which I had seen in the NYRB Classics catalogue. I also read a blog review of it not so long ago but I’m damned if I can find it now.

  27. Paul said,

    Of course, and I apologise to Sam if he thought I was responding to that line he raised as if it was his own. Even though I don’t agree entirely with him in all his criticisms of Rushdie’s work, I can certainly see where the exhaustion and exasperation he feels about Rushdie comes from, and the defence that he cited seems to me to be a cop out by Sir Salman’s defenders to a certain extent, and I’m glad Sam highlighted it.

    I have a 1970’s edition of All About H Hatterr with an introduction by Anthony Burgess. It really is an admirable and sadly neglected work. NYRB Classics are to be congratulated for bringing it back to life in America. Would be good if a publisher could re-release it in the UK to bring it back to attention.

  28. I agree with you on this review, John, almost word for word. I loved the first part and thought that if the book continued in that vein and furthered its themes it would be quite the book, but then it was as if the book got the life sucked out of it! Just posted my review, but I’m afraid I can’t recommend it any more than you.

  29. […] another review at Asylum. Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Echantress of FlorenceNew, “The […]

  30. Sam said,

    No need to apologise, Paul, but I don’t agree with you that those who say that Rushdie works in a different – specifically Eastern – tradition are incorrect or copping-out.

    To clarify, I don’t think anyone says that that is the only tradition Rushdie works in. That would be wrong. Any novelist whether they like it or not works at least partly in the Western tradition. The Novel is a Western construct, after all, and has (fairly recently) been grafted onto other cultures where the story-telling tradition is more oral, say, or prose-poetic. This is why, as you correctly point out, The Novel breeches any cultural divisions – it has no choice but to breech them! The Novel can’t slough off the Western tradition and move smoothly into other spaces, in the same way that we can’t remove our parents DNA from our own bodies. Where The Novel goes, the Western tradition is right there with it; it is its shadow. And I agree that a line can be traced from Sterne to Rushdie (or Fielding to Rushdie). And as you rightly say, Rushdie was influenced by both Marquez and Grass (and they say all novels can be traced back to Cervantes, too). So, yes, by virtue of the fact that Rushdie writes novels, Rushdie writes in the Western tradition.

    However, I think it’s reasonable to argue that, more than most writers, he works in another culturally-distinct tradition, too; one of story-cycles such as the ‘Mahabaratha’ or the ‘Panchatantra’, where the stories tend to be much more – for want of a better description – ‘fable-like’. Epic cyclical allegorical prose-poetic fairytales, maybe. But they make quite different claims on the reader – and hence require different approaches – than might a novel written entirely in a tradition that (some say) began with Cervantes. It’s a readerly effort that I struggle to make (or don’t have the tools to make) but others, brought up in that tradition, can make quite easily. For instance (and sorry for getting anecdotal) I’m bored within five minutes of watching or reading the ‘Mahabaratha’, but my Grandmother has a much more positive reaction. She can see the all the allusions and references, the patterns that I can’t. The fact that she just *knows* that patterns underpin the whole thing (in the same way that we just know that in a novel there will be characters) is perhaps evidence that it’s a tradition that requires readers to read in a different way. Maybe the difference is that she’s in fact reading patterns, whereas I’m just reading words? It’s almost as if the reading requires a different rhythm to that which we’re used to. But like I said above, I think the argument’s flawed because there has to be something common to all storytelling traditions, but I can’t help thinking that maybe there is something in the argument that does apply to Rushdie. Rushdie has said himself that his books are read very differently in the East and West. ‘Midnight’s Children’, he said, was read largely as a piece of fantasy in the West, but was treated much more as a history book in India (perhaps understandably). And surely, if there was any literary lesson to take from the ‘The Satanic Verses’ affair, it was how shallow an entirely Western reading of Rushdie’s output is: all those imitations, allusions, textual and stylistic references that stuck in the throat of many Muslims, and yet went clean over the head of your Average Joe.

  31. Sam said,

    breaches! breaches!

  32. Mrinal Bose said,

    I entirely agree with you, Sam. Rushdie writes in both western and eastern traditions. And, yes, he’s very much influenced by Marquez and Grass. Salim Sinai of Midnight’s children often reminds me of Oscar in Tin Drum. They’re not mirror images, but there are many things common between them.

    Like you, I can’t enjoy the Ramayana and Mahabharata kind of narrative. I’m also bored easily. Novel is of course a western construct, and I always root for the western tradition.

  33. Paul said,

    I just don’t see how the Ramayana or Mahabharat are more of a structural, formatting instrument for Rushdie’s work than the novelistic templates that formed them most explicitly. Amit Chaudhri really is excellent on countering this view, I have tried to locate the essay he wrote via google but nothing has come up yet. Either way, the Siddartha Deb article from the Telegraph which I link to above hints at some of this.

  34. Sam said,

    If it’s any consolation I struggle to see it as well, Paul, but as I said I think that’s because it’s not a tradition that I – or most of Rushdie’s intended audience – have been brought up in and so don’t really know what it is I’m looking for (which, as I said way back when, is a bit convenient for Rushdie). I will say that many people who have been brought up within that tradition seem to be able to see the connections – the cycles and patterns etc – but I know that won’t do as an argument so I’ve had a bit of a think and wonder if the way Rushdie represents character might give us the briefest glimpse of another tradition at work.

    One of the things that I found most annoying in ‘Shalimar’ was Rushdie’s habit of introducing and describing ‘characters’ as, ‘the most brilliant sword-swallower to have ever roamed the earth,’ and the like. I recall a character called Boonyi described as ‘the most beautiful woman in the world,’ and this was Rushdie speaking as author-narrator, not another character. The book was littered with this kind of stuff – as have been many of Rushdie’s novels – and it does recall the way characters are handled in the Indian epics: Krishna has always been the most handsome boy in the world, Bhima the strongest man to have ever been born, and Sita’s beauty is, of course, legendary.

    I may well be wrong, but I don’t think serious novels in the western tradition consistently appropriate this kind of sketching. Even Pynchon, who is probably a truer contemporary heir to Sterne (I do not mean that as a compliment) blesses his ‘characters’ with some quiddity. However broadly-painted they were, Mason and Dixon were both given some light and shade.

    I can’t find the Chaudhari artcile either. He does have a tiny bit of a spat ongoing with Rusdhie so it would make interesting reading. I did read the Deb when you first linked to it. I couldn’t see the link to our discussion, as I think his broad point is that the Indian novel started off as a large scale work with overt historico-politico concerns, and is now moving towards a smaller, more local canvas, which eschews the overtly political and thus, paradoxically, is more revealing of the politics of India. A neat idea. He does get a few things mixed-up, though. At the beginning he mentions Seth along with Rushdie as writers of the Big Indian Novel (fair enough), but near the end he connects the big ‘superficial’ novel with ‘flat characters’. Now, Seth’s big book may have many flaws (always looking in the wrong place chief amongst them), but flat characterisation isn’t really one of them. His characters may not be rounded in the Jamesian sense, but they’re not cardboard in the Rushdean sense either. They very much ‘come off the page’. And neither is his book ‘superificial’ or ‘flashy': if anything it could be called a little staid. Also, it’s a bit hard to take seriously a long essay like that which completely snubs Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ (whichever sub-editor wrote the strapline can’t have read the piece). I’m no great fan of the book but there’s no doubting it had a huge impact and is currently seen as a landmark novel. But I suppose mentioning a small, intimate novel which wore its political concerns very much on its sleeve might have scuppered his argument a touch.

  35. jem said,

    Thanks for sharing your view on this one. I vowed that I would only read this if someone I trusted made it sound like I might like it. And I think you have failed!

    I like the sound of the magic / mythic stuff, but not too sure about the humour aspect. But mostly it just sounds so jumbled and tangental. And I do like a strong thread running through a novel. Also his prose seems so overly wordy, and the length of his sentences! I just don’t think I’d enjoy it. So I think Mr Rushdie will be waiting for another rainy day for me to read him!

  36. John Self said,

    Sam and Paul, I am following your exchange with admiration and fascination, though I feel I have little to contribute myself. I am afraid the notion of the origins or ‘place’ of Rushdie’s work in terms of the Western or middle-Eastern canon never occurred to me. All this might be of particular use when I read Alameddine’s The Hakawati, which I hope will be soon now that I’ve seen how quickly I can get through 500-page books when I want to!

  37. Paul said,

    Well, I think the point that Deb makes about how the mimetic expansiveness of Rushdie’s work is considered as somehow emblematic of an Indian essentialness links in with Chaudhri’s points about how this hinders us from appreciating both the full texture of modern Indian literature, as well as how it also erroneously formulates a Year Zero of the Indian Novel. Rushdie, or more specifically, Midnight’s Children, becomes the Year Zero of Indian literature, obscuring the reality of writing that pre-dates that, and actually marginalising the literature of Hindi, Urdu, Tamil and the Bengali language. It should be noted that Rushdie has contributed to this — Chaudhri’s essay was the introduction to an anthology of modern Indian literature that specifically took issue with, and was partly a response to the anthology which Rushdie edited, and in which he made claims about Indian writing in English as being the pre-eminent literature of India in the modern age. It also obscures and marginalises the interesting literature that was being written during the colonial period; an incredible feat, to conceive that Indian literature only began in earnest in 1982.

    I’m intent on reading Amit Chaudhri’s latest collection of essays. I’m pretty sure that his introduction to the anthology will be included in it. I think we should pay attention to Rushdie’s Indian critics. I think they will help us to understand his achievments (which I cannot deny) and his failures more clearly. You can read a review of this collection of essays here.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/clearing-a-space-by-amit-chaudhuri-876220.html

  38. Paul said,

    John, I think we have to thank you for creating a space in which such discussions can take place, and for allowing them to take place underneath your reviews. It’s your considerations that attract like minds to a fine literary space that you have cleared in the clutter of the internet.

  39. Paul said,

    Sam

    I just remembered something that a friend of mine whose parents are from India said. That in Rushdie’s last few novels he paints characters with all the subtlety and exaggeration of a Bollywood movie director. The villain is not just a villain; he is the most horrible and evil villain in the world, and even twirls his moustache villainously to show it. And the vamp is the most beautiful vamp in the world, and the heroine the innocent and beautiful heroine the world. Compared to this brash, all-or-nothing, disregard for believability of character, character as stock template, with attributes raised high as stakes are raised high in order to give momentum and gravity to the stories in such (in many ways) childish, fairy-tale ways, Chaudhri becomes Satyajit Ray, the humanist director paying close attention to personality and quiet moments. I think these divisions may play out in sensibility across contemporary Indian art forms of various types.

  40. […] Asylum   […]

  41. Sam said,

    Paul, I do hope you’re wrong about ‘Midnight’s Children’ forming a Year Zero of Indian literature in many people’s eyes. I’d hope most literary people were beyond that kind of – however unintentional – orientalism and may have heard of Tagore or Ghalib (who wrote much more in the kind of humanist vein that would lead to the forming of a director like Satyajit Ray). It may well be a view that Rushdie’s tried to propagate – his editorship of his book of Indian literature very deliberately excluded all writers who did not write in the English language. I think the truth is probably more that ‘Midnight’s Chidlren’ was a ‘hinge’ novel, in that it proposed that things had turned and that it would now be difficult to return to a time when many novels from India were still preoccupied with ensalvement to the Raj. ‘White Teeth’ could be described as a similar ‘hinge’ novel: it proposed that immigrants had moved on from a total preoccupation with the immigrant status. I can’t imagine a book now being published centred around black characters and skinheads, say. It would look so incredibly dated, and yet just ten years ago they were pretty common.

    I’m not quite convinced that it’s still okay to lump Seth and Rushdie and Mistry together and form a theory of the Indian novel post-Year Zero. There are different kinds of mimetic expansiveness. There’s Rushdie’s kind, where – especially when applied to character – it becomes a sort of grotesquerie, like stretching a minature painting to fit an oversized frame; and there’s the Seth/Mistry kind which is more about zoning in on one particular element of the bigger picture – a family getting caught up in national strife, usually – so we get a kind of expansion of our eyes as we see the epic through the personal.

    I agree we do seem to be seeing more and more Bollywood in Rushdie’s novels – it’s always been there to some extent, I think – and the vast majority of Bollywood narratives do have their roots in the myth-making, fable-like tradition: we can tell generally from the outset of a Bollywood film which characters will live, die, who’s good, bad etc – there will *always* be a moral of some sort.

    Another convention that I’ve thought of that might provide a glimpse of Rushdie’s debt to the Eastern tradition is his often criticised habit of introducing new characters at odd points in the novel, especially near the ends of his books. It’s difficult to believe that Rushdie would commit such an unnovelistic act without good reason. It may or may not be a coincidence that the old story-cycles do something very similar: often, usually at the end of a story-cycle, someone new will burst onto the scene – smoke effects an’ all – to wrap the story up, underscore the moral learnt, and move the reader or viewer or listener on to the next story. (It might also be worth noting that Rushdie is a very moralising writer: each of his books serves as a hymn to hybridity and multiculturalism).

    The more I think about it, the more I think that Rushdie does work in a tradition that I’m wholly inequipped to understand and so there really is no point in my ever reading him again. Hurrah!

    John, I can only echo what Paul has already said: I’m very grateful that you allow such conversations to take place; you provide a first-class arena for readers to discuss quality literature, great writers, and Salman Rushdie.

  42. I think given my relatively comfortable relationship with the English language, this is about as much as necessary for me to derive whatever sustenance any given novel contains. Any art that is rooted simply in its localised cultural suroundings and fails to transcend them is ultimately artificial, not vital to the human condition.

  43. Paul said,

    Sam, I think White Teeth was a hinge novel in a commercial sense, just as Midnight’s Children became Year Zero in a commercial as well as a literary sense. Just as MC was preceded by novels like H Hatterr and other works that Chaudhri outlines in his essays, so was Zadie Smith’s novel preceded by British works as diverse as (perhaps most directly) The Buddha of Suburbia all the way back to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners.

    In commercial terms the success of White Teeth established a new genre — ‘the multicultural novel’, an ill defined, amorphous entity whose unifying features appear to be that it features characters of Afro-Carribean or Asian origin living in England; regardless of the style, themes, subject or form of the work.

    It was also a hinge moment that led, most patronisingly of all, to almost any new writer (especially female ones) with brown skin and ancestors from former colonies of Britain being described by blurb writers, PR people, and lazy journalists, as ‘the new Zadie Smith’. Commercial and literary hinge moments sometimes coincide. Sometimes it’s best to separate them too.

  44. Sam said,

    But we were talking about a hinge novel as one that establishes the ‘essentialness’ of an idea: whether that be the ‘mimetic expansiveness’ of India (Rushdie), or the idea in ‘White Teeth’ that the race-debate has moved on (to put it loosely). As you imply, all hinge novels have to be a commercial success by definition, but they also have to *appear* to say something that has never been said before. ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ would be another hinge novel, I think. I don’t know what is meant by a ‘literary’ hinge novel in this context.

    As to the second two paragraphs in your post, I’ll have to simply take your word for it, Paul! I’m just not privy to the kind of information that might lead me to those hard conclusions. But I don’t think I’d at all mind a few ‘new Zadie Smiths': we could do with a few more writers with her talent and intelligent compassion.

    But I fear that’s a discussion for another day.

  45. John Self said,

    Not sure if this is relevant or indeed part of the piece you both were looking for, but here is an interview with Chaudhuri – the first Q&A addresses his thoughts on Rushdie, or rather on the Western notion of Rushdie as a year zero of Indian literature.

    I must revisit Chaudhuri’s fiction. I read his first two novels, A Strange and Sublime Address and Afternoon Raag, but that was a good 15 years ago and as is so often the case, almost everything about them has been clouded by time. I see he has a new novel out next March, The Immortals.

    Yes Sam, Zadie Smith has talent, but my concern is that ‘we’ have been so keen to thrust her so quickly into the spotlight of a hinge novelist that she has struggled to make good on her talent. The Autograph Man was terrible, and although I know I’m in a minority in this view, I didn’t enjoy On Beauty either. Perhaps hinge novelists have to have an extra-literary aspect to their success by definition (Smith’s celebrity, Rushdie’s post-fatwa infamy, Fielding’s Heat-woman-friendliness), otherwise their renown would be limited to the small number of people who actually read books.

  46. Sam said,

    Give her a chance, John! She’s only written three novels and is barely over thirty! It took Roth a few more books after the publication of ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ (another hinger, as I will now call them) before he (in my opinion) hit his stride again with ‘The Ghost Writer’. (I really enjoyed ‘On Beauty’, as it happens – it rewarded a re-reading in my case – and thought she was very much starting to make good on her (considerable) talent.)

    I’m not sure about the extra-literary aspect thing: ‘Midnight’s Children’ (1981) was a hinger (and therefore Rushdie a hinge-novelist) before his fatwa (1989). I think once readers (for whatever reason – word of mouth, enthusiastic critics) buy a novel in its millions it’s then down to critics and academics to plant the seeds of a novel becoming a hinger: if they (for whatever reason) decide that the phenomenon is something other than ‘just another blockbuster’ then the book gets pushed even more, spoken about, written about, and it starts to get embedded into the culture. At the risk of sounding like an awful bore, any extra-literary aspect to a hinger might just be a symptom of our age. Loads of the old hingers never had an extra-literary aspect: Shakespeare, for instance, whom we know pretty much nothing about, or Austen, who was a hinger in that she was the first novelist to show characters ‘thinking': the whole human consciousness thing. (Which is not to say that there weren’t celebrity hingers back in the day: Byron, for example. But then, who actually still reads him? Celebrity hingers take note.)

  47. John Self said,

    At the risk of sounding like an awful bore, any extra-literary aspect to a hinger might just be a symptom of our age.

    Oh I agree entirely, Sam, and sort of meant it as such. I’m taking it – perhaps wrongly – that a hinge novel to achieve its hinge status must break out in renown beyond the normal run of novel readers, which is after all an awfully small band. So the point about Midnight’s Children being pre-fatwa is of course spot on, but surely hinge status is applied in hindsight, and while I can’t say how MC was received at the time of publication (I was 8 years old), its status seems only to have increased (whether or not for literary reasons) in the 15 or so years that I’ve been reading literary stuff.

    And yes of course Smith must be given time – I didn’t mean to write her off! I just think she’s had a lot of pressure on her young shoulders, the, er Tom Daley of the novel, we might say.

  48. Paul said,

    A literary hinge novel as I understand it Sam would be a work of originality with an afterglow of perceptible and long term literary influence, regardless of the work’s commercial success.

    I’m not quite sure what the ‘post-race novel’ in regards to White Teeth means. I guess you mean that a novel by a Black writer found great commercial success that wasn’t only concerened with issues of racism. But White Teeth is full of the concerns of race and ethnic identity in contemporary Britain. That’s what gives the book its name, that’s what gives it its dynamo. So I guess I am a little confused by what you mean by it being a hinge novel in that context. In commercial terms maybe by birthing the late 1990’s – 2000’s ‘multicultural’ novel it was a hinge work. As I said at the end of my post, commercial and literary hinge moments sometimes coincide. But sometimes it’s best to separate the commercial and literary qualities in our assessment of them too. I find the DNA of these works fascinating, and I wonder what makes White Teeth more of a hinge than The Buddha of Suburbia, which I think is one of its direct and closest ancestors, and I think will be of longer significance and influence than White Teeth.

    Thanks for the link to the Chaudhri interview John! I tend to agree with your assessment of Zadie Smith’s writing too, that the success of her first book threw her off balance slightly. Nevertheless, I think she’s in it for the long run, let’s see how she develops. I also enjoy reading her essays and criticism. She’s attuned to certain frequencies well.

  49. Paul said,

    OK Sam after reading your last post I think things are clearer. I guess I was confused as to your definition of ‘hinge’, I just took a purist line in terms of literary influence. I think I know where you’re coming from.

  50. John Self said,

    I think I misunderstood the definition of ‘hinge’ too Paul, but in the other direction, believing it referred to something which breaks out of the purely literary and into the wider cultural sphere.

  51. Sam said,

    ‘I guess you mean that a novel by a Black writer found great commercial success that wasn’t only concerened with issues of racism.’

    To be clear, I definitely did not mean this! I agree that the book concerned itself with issues of race; but the issues were – or appeared to be – different to what had gone before: the immigrant characters in ‘White Teeth’ were not constantly looking over their shoulder to a place called home. More than that, it showed immigrants just getting on with life, as people who were part of the urban wallpaper. (Let’s not forget that Smith used Tebbit’s cricket test as one of her many epigraphs). I suppose my issue with ‘The Buddha of Suburbia’ is that the whole point of that novel was to show a post-immigrant generation (via Karim) as fitted into modern Britain; whereas I don’t think ‘White Teeth’ had any such agenda: it just took such things for granted and moved on from there.

    All of our definitions of what makes a hinge-novel are valid. I suppose from the earlier discussions about Rushdie I took a hinge-novel to mean one that appears to show us something new, so that it makes it difficult to return to a time pre-hinge, and is a huge commercial success, so that it almost blots out all that has gone before it and, in effect, creates a Year-zero. To put it v crudely, we could say the following:

    1. ‘Midnight’s Children’ said, ‘enough of this Raj-talk, let’s now celebrate Big New India’
    2. ‘White Teeth’ said, ‘enough of this looking over our shoulder, let’s now face forward and deal with this new shit’
    3. ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ said, ‘enough of this (whatever was the done thing with female characters pre-chick-lit), let’s now show the modern woman with her modern issues’
    4. ‘Portnoy’s Complaint’ said, ‘enough of this (I’m not exactly sure what [actually, maybe it’s not always necessay to have to rail against something, and it suffices to simply appear to show something different?]), let’s now make a fetish and caricature of ‘jewish’ guilt (especially sexual guilt) and the jewish mother
    5. ‘Mansfield Park’ said, ‘enough of this histrionic, piece-to-camera soliloquy, let’s now show the reader our characters thinking’

    Crudeness aside, I think – perhaps a little too simply – that a hinge-novel just has to be one that turns the page.

  52. Paul said,

    Thanks Sam, although I could qualify your view of White Teeth all night. But we’ll leave that for the discussion when John reviews Zadie’s next novel ;-)

  53. emberglow said,

    My comments may sound harsh but please let me get off my chest because I really wish to say a few things about Salman Rushdie in the light of his great writer status.

    I cannot stand Rushdie or his writing: repetitive, ostentatious, limited in scope. He has lived in UK and now USA for such a long time and all he can do is go back to India (or Islamic civilization) over and over again for his setting and write novels. He is gaudy and cheap imitation of some classic Persian or Arabic writer, writing novels in English language.

    Magic realism? That’s another big bore. Critics have heaped praises on him but honestly it has more to do with his being ”Fatwaed” (to coin a word) by Persian mullahs. Western world loves to make hero out of anyone who is hated by Muslims for whatever reasons.

    I have dislike not only for his writing but also his ideas. I watched his interview on C-Span he actually spoke at some huge event in New York City. People asked him questions about Islamic terrorism and extremism and his answers were imbecile and ignorant at best. Thank God he does not write much non fiction. He would be worse.

  54. Paul said,

    Some of Rushdie’s non fiction is pretty good actually. And I don’t really see why his returning to India in his fiction is a criticism either, in and of itself.

    Imitation of Persian or Arabic writers? Which ones do you mean? I’m all for pointing out the influences that bear upon him, and his occasional derivativeness, but to say he is nothing more than ‘cheap imitation’ of unspecified Persian or Arabic writers is simplistic. Rushdie is more complex and varied than that.

  55. emberglow said,

    I knew I could say a few good things about Rushdie but my comment was specifically made to counterbalance wild praises heaped on him. In Indian schools you grow up reading Mughal dynasty, Akbar etc. If you happen to take up history lessons in college or University you read some more of the same stuff. To anyone who has thoroughly read Mughal history either in text books or from personal study, Enchantress of Florence is a heavily recycled material.

    I meant Rushdie imitates the general style of Persian and Arabic writings. His version of magic realism resembles old fables and tales like Arabian Nights (One Thousand and One Nights). Actually if I am remiss, I would say Rushdie is a very good imitation of Bollywood. His last book (Shalimar the Clown) about Kashmir and a love story thrown in was more like it.

  56. Susanne said,

    Dear John,

    I would be very curious to know what your opinion about “The Hakawati” would be, but if I were to recommend a book written by Rabih Alameddine, it would be “Koolaids: The Art of War”. In my opinion, it would be one of the three best books written about the Lebanese Civil War in English although it is as much about the AIDS epidemic. The other two books would be “Beirut Fragments” by Jean Said Makdissi (it is not a novel but a memoir) and “The Bullet Collection” by Patricia Sarafian Ward (very well-written).

    As for Rushdie, for me even when he is bad, he is good. Even if the book is not his best (I think for me, this is the worst Rushdie I have read), there is a certain skill and craftsmanship in the writing that shines through. The debate about him in this page have been very interesting, I am going to check out the different articles and links.

  57. John Self said,

    Susanne, the only Alameddine I’ve read is his second novel I, the Divine, which I liked enough to make me want to read everything by him. Sadly I haven’t got around to Kool-Aids yet, which I’ll attribute (not entirely truthfully) to the fact that it’s not in print in the UK so far as I know. I must pick up a second hand copy online.

    I have had The Hakawati for months, having wheedled a proof copy out of the publishers, but it has consistently put me off due to its length (500 pages) and small print (very small indeed). However now that I’m over the Booker, which included several titles of that length which I didn’t enjoy much but still got through pretty quickly, I’m encouraged to give it a go. So watch this space.

  58. I must be a philistine because I just enjoy the adventure Rushdie provides. Zadie Smith as well.

  59. […] thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, Asylum, Adventures in Reading, Shelf Love, Eve’s Alexandria, Books for Breakfast, Both Eyes Book […]


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