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.