Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Recently I read and loved Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown. I have always been an admirer of his style, his stories, and his rationalist philosophy, so I was thrilled when I received an early reviewers copy from LibraryThing. I looked forward to reading Rushdie’s newest work, but I have to say I was perplexed – until I reached the end. Rushdie performs magic with Enchantress.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first is a wonderful, lyrical story told with the voice of a story teller steeped in an oral tradition. Nothing new there for Rushdie; he tells stories with grace, poetry, and detail to transport the reader to any time and place. Part two, on the other hand was confusing. At times, I found it hard to separate the teller of the tale from the subject. Most characters had multiple names, and sometimes names were switched in mid-sentence. However, part three was like a charge of electricity which flooded my mind with understanding.

Rushdie has braided a narrative that mixes, characters – real and imaginary – with mythology and history to reveal the vast interconnectedness of culture across time and the world. Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, compares stories that range from Ancient Mesopotamia, through Greece and Rome to Scandinavia, the Inuit peoples of the Arctic Circle, Native Americans on both New World continents, and across the Pacific to the Orient, through India, and then to Africa. Campbell draws a circle around the world and describes how all these stories indicate a close cultural connection among all humanity. Rushdie performs similar magic with Enchantress.

The Enchantress of Florence
blurs the line between the teller of tales and history, between characters and their real and imagined lives, real and imagined friends, and real and imagined families. He also weaves a web connecting the Mughals of Hindustan and the Medicis of Renaissance Florence. This complicated diorama explains the confusion of part two, which is neatly resolved in part three. Enchantress will most definitely require another read.

While the story is deeply influenced by the literature and events of Renaissance Italy, the history and culture of the Mughal empire (early 16th to the 19th centuries) plays an equally important role. The idea of divine kings, then seriously questioned in Europe, was still alive in Hindustan. The renaissance idea of immortality through written stories was alive among the Mughals, but in oral tales. And there lies the convergence. Both cultures obtain the same result through different routes. Stories are the threads which tie both cultures together. The timelessness of story and myth is on every page.

Philosophy, particularly rationalism, pervades the story. Even Islam does not escape criticism. In direct opposition to the Q’uran, the emperor declares a day of nakedness for women, with the proviso that all men are to be blindfolded. The emperor has been convinced women are unhappy because they mistrust other women. By forcing them to be naked for a day, all things are revealed, and women will see they have nothing to hide, or at least nothing for other women to fear. Only one man disobeys, and, ironically, his punishment is left up to women, who pelt him with sticks and stones. This is a neat parody of the ridiculous medieval idea that women are the source of sin. The theory is that by covering women's bodies, men are protected from evil.

One glaring flaw, however, mars this other wise exquisite story. On a handful of occasions, characters would descend into a stream of obscenities worthy of a 21st century Quentin Tarantino film. I found this jarring and inconsistent with the tone of the rest of the story. Scenes of subtle and sensuous eroticism were suddenly rendered crude by the introduction of the “seven dirty words” of George Carlin fame. I abhor censorship of any kind, but I think the use of obscenities in this situation is purely gratuitous. So I take away ½ of a star from this wonderful novel.

I would not be surprised to see The Enchantress of Florence win a second Booker Prize for Salman Rushdie. It will be published June 3, 2008. 4-1/2 stars

--Chiron, 5/4/08

1 comment:

Bibliolatrist said...

Hey - I just read this one myself. I didn't rate it as highly as you did, but I did enjoy it. I agree with you about the "dirty words" - they seemed very out of place and off-putting.