Meetings, Purchases, Pleasures
By William Deresiewicz, The Nation, August 27, 2008
Like a peddler just arrived in town, or a traveler come from foreign shores, Salman Rushdie spreads before us his magic carpet of stories. Rushdie has been many things–political novelist, national epicist, probing essayist, free-speech icon out of force of circumstance–but he has always been, first and last, a storyteller. As Conrad sought to return to fiction the immediacy of the sailor’s tale–one man entertaining his mates over claret and cigars–so Rushdie seeks to reanimate the printed page with the exuberance and exoticism of legend and fable, fairy tale and myth: the province of the wanderer, the yarn spinner, the bard. More than Ulysses or The Tin Drum, his most persistent models have been the Thousand and One Nights and the Hindu epics, The Wizard of Oz and Bollywood. He doesn’t want to be Joyce; he wants to be Scheherazade. His greatest works engage the tragedies of modern history through the most audaciously archaic of narrative devices. Midnight’s Children hinges on the switching of two babies in the cradle; The Satanic Verses features flying carpets and Ovidian metamorphoses.
Barring his children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, may be the purest expression yet of his fabulating impulse. Set in a faraway time, the 1500s, and dividing its pages between two storied lands, the Mughal Empire and Renaissance Florence, it is replete with princesses and pirates, mysterious strangers and long-lost cousins, enchanted waters and magic cloaks. But what it does not contain is as telling as what it does. The Enchantress of Florenceexhibits none of the complex allegorical structures, dense systems of allusion or broad political implications–in short, none of the satanic ambition–that both weigh down his major works and give them weight.
The result, if relatively slight, is probably Rushdie’s most coherent and readable novel. The 500-plus-pagers tend to sprawl as they spread, bogging down in their proliferating mass of characters and plotlines. Their language, while often playful, is also sometimes labored, sweating to keep the narrative machinery aloft. Here the story is clean and compact, and the ever-so-slightly archaic style goes down like ice cream:
The path sloped upward past the tower of the teeth toward a stone gate upon which two elephants in bas-relief stood facing each other. Through this gate, which was open, came the noises of human beings at play, eating, drinking, carousing. There were soldiers on duty at the Hatyapul gate but their stances were relaxed. The real barriers lay ahead. This was a public place, a place for meetings, purchases, and pleasure. Men hurried past the traveler, driven by hungers and thirsts. On both sides of the flagstoned road between the outer gate and the inner were hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers of all kinds. Here was the eternal business of buying and being bought. Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum.
The novel, on its fourth page, is finding its subject, and its subject is storytelling itself. The men are driven by hungers and thirsts, and so is the writing. In its greedy piling up of nouns–“hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers”; “Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum”–we feel the force of storytelling’s appetite for the world, its sheer sensual relish for the thingness of things. It is no surprise that the great compendiums of stories tend to swell virtually without limit: the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, theDecameron and the Thousand and One Nights, Don Quixote andGargantua and Pantagruel. This is the same impulse, of course–under stricter regulation in The Enchantress of Florence–that gives Rushdie’s greatest novels their girth.
Storytelling, in Rushdie, is also typically aligned with two other human things, as the passage above suggests. The first–and this is true of storytelling in general–is commerce, “the eternal business of buying and being bought.” It is trade that brings the people who bring the stories, and it is the marketplace, above all, where stories are told. Indeed, storytelling is a kind of trade, an exchange of goods for the satisfaction of appetites, a busy engagement with the world; and stories, like markets, are public places, places for “meetings, purchases, and pleasure.” Rushdie’s characters are usually performers–storytellers themselves–or businesspeople: merchants, hucksters, speculators, a class of people in whom he clearly delights. Not for him the Modernist disdain of the bourgeoisie, nor the passive, reflective souls of modern fiction–Proust’s Marcel, Mann’s Hans Castorp, Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway. His medium is will, not introspection, and the change in tone and character type in Rushdie, García Márquez and others marks the postmodern rediscovery of story after the exhaustion of Modernist experimentation.
Trade’s supreme locus–one might say, its supreme creation–is the city, and for Rushdie, the city is storytelling’s supreme subject. Delhi, Karachi, Cochin, New York, above all Bombay, the city of his childhood (“Back to Bom!” is Saleem’s happiest thought in Midnight’s Children), and London, the city of his maturity (“Ellowen Deeowen,” The Satanic Verses calls it, yoking Semitic and Indo-European divinities in a numinous pun on the spelling of the city’s name). The city, for Rushdie, is the place of variety, mystery, fortuity, possibility, conflict–all the elements that most make for good stories. It is the place where strange people live next door and unimaginable worlds are waiting to be discovered on the next block, a place that invites you, as the title of his latest essay collection urges, to “step across this line.” Of the city the traveler approaches as The Enchantress of Florence opens, we read this:
Its neighborhoods were determined by race as well as trade. Here was the silversmiths’ street, there the hot-gated, clanging armories, and there, down that third gully, the place of bangles and clothes. To the east was the Hindu colony and beyond that, curling around the city walls, the Persian quarter, and beyond that the region of the Turanis and beyond that, in the vicinity of the giant gate of the Friday Mosque, the homes of those Muslims who were Indian born.
A world in miniature, and like the great world, a seemingly endless series of “beyonds.”
The city in question here is Fatehpur Sikri, built by Akbar, third and greatest of the Mughal rulers, as his imperial capital. The traveler in question is a pale-haired European, a trickster, adventurer and thief who calls himself Uccello di Firenze and Mogor dell’Amore (Mughal of Love) but whose given name is Niccolò Vespucci. The conjunction of two famous Florentine names is no coincidence, for the story the stranger has borne across the world for Akbar’s ears alone–his story and, in a sense, Akbar’s as well–begins with the friendship of his grandfather Ago, Amerigo Vespucci’s cousin, with Niccolò Machiavelli. There was a third friend, too, Nino Argalia, who ran away from Florence to become a great warrior in the service of the Turkish sultan. He also became the lover of Akbar’s great aunt–expelled from family memory for choosing love over home–who had been making her own journey west as she passed from conqueror to conqueror. It is she–Angelica, Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes–who is the enchantress of the title, a woman of such surpassing beauty that she bewitches not only the citizens of Florence when Argalia returns in triumph to his native town but also the inhabitants of Fatehpur Sikri, two generations later, when the mere story of her gets abroad.
Rushdie is working here with the twinned powers of erotic charm and artistic imagination. Men enslave women and are enslaved by them in turn. Or by their ideas of them. The painter Akbar commissions to envision Qara Köz’s life–“Paint her into the world,” Akbar exhorts him, “for there is such magic in your brushes that she may even come to life”–becomes so enamored of his vision that he disappears to join her inside the painted world instead. In this book of mirrorings and doublings and opposites, Akbar does the reverse. His favorite wife, Jodha, is a woman he has imagined into being, taking bits and pieces from his other wives to form the ideal consort, sustaining her existence through a “suspension of disbelief” in its possibility.
The reader may not be so ready to share Akbar’s conviction. The question of Jodha’s status is one about which the novel maintains a strategic vagueness, preventing her from coming into focus as either a character or a thematic idea. Does she or does she not achieve independent existence, “come to life” as she is imagined “into the world”? We read her thoughts as if she were a real character, but she fades away, displaced in Akbar’s imagination, when Lady Black Eyes comes along.
The uncertainty goes to the heart of that much-handled critical concept, magic realism, or at least to Rushdie’s deployment of it. Unlike García Márquez, the mode’s other most famous exponent, Rushdie never fully commits to the magic-realist premise, a hesitation that makes his practice more sophisticated and less satisfying. García Márquez proffers his levitations and memory plagues with a completely straight face; they are as natural a part of the world–and, to its inhabitants, as normal–as anything else. But Rushdie is always hedging his bets. Can Saleem really communicate telepathically with the hundreds of other children born at the hour of Indian independence, or is that merely the fantasy of a lonely little boy? Can Shalimar the Clown really walk on air, or is that just a conjuror’s trick? In both instances and many others, Rushdie equivocates between the two possibilities, awkwardly straddling the domains of realism and magic.
Why should this be? Magic realism is, among other things, an attempt to re-enchant the world in the wake of scientific rationalism and global exploration, to recover the premodern mindset in which giants and witches and magic hats were real possibilities. That is why it has flourished in regions that were the object rather than the agent of capitalist and colonial expansion. That is also why the magical effects in One Hundred Years of Solitude tend to fade as the story approaches the present, washed out in the glare of modernity. But like a colonial subject stubbornly maintaining his traditional practices in an imperial space that stigmatizes them as primitive–a young Indian writer transplanted to London, say–Rushdie has consistently sought to insert magical elements into narratives of the present, flourishing the marvelous in the face of modernity. It is no wonder that, like the gestures of the colonial subject, the act is fraught with hesitation, uncertainty and self-doubt, that it reveals a mind divided between old allegiances and the ineluctable logic of rationality.
In asserting the rights of magic in the present, Rushdie is also testing the power of the imagination to affect reality. This is his highest theme, his persistent obsession. If so much of what seems magic at first turns out to be the result of art or artifice, that is exactly the point. Imagination does have the power to affect reality–personal, social, political. Argalia imagines a fantastic life and then goes out and lives it. The story of Lady Black Eyes drives a whole city mad. Lines are drawn on a map, and a nation conjectures itself into being. Magic in Rushdie often approaches a kind of lucid dreaming, where the boundary between imagination and reality is breached and desire is given direct power in the world. But by the same token, he often runs his effects right up against the border of plausibility, challenging us to discern how much is real, how much a trick–how much, in other words, imagination can really do. There may be no other major novelist whose imagination is so steeped in the movies; his first literary influence, he has said, wasThe Wizard of Oz. Magic, for Rushdie, is another name for special effects, and it is part of his purpose to give us a glimpse of the wires every now and then. Sometimes he shows us the Wizard, sometimes he lets us see the man behind the curtain.
The problem comes when he can’t seem to decide for himself what is magic, what is art and what is simply the form of delusion we call “imagining things.” The pressure of skepticism is actually lesser in The Enchantress of Florence than in his other works, precisely because the novel is set in a remote time and decorated with the language and properties of legend. We accept and even expect a certain quantum of the marvelous here, so Niccolò’s magic cloak, for example, passes without trouble. But Jodha is a different matter. She is central to Rushdie’s thematic conception–that men create women to fall in love with–but he leaves her stranded between imagination and reality. She is more than an idea for Akbar but remains less than a full person. She has interiority, but she has no agency, no force in the world. As a result, she has little force in the novel, little hold on our imaginations, remaining nothing more than a nice idea that never fully comes to life.
There are other problems. The novel proposes too facile an equivalence between East and West. “This may be the curse of the human race,” we hear more than once, “not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” Florence and Fatehpur Sikri, Italy and India, are set up as mirrors: in each place a besotted painter, in each a pair of prostitutes fat and thin, in each enchanting beauties and wicked young princes. Akbar muses in terms that make him sound suspiciously like a Renaissance humanist. The historical Akbar promulgated a divine right of kings; Rushdie’s doubts the existence of God. It’s all a little too comfortable, a kind of full-bellied, avuncular globalism that conjures away difference altogether. Rushdie has always been a humanist, has always believed that our similarities go deeper than our differences, but the younger writer was also a courageous defender of difference, of human variety and multiplicity, against the totalitarian impulse to impose uniformity. Midnight’s Children restages the classic rivalry of poet and king as the storyteller Saleem, Rushdie’s alter ego, speaking truth to Indira Gandhi in the wake of Emergency Rule, when India’s magic tumult of voices was reduced to a grim silence. In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie’s surrogates–the satirist Baal and Salman the Persian–mock and subvert the certainties of the Prophet, speaking for pleasure over purity, fluidity over fixity, the many against the One.
But here he unstrings the tension between truth and power by merging poet and king in the figure of Akbar, the emperor-artist. So too with East and West, though perhaps for understandable reasons. The younger Rushdie was an insurgent colonial fighting for legitimacy within the West and the culture of the West. Whether in India or England, he was undoubtedly never allowed to forget the difference between the place he came from and the place he wanted to get to. While it is true that he has always been in the business of bridging that distance by writing what Midnight’s Children calls “eastern Westerns,” meeting is not the same as merging, hybridity not the same as homogeneity. But Rushdie the international literary superstar is very far from the young man he once was. As he comes and goes on his magic carpet of fame and money (which one does not begrudge him), East and West must feel like one big world. In the figure of Niccolò, Western descendant of an Eastern princess come back, after the lapse of years, to reclaim his ancestral connections, we can read Rushdie’s triumphant, nostalgic return to his place of origin.
The gesture points to the deepest sources of Rushdie’s art. More than his familiar–and, by now, shopworn–postcolonial themes, more even than the erotic love that is the book’s ostensible concern, it is family that is his most profoundly felt subject, here and throughout his work. The charge against Rushdie has always been that amid the whirlwind of ideas and allusions and allegory and wordplay, his characters never take shape as full people about whom the reader can feel real emotion. But the one exception has always been the figures and feelings of childhood. The most vital relationships in his fiction are family relationships. Midnight’s Children exerts its strongest pull in the chapters devoted to Saleem’s early years, when he is surrounded by parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts. The Satanic Verses doesn’t come alive emotionally until the very end, when Saladin reconciles with his dying father. Rushdie, a famous ladies’ man–he has been married four times, the last to a supermodel–may think of The Enchantress of Florence as his tribute to erotic love, but the romance here feels pretty secondhand, a collage of Petrarch and grand opera. In many ways, for better and worse, Rushdie is still the 10-year-old who sat spellbound watching The Wizard of Oz. His work is sometimes childish, but it is more often childlike. As a portraitist of women, he has always done much better with matriarchs than with love objects; his mothers and aunts are the solidest characters in his work.
So it is here. The novel’s best scene takes place right after Niccolò has made his claim of kinship at the Mughal court. Akbar summons the queen mother and her sister-in-law Gulbadan to see if they retain any memory of a long-lost aunt:
“Allow me to remind you, O all-knowing king, that there were various princesses born to various wives and other consorts,” Gulbadan said. The emperor sighed a little; when Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.
The passage suggests the underlying unity of Rushdie’s two great commitments: storytelling and family. Storytelling is the place where families begin. Families know themselves through the stories they tell themselves about themselves. Family trees are storybooks in graphic form. Like Lady Black Eyes, long-lost relatives come back all the time, in the stories we tell about them. Like Niccolò, we are defined by the family stories we carry within us. But at the same time, families are the place where storytelling begins. The first stories we know are the ones we hear from our family, about our family. Childhood is the time of stories, the time when everything is still possible and every story is still true. If Rushdie’s magic realism is meant to re-enchant the world in the wake of modernity, it is also meant to re-enchant it in the wake of adolescence and adulthood. But again, with a bittersweet ambivalence, he seeks to incite two simultaneous and contradictory reactions, and perhaps 10 years old is exactly the age he wishes to make us. On the one hand, the childhood sense of open-mouthed wonder. On the other, the dawning skepticism that looks up from the page and asks, “But is it really true?”
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