It all began, as it often does with a Bengali that isn’t from the Boston area, with fish and flights of fancy. It was two years after a book had been excitedly smuggled into our house and read at top speed by my dad because it had to be returned to its rightful owner within 48 hours. I remember feeling most miffed that my dad wasn’t letting me anywhere near the book (“I’m not sharing this one. You go get your own smuggled copy.” “How? I’m nine.” “Not my fault. … Actually, it is but never mind that. Go away. I have a deadline to meet.”). After a few hours, I was pretty certain that by the time he finished reading, my father would be inside the book with his glasses perched on the dark blue cover, warping the lettering that read The Satanic Verses. Two years later after his gross misconduct of not sharing a book, he got me my own Rushdie with a dark blue cover. It was called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I didn’t let him anywhere near Haroun… and in the process of reading about storytelling, silences, chatterbox fish and a warrior’s shadow, I fell in love with Salman Rushdie, thus ensuring that over the years I would lose good money on books like Grimus, Fury and Shalimar the Clown. Exactly twenty years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, I picked up The Enchantress of Florence, started reading and found myself curling into a ball so that anyone who wanted to get to the book would have to get past my bulk. It took me 48 hours to finish the 349 pages.
The Enchantress of Florence is not Rushdie at his best but after the searing disappointment of his last two works, whose characters were flatter than the flat food that Michael wants to develop in Microserfs (food that can be slid between the gap of a door and the floor), the Rushdie fan can rise again. There is still hope and it floats like an armband-wearing kid in a swimming pool, with little fear of drowning. Though, to be fair, the armbands might deflate significantly if Rushdie can’t restrain his self-indulgently convoluted sentences. Frequently in The Enchantress… , it took a minute and a half to finish reading a sentence and a second to realise there’s no cleverness in it; only lots of commas. There are also strands, like the one about Vlad the Impaler, that seem to be little more than an aside that Rushdie put in so that he can giggle to himself.
But but but but but but, Rushdie can still tell a story. Not just that, he can create a story. There are no slices of life in The Enchantress… – not even for Hrithik Roshan who played Akbar in that mangled mess called Jodhaa Akbar. The tales of Mogor dell’Amore, Akbar, Qara-Köz and Argalia the Turk are fantastic and fabulous. His language is effortlessly magical as he writes about “the memory palace”, about Fatehpur Sikri and Dashwanth the artist, which is what makes the self-indulgent bits that much more noticeable and irritating. He returns to India, the country he left decades ago but still writes more evocatively than the places that have been his home in more recent times, and weaves characters and despair from across continents into a beautifully-constructed novel that Scheherzade of The Arabian Nights would approve of and one that Ashutosh Gowariker should wish he could afford the rights for (he probably could have considering the budget for Jodhaa Akbar).
In the British edition to this novel – beautifully designed and printed by Jonathan Cape – Rushdie writes at the beginning that “a few liberties have been taken with the historical records in the interest of truth.” For those who want the history, Rushdie has a hefty bibliography (he has invited corrections and additions from readers). For the imagination, there are stories like The Enchantress of Florence with its disappointments, imperfections and its beauties.
A blond Italian man shows up at Akbar’s court with a tale to prove his claim that he is the Emperor’s uncle. The Enchantress… is that tale, and many others. It is the tale of an imaginary princess, Jodha, who is brought into shadowy life by Akbar when he crafts with his imagination his perfect consort. Except even this thing of beauty, created by him, disappoints him. When he strips himself of his royal “we” and offers the “I” of the man and not the emperor, she is too deeply wound in her vanity and ploys of how to woo the emperor to notice. Akbar finds the companion he seeks in the storyteller, Mogor dell’ Amore, the Italian. It’s the story of Niccolo Machiavelli and his two friends who witness Florence whore, burn, clamour, swoon and survive as they go from boys hunting for mandrake to bitter old men. It’s the story of Angelique, trapped in the memory palace, for whom sleep-walking through someone else’s life is far less painful than remembering and stepping into her own. It’s a story of Argalia the Turk who has to renounce Christianity in order to survive the Ottoman prison but whose identity, for all the journeys and twists and turns of his life, remains a citizen of Florence.
Contrasts like enchantment and pragmatism, intrigue and debate, and solitude and the hum of chatter are balanced neatly against each other to create a vibrant world of Mughal India and Renaissance Florence, full of appetite, riches and, of course, magic realism. At the end of the book, Rushdie smiles at you warmly from his picture in the back flap and I can’t help wondering if he’s Akbar, the lover of tales and the one whose insight cuts past the imagination and into reality, or Mogor, who can weave fantastic yarns that become believable because he believes them, or if he’d like to believe he’s both. I know I certainly would.
Critics always sniff dismissively at the idea of using a creation as a looking glass that turns the reader invisible and shows a reflection of the creator instead. There’s a lot of merit to that standpoint because no matter how personal a work may be, a reader attaches to it meanings and associations that have more to do with their own personal history. Despite this, it’s so tempting to see The Enchantress… in the time that it was written in Rushdie’s life. Like Mogor, he is telling a story with the desperate need to give himself credibility (this is always true for a writer but a little more true when you’ve written some painfully bad work recently). Jodha finds herself having to compete with the storyteller, and losing; perhaps this is what it’s like to be a beautiful woman married to a writer – you embody a figment of his imagination brought into reality and you last only as long as there isn’t a more interesting story to be told.