peteg's blog

Salman Rushdie: The Enchantress of Florence

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In an early scene a Scotts laird drops his mottled todger on the table as some sort of enticement, and while fighting this imagery I was compelled to draw the parallel with Rushdie and this novel: to wit, an attempted demonstration of manly masterfulness that failed to impress. Allowing a further 331 pages for redemption was wise but ultimately ineffectual.

Once more I find myself outside the target demographic of a historical romance. Relative to his earlier works, it is excessively scatalogical and foul-mouthed, and even worse, flaccid and unexciting. Sure, this might pass for something of an imitation of Irvine Welsh by a subcontinental tyke, but then I wouldn't have bothered reading it. It is also clear that Rushdie does not have a lot of faith in his audience, regularly explaining the jape, the rumination, the issue of the moment until it loses all lustre.

Most irritating is how seriously the author takes the book, describing how much research was involved, and even providing a six-page bibliography, to what end I know not. Thus it suffers from the same fault as Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies: it must turn a profit on every part of overmuch scavenging, and yet by the pigeon-hole principle there can never be room enough for it all.

Rushdie fails his own test of a novel: this book does not make the imagined world any larger. The Italians have already burnished their history to a blinding shininess. The tired and repetitively dissonant reduction of women to that which can "walk, talk and make love" (p323) jangles against the powerful and well-drawn females of his earlier works. This lament by a female reviewer at the Guardian captures it well:

This brilliant, fascinating, generous novel swarms with gorgeous young women both historical and imagined, beautiful queens and irresistible enchantresses, along with some whores and a few quarrelsome old wives - all stock figures, females perceived solely in relation to the male. Women are never treated unkindly by the author, but they have no autonomous being. The Enchantress herself, who turns everyone into puppets of her will, has no personality at all, and exists - literally - by pleasing men. Akbar calls her a "woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king". But in fact she does nothing but sell herself to the highest bidder, and her power is an illusion permitted by him.

In one marvellous scene Akbar's wife and mother come to show his imaginary wife Jodha how to release him from the Enchantress's spell, and in so doing are reconciled with Jodha in a moment of hilarious feminine solidarity - but the Enchantress materialises, Jodha vanishes, the women are defeated by the man's obsession. Indeed, the men in the book are as hormone-besotted as adolescents. All their derring-do, their battling for cities and empires, comes down to little more than a desire for a bed with a young woman in it. Machiavelli becomes a disappointed middle-aged lecher whose middle-aged wife "waddles" and "quacks" while he looks at her, of course, with loathing. But then suddenly, for a page or two, we slip into her soul; we feel her anger at his disloyalty, her hurt pride as a woman, her unchanged pride in his "dark sceptical genius" and her puzzlement at his failure to see how he lessens himself by scorning what he has that is treasurable and honourable. For that moment I glimpsed a very different book, almost a different author. Then it was back to the dazzling play of fancy and the powerful dreams of men.

The prose is tired and flat. There is too much needless rendering of the same name in several languages, which is really just an observation that the written once had a phonetic relation with the spoken, and the spoken sounded different to people with different mother tongues. Self-evident I would have thought. An uninteresting issue too, as Akbar could not read nor write, but I guess Rushdie needs to provide a Rosetta Stone for the bibliography. These gestures and nods to history needlessly crowd out the possibility of a deeper contextualisation with manifestly bald facts, and so he falls short of what even Ghosh achieved.

Occasionally the text swings into tune with Amartya Sen's conception of identity as plurality, such as Akbar's inner monologue about the supreme emperor's use of the first-person singular (circa p30), an otherwise spurious digression. Conversely he often reduces his minor characters to little more than "beauty", "princess", "likes being on the winning side", etc. — essentially wanton and without personality.

After talking to Nell on Thursday I realised that the best things Rushdie has done in the past twenty years or so were his short pieces, the essays compiled in Step Across this Line. So while I found this book substantially out of character for him, I could not expect him to surmount his previous efforts in this form.

I managed to dig this book out of the UNSW Library after their recent stock-take; thus it must have been merely misplaced and not lost, unlike my time spent reading it. I substantially agree with this review from the New York Times, and Reimer's effort at the SMH.