All entries for Tuesday 16 September 2008
September 16, 2008
It seems a shame that The Enchantress of Florence, which I’ve finally got around to reading, will be remembered mostly for the critic John Sutherland claiming that he’d curry his proof-copy and eat it if it didn’t win this year’s Booker prize, and then refusing to do so when it failed to make the shortlist. It also turns out to have been a silly move on Sutherland’s part, because The Enchantress of Florence is such a bizarre, playful novel, and, moreover, one eschewing all of the standard, ‘worthy’ themes appearing on the shortlist (growing up within dysfunctional families, finding one’s cultural identity, and so on...) that it should have been obvious that it would never win the Booker any more than a Terry Pratchett novel. It’s also admirably far from the public image that has formed around Salman Rushdie over the years of a generic, trendy literary superstar, (the sort of man who cameos, gurning, in Bridget Jones’ Diary for no apparent reason other than to be applauded?). I found myself surprised by just how offbeat and enjoyable this latest effort is.
The novel features a curious disclaimer: “A few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interests of the truth.” To anyone opening the book, it seems like an insufferable sentiment; to anyone who’s finished it, it’s actually a very funny (albeit slightly insufferable) shrug on the part of the storyteller and the importance of fabrication. The plot follows on from here; a European trickster, Niccolo Antonio Vespucci, charms his way into a Moghul court and tells the emperor there a long tale, which may or may not be false, in the manner of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights. Upon the bizarre claim that he has made- that he is actually the emperor’s uncle- rests his fortune and, perhaps, his life. If Rushdie runs dangerously close to a tiresome conceit concerning the nature of fiction (Ian McEwan’s Atonement, say), then he turns it to his advantage by investing so wholeheartedly in his narrative and characters that some of the novel’s more surreal turns - characters vanishing into books and paintings, a mysterious slave who tells her ‘story’ and then commits suicide once her purpose is served- come across as elegant rather than irritating.
The plot, however, is merely the base for a fascinating network of ideas and philosophies, not least of which is murmured, early on, by the trickster;
“This may be the curse of the human race...not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.”
Rushdie continually presents individuals as perceived ideals and echoes, partly, perhaps, in the understanding that storytelling, particularly in the adventure and romance genres, must always rely to some extent on archetypal figures and situations, but also in a bold move towards a kind of underhand feminist perspective. The enchantress of the title, whose names alter with a beautiful fluidity, bears a startling similarity to an imaginary queen created by the Moghul emperor- a strong woman he creates in preference to the humble concubines and princesses all about him, who loses her power over him when he falls in love with the ‘enchantress’- who he only hears about as a character in the trickster’s tale. The story itself encompasses the Ottoman Empire and Florence, both of which begin to echo the Moghul dictatorship, and three Florentine friends, Niccolo Machiavelli, the explorer Vespucci, and Antonio Argalia, a warrior trained in the Ottoman army, all of whom come to resemble their namesake, the storyteller, not so much as ancestors but as composites contained within him. Even the enchantress herself is followed everywhere by a ‘Mirror’, an identical woman, who echoes every word of hers. Rushdie mocks this de-individualising tendency best (with a jab at Dumas’ hazy characterisations) by naming four identical Swiss giants Otho, Botho, Clotho, and D’Artagnan.
The enchantress, however, is something else; she draws on Circe, Lucrezia Borgia, Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, and (I’m sure) more, without losing step. The fluidity of her sexual and cultural identity (she has at least five names as the story proceeds, and she never belongs to Florence exactly) goes against many of the values held within the novels which did make it onto the Booker shortlist, most obviously the innate differences between both genders as presented here. And the exact nature of her magical powers is lightly held; somewhere between the charms of an intelligent woman and the charm of a storyteller- once, at a battle between Safayids and Ottomans, her “enchantments” are specifically described as common-sense against dumb masculine heroics, such as, “Don’t you have any guns? You know about guns. For pity’s sake, why didn’t you bring any guns?”
The enchantress, ultimately, reveals an inescapable transience to her nature, but it seems Rushdie is celebrating that ‘feminine’ aspect of nature rather than bemoaning it- his old friend Angela Carter would certainly have found plenty to enjoy in her and the gender politics surrounding her. A few critics have even suggested that she is meant to represent Princess Di (there are a few nudges in that direction, particularly involving the hysterical reactions of the masses to her, in Florence and in the Moghul capital). Actually, if we have to drag contemporary or personal comparisons into a novel which really doesn’t deserve them, there’s a much more likely candidate to have been portrayed through a beautiful Indian princess, who will ultimately abandon her lovers. But if The Enchantress of Florence does indeed have some bearing on Rushdie’s ex-wife, then it is a very touching tribute.
There are flaws in the novel. The material itself might actually have worked better under a Carter or an Eco; sometimes you sense that Rushdie is straining too hard to be “a Catherine wheel”, full of explosions and humour, as with lines like,
“He was as strong as a white bull and he had journeyed by raft to the source of the Yellow River...where he ate braised tiger penis from a golden bowl, and he had hunted the white rhinoceros of the Ngorongoro Crater, and he had...”
Much of the time he handles the humour and swashbuckling with remarkable ease (The Enchantress of Florence is actually a lighter read than your average Wilbur Smith) but when he overworks a good joke, it shows. The sexual content is bawdily high, reminiscent of the similarly foul-mouthed and foul-minded historical epic Q by the Luther Blissett quartet, (and another novel which could be fairly construed as an elaborate literary joke) but sometimes the farce turns sour, as when Niccolo Vespucci is visited by two prostitutes of inequal size, Skeleton and Mattress. The opening few chapters lack the subtlety and flow of what comes after, and as a whole, it probably falls short of being a classic for fault of being a very self-conscious romp. Nevertheless, particularly in the final scenes, The Enchantress of Florence proves itself a remarkable book, and more fun than anyone has any right to expect of a ‘serious writer’ like Rushdie. When John Sutherland has rogan josh-ed his copy, he’ll doubtless want to go out and buy another one.