20 July 2008

Lost Magic, Realism Misplaced

The Enchantress of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape
Pages 360
Rs 595

Every new Rushdie book is, at the end of the day, just another random anniversary commemorating the advent of his iconic Midnight’s Children (1981), the book that is still a pulsating presence in the canons of contemporary world literature and the English novel. And, of course, a landmark of Indian writing in English. Scanning our literary horizons for the next Rushdie is in fact one of our national pastimes.

But the last time a Midnight’s Children-like brilliance was seen even in a Rushdie book was more than a decade ago, in The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995). Since then almost every Rushdie book has become an occasion for despair. Now we are resigned to the fact that Rushdie too, post-fatwah relieved of fear, lightened of the burden of victimhood, stripped of his alluring repressed complexity, should live in his own shadow. This is particularly the case with his new book.

The Enchantress of Florence has a mellowed Rushdie, unable to fully kick the magical-realism habit, so instead, bringing the pitch of strangeness, improbability, and fancy down a few notches, settling for Fable -- more accurately, a hybrid of fable-history -- to spice up, pique, and intensify reality-history. He finds a fabulous connection between two 16th-century cultures in their respective florescences: The Mughal Empire at its zenith under Akbar, a rare, and hence great subcontinental unifier of fractious kingdoms from Kabul to almost the southern tip of the peninsula; and the Italian city state of Florence enjoying its golden age under the powerful business family, the Medicis.

The connection comes in two guises. One, Mogor dell’ Amore, literally a Mughal born out of wedlock, a yellow-haired Italian who lands in Akbar’s court claiming to be the Emperor’s uncle. The other, Qara Köz, the missing Mughal princess, Akbar’s grandfather Babar's sister, whose son Mogor claims to be. Mogor’s narration of how Qara Köz ended up participating in the golden age of Florence, and as one of the early inhabitants of the newly discovered Mundus Novus -- the New World, South America -- makes up the heft of Enchantress.

Despite Rushdie setting up a whole circus of his famous acts -- his pet themes as a writer, the slippages of memory, distortions of history, the East-West equation, identity and the strains that transplantation and dislocation put on it -- their adumbration seems smugly rushed and hollow. It appears Rushdie is more at peace with history than he ever was, and perhaps feels less alienated in the West than he ever did since he left India for it at the age of seventeen. The quintessential immigrant who had dared to step across the line and live in imaginary homelands, has apparently at last found comfort in a cushy corner in America, and settled down to being an international celebrity with little urge to recall the earlier angst of acculturation.

This would also explain his new approach to History, opting for researched history rather than his usual mnemonic take on it. Historical fidelity, however, has burst Rushdie's bubble, let the fizz out of his famous effervescence. This is most noticeable in the parts dealing with Renaissance Italy: He tries hard, even borrows shallow slick style and noir bits from graphic-novels and Hollywood’s historical fare, and liberally sprinkles Italian conversations with a zillion 'f**ks', yet ends up giving us pages upon pages of pimped history that make Enchantress one of the most unreadable of all Rushdies.

In this literary traffic jam of themes and operatically large cast of characters, including the Navratnas and Niccolò Machiavelli, the characters are worst off: Akbar, Mogor, and the two chimerical ones imagined by an old and exhausted Akbar, Jodha Bai and Qara Köz. Though mapped well to be historically or legend-wise accurate, they are scarcely convincing fictional characters. The two-dimensional Mogor could have walked out of a comic. Even Akbar, despite all the existential internal chatter -- constant, whether he is carrying back from a distant battlefield, 'the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars,' or as he 'sip[s] watered wine and lament[s] his gory genealogy,' -- remains a set of co-ordinates picked from well-prepped research note cards.

Rushdie tries to liven up the poster boy of Indian syncretism: A lower register of Akbar's internal monologues countervails his Prithviraj Kapoor-like harrumphing grandiloquence. We 'hear' Akbar the Great berating himself for being a 'barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, and also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world.' But being a historical figure, Akbar, with little free will, ends up looking like a regal version of the street-smart intellectual Rushdie, about whom could also be said that '[h]e wanted a country.' Someone who can with little gaucheness observe that his subjects are 'all bags of selves, bursting with plurality.' And this identification with Akbar is apt: Rushdie perhaps suggesting that Akbar, a conqueror never really viscerally connecting to India (the unattainable Jodha) and craving for his roots (Qara Köz), mirrors Rushdie's own relationship with the complex West and his estranged vatan. Like Akbar, Rushdie might have carved a niche in an adopted country, but is homesick!

The leaping, bounding, trope-laden language that in early novels of Rushdie hurried meaning, gave sneak-previews of things ahead, nudged-winked the reader to find real world correspondences, tackily punned and winced at its own tackiness, has now gone flat. The plot is static and lacking in the charge that in the earlier Rushdie novels came from the internal peek-a-boo between a book's parts -- which together with Rushdie’s lingual brio and magical realism went in to the coining of the neologism, Rushdiesque.

Instead, we have Agra-tourist-guide tripe, kinky sex in the shape of cheesy threesomes, coffee-table erotica, and the whole Kamasutra shebang, which seems to be the only historical reality thoroughly dealt with in the book, the six-page high-brow bibliography notwithstanding. If there is Indian exotica, mumbo-jumbo can't be far behind. Counting the number of enchanters in the book could make for crashingly erudite game on a summer afternoon. The city is an enchantress. The Emperor is an enchanter. So is Mogor. The skinny whore, ‘Skeleton,’ is an enchantress. Tansen, who lights up the lamps in Skeleton’s house by singing raag Deepak, and burns himself in the process, is also an enchanter.

More endearing bits of Enchantress are Rushdie’s tongue-in-cheek self-references. He naturally identifies with Mogor, a fellow storyteller and a literary show-off: 'If [Mogor] had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well.' And even more transparently: 'Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.' Storytelling or writing history as a perilous vocation is perhaps the most fully realised theme in the book. And its depth and sincerity is authentic: 'The dungeon did not understand the idea of a story. The dungeon was static, eternal, black, and a story needed motion and time and light. He felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story.'

Enchantress reads like an earnest, adults-only, stolid version of the pixyish satirical Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Haroun, the boy protagonist based on Rushdie's older son, queries his storyteller father Rashid the Shah of Blah, ‘Why tell tales if they are not even true?’ Enchantress, as if written as a riposte, retorts, 'The story was completely untrue, but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.' An author in search of a purpose to write a story has no story. This is Rushdie gone soft, having lost all sense of irony. He has forgotten how to make the untruth of the story tell the truth without sounding preachy and boring. Another failed attempt to come out of Midnight's Children's very long shadow.

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