Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie is the greatest writer of our time. This statement was easier to defend after his masterpiece, Midnight’s Children, was made a Booker among Bookers, and before the steaming pile of shit, Shalimar the Clown, made the rounds (at least the title sounded good, even if reading the thing felt like getting a wedgie), but it is true, all the same, whether you like him or not. And let’s be clear: he is the world’s most unlikable man. Four women have divorced him, the ayatollah wants him dead, and no one who has ever invited him to a dinner party has asked him back. But none of that has anything to do with writing, because you don’t read a book out of awe and respect for the author’s life-long marriage. You read to read, and Rushdie writes to write.

This time, Rushdie’s mix of magical and real involves a mind meld between the Mughals of Hindoostan and the Machiavellis and Medicis of medieval Italy. Yes, this puts the work in the category of historical fiction, and it includes a bibliography that reveals, I suspect, his new alliance with Emory, where more than a few English grad students are clamoring for an opportunity to map the line between Rushdie’s magic and the real. But ignore that. There’s a story to tell.

A young man lost in the world, with great talents and charms, not all of them legal, seeks to tell the fairy tale of his origins to the Mughal Emperor. He is descended, it would seem, from an offshoot of the line of Amerigo Vespucci untouched by the famous cousin’s wanderlust, for whom Niccolo Machiavelli, a failed Florentine politician, was a matchmaker when their friend, Arcalia, or Argalia, a great warrior who carried enchanted weapons and in whose retinue four Swedish giants traveled, died defending his true love, an enchantingly beautiful woman from the Mughal Court.

Of course, a no-account wanderer cannot walk into the Mughal Emperor’s palace and announce himself, so there is a story to be told just to bring the man to The Man. Like Satanic Verses, which includes a brothel in the image of the prophet’s harem, this man’s journey, supposedly enchanted by his mother, needs a whore’s blessing to safely enter the throne room. His prostitute protectress is something else herself:

She was so thin that her name among the other whores was Skeleton, and those clients who could afford it often hired her together with her antithesis, the obese whore called Mattress, in order to enjoy the two extremes of what the female form had to offer, first the unyielding dominance of bone and then the flesh that engulfed. The Skeleton ate like a wolf, greedily and fast, and the more she ate the fatter Mattress became, until it was suspected that the two whores had made a pact with the Devil, and in Hell it would be Skeleton who was grotesquely overweight for all eternity while Mattress rattled bonily around with the nipples on her flat chest looking like little wooden plugs.
The imperial city, in those days, was swarming with “poets and artists, those preening egoists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings, and yet neither poet nor painter, musician nor sculptor had come close to what the emperor, the Perfect Man, had achieved,” for you see, he had willed the woman of his dreams to life and she now walked the halls of his palace as his favorite queen. And so it was not altogether surprising that this emperor, an artist among artists, was rapt by the wayfaring stranger’s tale. Of course, the outsider who becomes an insider incites jealousy and even treason, described here in pre-school rhymes, among the courtiers and courtesans, and ultimately, for political reasons, of course, the emperor cannot believe the stranger’s tale.

No, we didn’t just give away the ending—there is more—but yes, the entire plot could be summed up in just a few grafs. In fact, the plot itself isn’t exactly a page turner. The real show is the language, the story telling, and that is what keeps you coming back. If we call it literary porn, you will understand that this is not an insult.

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