Book review: Loud and clear
You don’t get a more dazzling display of literature’s infinite capacity for playfulness than this. Salman Rushdie comes out firing on all cylinders — and a few extra boosters to boot — with his latest Mughal’n’Medici novel, The Enchantress of Florence. The flavour of the whole enterprise is Umberto Eco on speed. The story opens with a mysterious golden-haired traveller entering the bustling Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar’s “beautiful lie” “shimmering in the heat like an opium vision”. The reader is then shunted back and forth in location and time, entering the world of the Mughal empire at its height, with all its strong colours and smells transmuted into Rushdie’s drunken galloping language.
Parallel to this setting of the stranger in a strange land is that of an equally teeming Renaissance Italy, still shaking off the turd of the Middle Ages from its boot and entering a world where neo-Platonic ideas, rapacious realpolitik and the ways of the flesh are constantly colliding to provide a young Niccolò Machiavelli the fodder that will ultimately make him Machiavellian.
The deftness with which Rushdie creates the disparate worlds of Sikri (with its brilliant court talents; the afeem-scented Hamlet-like moments of Emperor Akbar; Jodha, Akbar’s “creation of a real life from a dream”) and that of Florence (young Niccolo and his pals dreaming of “having occult power over women” by collecting the semen of hanged men fallen to the ground; extricating and giving flesh to Hermeneutic traditions like the ‘Art of Memory’ in the form of the woman known as ‘The Memory Palace’; the filth and the fury of the Medicis are quite astounding.
The book ricochets with echoes, the most effective one being the ‘imaginary’ Jodha brimming with life, responsible for a cascading torrent of causes and effects in the court and mind of Emperor Akbar, mirrored by the drained figure of ‘The Memory Palace’, a flesh and blood automaton, whose nature is her function: to tell tales constructed by people’s memories — invented or otherwise — a living palimpsest without a soul.
But the real engine of the novel is the criss-crossings, the associations, the techtonic leaps that Rushdie constantly makes. There are four Swiss Janissaries of Stamboul — “battle scarred and leathery”, four albino giants on their white horses — who slowly seem to gain familiarity with the reader as he discovers that their names are Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan, 16th century precursors of three-plus-one musketeers of another era from another book. Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. Count Dracula, gets a bloody cameo as the vicious defender of Europe against the Turks, only to be vanquished by one of Machiavelli’s boyhood chums who has crossed over to the ‘Dark Side’.
To say that everyone will enjoy this kind of literary version of dodge’em cars and epic hedonism is too much to expect from current trends of literary fashion that prefer quiet chamber dramas and poised pirouettes. And there are stretches in the book where Rushdie does stretch things a bit too much. (For instance, the sequence of Akbar imagining himself in the first person singular, rather than in the first person plural that he is used to, could have been left a little less masticated.)
But there is more to The Enchantress of Florence than a never-abating blizzard of clever associations. In every character — whether it is the mysterious traveller-storyteller in Akbar’s court, or Akbar, or ‘The Memory Palace’, or ‘Argalia the Turk’, or the black-eyed, long-forgotten Mughal princess Qara Köz/Angelica who forms the title of the novel — we recognise the powerful force of identity-building. “Who knows how the word may be twisted, knotted and turned,” says the Traveller early on, preparing the reader for individuals prying themselves open with multiple identities to be served according to the place, the time and the situation.
Rushdie uses language in a way that makes every word seem to matter. Apart from the jhatkas of playing with proper nouns, stretching out of phrases and transmuting words through translation, the author evokes stunning images by sentences cut by hand. “As if all Florentines were cardinals, the despised poor of the city pre-empted the red-clothed eminences sealed in the Sistine Chapel and lit bonfires to celebrate the election of a Medici Pope.” We can almost hear the rabble. The artificialness of the silence demanded in Sikri when Emperor Akbar comes home from wars is palpable: “A cartwheel that squeaked could earn the cart’s driver the lash, and if he cried out under the whip the penalty could be even more severe. Women giving birth withheld their cries and the dumbshow of the marketplace was a kind of madness.”
The Enchantress of Florence is no polished stone, nor is it meant to be. It is one rolling boulder. And in its grand loudness worthy of a Rabelais or the Hamzanama, Rushdie tells us that identity is a powerful weapon of defence and offence and whoever wields it with deftness is the true Machiavelli who is able to negotiate with a tricky, murky, noisy, shape-shifting world. As Rushdie has Akbar realise: “Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”