Observing from beyond the solar system, a cultural outsider looks in.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

There is no question that Salman Rushdie is a gifted storyteller. The mysterious fairy tale he weaves in his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, certainly kept my attention right up until the end. The language used here is beautiful and lush. Consider the wonderful image conveyed in the opening passage:

“In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset – this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road – might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests.”

Throughout the book, there is a fascinating structure created by echoes of similar (often magical) events reverberating through time and space. The book consists of stories within stories within stories, and at times seems to be more about the storyteller’s art than anything else.

“All men needed to hear their stories told. He was a man, but if he died without telling the story he would be something less than that, an albino cockroach, a louse.”

That this passage mentions all MEN may be more telling than Rushdie would wish it to be, especially for a novel purporting to center on the story of a woman.

The titular enchantress is a Mughal princess who disappears from her own land and eventually makes her way to Florence, Italy. The story is never truly and directly told from her perspective, however, and the second major focal point is the odd Western man calling himself the Mogor dell’Amore who arrives years later at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great to tell her story as it concerns him.

Throughout all the multiple layers of story are women, mostly courtesans and prostitutes, who are described mostly from a male perspective and consequently never seem quite real. The author seems to know this, at least subconsciously, since one of these women is actually an imaginary bride the Emperor invents for himself. The women in this novel are male fantasies, for the most part, or in a few cases male nightmares, but not real women. In fact, many of the female characters even carry the names of objects: Skeleton, Mattress, Mirror, and even Palace of Memories.

Rushdie does make an effort to describe a more complex character in a few of the female characters, specifically the “enchantress,” but they remain two-dimensional. They are beautiful and (fill in the blank), but usually only one or two other characteristics.

That the women in the book seem unreal to the last is a factor that lessened my enjoyment of the story. At times I felt that Rushdie was not just describing sexist cultures of the past, but was in fact being sexist himself. Perhaps, however, the Emperor’s fantasy wife is an indication that Rushdie does not mean these women to be real, but only to describe men’s reactions to women.

I saw a second major flaw in the ending, which I will not describe. I’ll just say it’s problematic. The general nature of the problem is that in a book that has been a magical fantasy all along, the author suddenly gets over-concerned for believability at the end; he creates a “logical” explanation for one of the book’s major mysteries, and the logic simply doesn’t bear much examination. The book would have remained more internally consistent, in my opinion, if the sense of wonder and magic were simply allowed to carry the day.

This book has been getting a lot of attention, with two reviews and one other article in the New York Times alone. Though some other reviewers have also been less than impressed with the book, it’s interesting that there seems to be no consensus on why it doesn’t quite work. The criticisms I have offered here differ greatly from what I read in the New York Times from other reviewers.

David Gates finds that it’s the magical or supernatural aspects themselves that are the problem. After quoting from the opening passage, as I have also done, he states:

“And sure enough, that’s where he began to lose me. I’m probably not Rushdie’s target audience: in literature, at least, I find the marvelous tedious, and the tedious — as rendered by a Beckett or a Raymond Carver or even a Kafka — marvelous.”
I can’t agree with this perspective. I experience quite enough of mundane reality in real life. I want magic in my fiction. I do find that it has to be grounded in reality, however, at least by characters that seem like real people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. For me, it’s not the magical aspects of the book that fail, but those that are supposed to touch base with reality and don’t.

Michiko Katukani calls the construction of the book “conventional” and “academic” and concludes that the book is “devoid of magic.” He also thinks “the novel gains narrative momentum in its final chapters.”

I can’t agree with this, either. I do think the book has a strongly magical quality, but I think it falls apart toward the end.

I can’t truthfully say that I didn’t enjoy reading this book. I just wish it had been better. In spite of its flaws, you may enjoy it, if you want a reading experience that will transport you to exotic locales and a world of magic.

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Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

Your review is incisive and quotes buttress your arguments well.

There's an interesting rule that can be applied here. And the rule is:

When a reader gets confused, the benefit of doubt goes to the writer. Same is true about modern paintings!

Let me be fair to such a great author. It's true that the storyline has much of those mixed stuffs, both historical and fictional, and only a reader who has got background in both the medieval Indian as well as European histories would enjoy it fully. But then again, mixing a different concoction is the mainstay of the opus.

I've done a bit of review, nay a reader's appreciation of the book in my blog. Maybe you like that.



August 28, 2009


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