Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Enchantress Of Florence

The Enchantress Of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Category: Fiction
Format: Hardcover, 368 pages
On Sale: May 27, 2008
Price: $26.00
ISBN: 978-0-375-50433-4 (0-375-50433-8)

Writing about the changing trend of our literary imagination, and changing socio-economic global scenario, in 1970, celebrated literary critic Harold Bloom put forward the idea of influence as hindrance to poetic creation in the book, ‘The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry’. Bloom’s central thesis is that poets are hindered in their creative process by the ambiguous relationship they necessarily maintained with precursor poets. While admitting the influence of extra-literary experience on every poet, he argues that "the poet in a poet" is inspired to write by reading another poet's poetry and will tend to produce work that is derivative of existing poetry, and, therefore, weak. Because a poet must forge an original poetic vision in order to guarantee his survival into posterity (i.e., to guarantee that future readers will not allow him to be forgotten), the influence of precursor poets inspires a sense of anxiety in living poets. (From Wikipedia.)

Taking the cue from Bloom, if you observe the creation of fiction in the recent times, especially by writers of Indian origin writing in English, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and their ilk, you will observe a very well-defined trend, carefully hidden beneath the veneer of scholarship.
The point is, fiction is no longer a story told in grand manner; it's something more than that, it's the recreation of history, seen from the point of view of the biases of the writer in question. A friend of mine argued that for a mainstream, upperclass, foreign-return or foreign-living male heterosexual writer, the scope of imagination is shrinking like the skin of an old man. There are only a handful of themes he can exploit, there are only a handful of stories he can tell, there are only a handful of ways he can play with the language and all these have been done to death. There is no scope for novelty (And that's one of the reasons why minority literature is thriving at such speed).
So, what does a mainstream, upperclass, foreign-return or foreign-living male heterosexual, Indian origin, English writing writer do? He finds a way out and returns to the origin, the history. No, they do not write the so-called historical novel, a la ‘Ivanhoe’. They write modern novels with the characters from history, and pepper them with their own ingenious scholarship. See, how a learned writer am I! And, I see history in a different light. I create my very own history.
Two recently-released books, aggressively marketed and so on, Rushdie's 'The Enchantress Of Florence' and Ghosh's 'Sea of Poppies' will illustrate the point. While Ghosh turns to the Opium War between the British and the Chinese in the eighteenth century, Rushdie travels to the more furthermost history, the Mughal period, and Akbar the Great, no less. No question asked, the books are works of great scholarship, the last pages of them bear testimonies to how many esoteric books the authors read before writing the story for us.
But are they novels, page-turners? Now, that's a million dollar question.
I am still reading Sea of Poppies. Meanwhile, let's talk about The Enchantress of Florence.

You can paraphrase the Enchantress as Rushdie's retelling of world history: Okay, you, Westerners, when you guys had Renaissance, we too had our golden age, we too had our greatness. When you had a good time in Florence, we too had a good time in Fatehpur Sikri. And we had a lot, a lot of sex. Now, there can be an argument about what good times mean for people. But what Rushdie says is this, whatever your idea of good time may be, it could be found at Akbar's Sultanat, perhaps much more than you can expect.
In the recent times, Sir Salman has turned increasingly pro-India, pro-Kashmir, and pro-everything concerning India, and the Enchantress is a strong stamp on how Rushdie is on a mission to glorify everything 'Indian history.' This is more than just a co-incidence that a book on Akbar and a Bollywood film on Akbar was released in the same year, and if you take a close look, you will observe that Rushdie's novel is far, far Bollywoodish that the Bollywood fare Jodhaa-Akbar starring Hritik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai.
Like all Rushdie yarn, this one too is about a story within a story within a story. A yellow-haired Florentine visits the court of Mughal Emperor Akbar. He has a secret fit only for the emperor's ears. And he would do everything to get the secret to Akbar, magic tricks, murder and other moribund adventures, like hooking up with a hooker, who gives him a secret perfume that only an emperor is worth wearing. Yeah, a lot of secret things are going on around. So much so that when our visitor, Marco Polo with a purpose, son of a friend of Niccolo Machiavelli, remember, the one who said, ‘End will justify the means’, refuses to tell his secrets at the first change he gets. Instead, he dilly-dallies, and our very own teller of tales, Rushdie, takes this opportunity to tell us numerous other stories, all inconsequential, mind you, like the one about Jodhaa, Emperor Akbar's non-existent wife who eats, sleeps and talk with him, and how everyone at the palace is jealous of her, or like Savanarola being hanged or burned, or the descriptions of Florentine whorehouses.
Finally, when the yellow-haired stranger is out with the secret, you wonder if it was really a big deal. Looks like Babur had a sister who was taken away by Shah of Persia, and something like that. Then one Florentine youth, a soldier with the Ottoman emperor, attacked Persia, and some other godforsaken land, and recues the Dark Lady. They fall in love, and the solider, called Arkalia, or something like that, takes his new-found trophy wife to Florence, where she was revered as enchantress and then vilified as a witch...
Okay. I should not say anything more. Because thereby hangs the entire tale of Sir Salman's flowery fiction.
When it comes to using the language, there are still very few who can write like Salman Rushdie. And looks like, he knows this too. Here begins the problem. When Rushdie begins to take himself seriously, he begins to lose his lustre. Here, he takes himself utmost seriously. His lovely banters, that made his earlier book such a joy to read again and again is severely missing here. It seems Rushdie has written the book with an express purpose. Now, only he knows the purpose. The point is, the magic of the earlier Rushdie is severely missing.
Talking about magic, even the employment of magic realism tricks look forces at most places, like the painter who falls in love with the images he has painted that he chooses to live on the frame of one of his own drawings, like Arkalia wearing an underwear with tupils embroidered on it. Give us a break, please...

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