Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5308
Many Western readers, ignorant of Islam and Hinduism, the 1947 partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, the India-Pakistan war of 1965, and the Pakistani civil war of 1974, may tend to read Salman Rushdie’s novels as bizarre entertainments. This is unfortunate, since each is a picaresque allegory into which the author has inserted details from his own life in order to prove that myth is history, today is yesterday, and the life of one person is integral to the history of nations. Rushdie masks events here and there and relentlessly mixes Persian and Hindu myths, but the hiatus in logic that this method creates is merely to prove his contention that an Anglo-Indian-Pakistani is a person with a hole in the body, a vital place in which there is a haunting void.
Midnight’s Children is Rushdie’s allegorical picaresque on the history of the modern state of India. Its narrator, Saleem Sinai, is one of those whose birth coincided with the hour and day India achieved independence: midnight, August 15, 1947. He and many others, including Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, considered these “midnight’s children” singled out, privileged by the hopeful hour at which they began their lives. Saleem discovers that he does indeed have special powers; he can, in his mind, summon all the other children born during the midnight hour of August 15, 1947, and, when a boy, he does so nightly, establishing the “Midnight Children’s Conference,” a forum he hopes will augur well for organizing the leaders of the new state.
Saleem’s family is prosperous; they reside in one of Bombay’s more affluent sections on an estate of homes once owned by an Englishman, William Methwold, who left India on the very day the Raj ended. Through a bizarre series of events (an accident at school that reveals that his blood type corresponds to neither parent and the subsequent confession of Mary Pereira, a nurse who had worked at the hospital at which Saleem was born), Saleem’s family discovers that Mary had intentionally switched children, giving the Sinais a child of one of Bombay’s poorest families. Only Saleem, through his telepathic powers, knows that the Sinais’s real son, reared as a street urchin named Shiva, is actually an illegitimate child of the Englishman Methwold. Though the Sinais make no attempt to locate their own boy and do accept Saleem as their own, Saleem recognizes Shiva as his nemesis and realizes that Shiva may well destroy him.
Each of the children of midnight has some special talent or ability by virtue of time and date of birth: Saleem’s telepathic skills, Shiva’s extraordinarily strong knees (which he uses to kill the Indian street entertainer he believes is his father), and the abilities of Parvati-the-witch, who seeks to use her talents only for good. All the children become caught up in the political machinations that follow upon India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan. Saleem’s family, aware that they are part of India’s unwanted Muslim minority, immigrate to Pakistan. This event, plus the fact that Saleem no longer wishes to have any contact with Shiva, the rightful heir of the Sinais, ends Saleem’s nightly summoning of the Midnight Children’s Conference. Once in Pakistan, Saleem discovers that his telepathic powers do not work. He tries, instead, to develop his exceptional power of smell, utilizing his huge nose to smell danger, injustice, unhappiness, poverty, and other elements of Pakistani life.
Saleem and his family become caught up in Pakistan’s 1965 war with India. Saleem’s former countrymen become his enemies, and all of his family are killed in the war, except his sister, who has taken the name Jamila Singer and has become famous as a singer of patriotic songs. When the east wing of Pakistan secedes in 1973 and declares itself the independent state of Bangladesh, Saleem enlists in Pakistan’s canine patrol, the Cutia, performing the function of a dog to sniff out traitors. Pakistan’s devastating loss in the war leaves Saleem without a country. Ultimately, it is Parvati-the-witch who uses her magic to make him disappear and return him to India.
Saleem marries Parvati but is unable to consummate the marriage. Whenever he tries to do so, he sees the decaying face of Jamila, the woman who had been reared as his sister. Saleem had loved Jamila, but he also had come to recognize that their nominal brother-sister relationship would not allow her to be his. Out of frustration, Parvati takes Shiva, now a major in India’s army, as her lover. She gives birth to his child, named Aadam, whom Saleem acknowledges as his own son.
Shiva, the destroyer, supervises the slum clearance project that not only eliminates the Bombay quarter in which the magicians had lived but also kills Parvati and many of her magician colleagues who had refused to leave their homes. Saleem is one of those arrested and brought to Benares, the town of the widows. Here he is imprisoned, forced by Shiva to name and identify the skills of the children of midnight; he is released only after he has been forcibly sterilized. Oddly, those arrested as a result of Saleem’s information do not blame him; they, too, are sterilized.
Much more happens in Midnight’s Children. The novel is structured as a family history that reaches back to Saleem’s grandparents and describes the political circumstances in India after World War I, through World War II and the end of the Raj, to the war with Pakistan and the Pakistani civil war. It is also highly mythic. Sinai, the surname of the narrator, masks the name of the Arabian philosopher Avicenna (Ab ՙAl al-Husain ibn ՙAbdallh ibn Sn; 980-1037), who saw the emanations of God’s presence in the cosmos as a series of triads of mind, body, and soul. The triads appear in the three generations of Sinais who appear in the novel, but the three religions of India—Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity—which also appear, do nothing to reverse the downward course of India’s fortunes after 1947. Sin is the ancient moon god of Hadhramut, who acting at a distance can influence the tides of the world. He is represented by the letter S and is as sinuous as the snake. Appropriately, Saleem discovers his son Aadam in the care of a master snake charmer, Picture Singh. Sinai is both the place of revelation, of commandments and the golden calf, and the desert of barrenness and infertility that is Rushdie’s view of modern India.
Saleem’s nose resembles the trunk of the elephant deity, Kali, who is the god of literature, and the huge ears of Saleem’s son Aadam carry the motif into India’s future. Shiva is the Hindu god of destruction and reproduction, a member of the trinity that includes Brama and Vishnu. The closing chapters of the novel find Saleem the manager of a Bombay pickle factory owned by his former nurse, Mary Pereira, the woman who had originally exchanged him for the true son of the Sinais, underscoring the motif of absurd continuity, pickled history, and Saleem’s huge nose, which is called a cucumber as often as it is an elephant’s trunk.
The most savage satire of the book is reserved for Indira Gandhi, daughter of Nehru and, until her 1984 assassination, prime minister of India. Rushdie repeatedly cites a famous newspaper photograph in which her hair is white on one side and black on the other to symbolize her hypocrisy. He ridicules Sanjay Gandhi, her son, now also dead, as the mastermind of India’s slum clearance and birth-control plans. Specific members of Gandhi’s cabinet appear in the novel with appendages to their titles, such as “Minister for Railroads and Bribery.” Gandhi’s campaign slogan “Indira is India, and India is Indira,” which Rushdie often quotes in these contexts, thus becomes a dire prophecy. It is little wonder that distribution of Midnight’s Children, published during India’s state of national emergency, was prohibited in India. The novel also made Rushdie persona non grata in the country of his birth.
Rushdie has called Shame his “antisequel” to Midnight’s Children. It has picaresque and seriocomic elements that resemble those of the earlier novel, but its characters are Pakistanis, members of the power elite that had its historical counterpart in the circle of deposed prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Bhutto’s protégé, the man who engineered the coup and Bhutto’s trial and execution, Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame created as much consternation in Pakistan as Midnight’s Children had in India, with precisely the same result: The novel was banned in Pakistan, and Rushdie was considered subversive.
The title of Shame derives from the Urdu word Sharam, and it contains an encyclopedia of nuance the English barely suggests: embarrassment, discomfiture, indecency, immodesty, and the sense of unfulfilled promise. Rushdie thus explores in this work themes that are similar to those of his first novel. All the characters experience shame in one or another of these forms as well as some its converse, shamelessness.
Shame also maintains the highly mythic, literary tone of Midnight’s Children. Its unprepossessing hero, evocatively named Omar Khayyám Shakil, is a paunchy doctor of great promise with the name of the Persian poet known for the twelfth century Rubáiyát, the erotic lyric poems imitated in English by Edward FitzGerald in 1859. Rushdie’s Omar is born in a crumbling house called Nishapur (also the town of the historical poet’s birth), once the mansion of an Englishman, Colonel Arthur Greenfield, in a Pakistani backwater identified only as “Q,” but perhaps Quetta.
The circumstances of Omar’s birth are ambiguous. He has three mothers: Chhunni, Munnee, and Bunny Shakil. These three sisters all consider him their son, and none discloses which of them actually gave him birth, nor will they disclose the name of his father, though the reader learns that he is an Englishman. Omar’s situation is thus a metaphor of the mixed cultural legacy Rushdie often describes. Indeed, Rushdie has often spoken of himself as a man with three mothers: India, Pakistan, and England. The house in which Omar is reared is a labyrinth, a relic of the British Raj; its corridors lead to rooms unoccupied for generations, and Omar, who in his early boyhood is prohibited from leaving the house at any time, is frightened out of his wits when he ventures too far and sees that the water-seeking roots of a tree have punctured the house’s outer walls. All of this is Rushdie’s metaphorical description of the state of mind of a person with mixed and hostile origins: alienated, loveless, relentlessly, fearfully traversing the labyrinth of the mind, and feeling shame. Omar’s only glimpse of the world outside Nishapur is through his telescope, appropriately, given that the poet for whom he was named was also an astronomer.
The novel is filled with a wealth of characters whose backgrounds are similarly symbolic and complex. Rushdie draws them together both through family relationships and through their individually shameful actions as well as their capacity to feel shame. For example, Bilquìs Kemal Hyder is a woman reared in Bombay, India, by her father, Mahound “the Woman” Kemal, owner of a motion-picture theater. The epithet regularly applied to her father is simultaneously an indication of his motherly solicitude for his daughter and a jibe at his having lost his masculinity by assuming the burden of child rearing. After her father dies in a terrorist bomb blast that also destroys his theater, Bilquìs is rescued by Raza “Razor Guts” Hyder, Rushdie’s version of Zia, an ambitious young military officer who takes her as his bride and returns to the family home in Karachi, Pakistan, the country created by partition of the Indian subcontinent. Thrust into an uncompromisingly Muslim environment, she finds herself shamed when she is unable to bear Hyder a son. Of their two daughters, Sufiya Zinobia Hyder and Naveed “Good News” Hyder, the first is perpetually childlike, the result of a mistreated case of meningitis. Bilquìs and Hyder’s second daughter, “Good News,” atones for her mother’s relative infertility by bearing twenty-seven children.
The focus of Shame is the rise to power of Omar’s companion in dissipation, Iskander “Isky” Harappa, based on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Isky gives up drinking and womanizing in middle age, adopts the veneer of a devout Muslim, and seizes power after the loss of Pakistan’s east wing. For a time he remains popular, assisted by his beautiful unmarried daughter, Arjumand “Virgin Ironpants” Harappa, Rushdie’s satiric depiction of Benazir Bhutto, who would later become prime minister of Pakistan. Isky’s wife, Rani Humayun Hyder, remains out of the limelight on the family’s isolated estate, where she weaves shawls that document all of her husband’s acts of shame—a twist on the Penelope motif of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614). By the time Isky is hanged in a military coup, Rani has completed eighteen of these shawls. (Rushdie enumerates the details of each in an angry excursus modeled on a Homeric epic catalog.)
When Hyder seizes power, he encourages the trial and conviction of Isky Harappa. After a curious combination of circumstances causes Harappa’s death, Hyder orders the corpse hanged, ostensibly carrying out the court’s sentence of execution. Hyder’s increasing concern is, however, the deviant behavior of his daughter, Sufiya Zinobia. Though well past twenty, she has the mental age of less than ten. Hyder accepts Omar Shakil’s offer to marry her, made out of shame for his past womanizing and platonic love for the young woman whose life he had saved. Sufiya Zinobia is, however, aware that some act about which she knows nothing regularly accompanies marriage. She twice escapes from the Hyder house, where she is literally imprisoned (recalling Shakil’s own imprisonment in youth), allows herself to be raped at random by street-walking men, then decapitates the men who have raped her. The villagers who discover these decapitated corpses create the legend of a wild white panther to explain the murders, but Hyder knows that his daughter is the killer and fears that she will eventually decapitate him.
When Hyder’s downfall appears imminent, he, his wife Bilquìs, and Shakil escape to the closed mansion of Shakil’s youth, and Shakil’s three mothers give them sanctuary. Shakil quickly realizes, however, that the three old women plan to kill Hyder in reprisal for his having ordered the death of their younger son, Babar Shakil, for his terrorist involvements. This they do, though not before the accidental death of Bilquìs. Shakil dies soon thereafter, shot by Talvar Ulhaq, Hyder’s son-in-law and former state police chief. The pantherlike figure of Sufiya Zinobia observes the carnage, with Harappa’s daughter Arjumand hovering as a vision of a future of “a new cycle of shamelessness.”
Rushdie’s point, developed through these and other complexities of plot, is that shame and shamelessness develop through religious and political failure; the images of Islam and Pakistan that he invokes are filled with parricide and cruelty, but never genuine and simple love. That those who destroy one another are related by family as well as national ties merely compounds the tragedy and the shame. Rushdie’s Pakistan is presented as “a failure of the dreaming mind.”
The Satanic Verses
The Satanic Verses is Rushdie’s strongest indictment of politicized religion, mixed cultural identity, and insensitive, arbitrary officialdom. Its tone is allegorical, picaresque, satiric, and irreverent. Those who know details concerning the founding of Islam, British politics, and contemporary London will recognize the objections made to the book; those unaware of these particulars will likely be puzzled by the novel’s character and chronological shifts and may even wonder why the work has caused such consternation.
The novel begins with an explosion, a passenger airplane destroyed by a terrorist bomb as it flies over the English Channel. Only two passengers survive: Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha, two actors of Indian origin. Miraculously, they float to earth unharmed. Farishta, whose first name is the Indian form of that of the angel Gabriel, has made his reputation playing Krishna, Gautama Buddha, Hanuman, and other Indian deities in films known as theologicals. Chamcha, a complete Anglophile, has achieved fame by doing commercial voice-overs in England, though his face is unknown to his admiring audience. With this as background, Rushdie establishes the figure of the angel Gibreel (in Islam associated with bringing Allah’s call to theProphet Muḥammad) and the apparently diabolical Chamcha, who has traded his ethnic identity for a pseudo-British veneer.
When they land, Chamcha discovers that he has grown horns under his very English bowler, as well as cloven hooves and a huge phallus—this despite his mild demeanor, elegant manners, and proper British appearance. Farishta (whose surname means “sweet”) finds that he has a halo, despite his being an unconscionable womanizer. His very trip to England was a pursuit of Alleluia Cone, the British “ice queen” of Polish refugee parents. Cone is an internationally famous mountain climber who has conquered Mount Everest. Rushdie thus mixes the imagery of good and evil, angel and demon; this is an exponential motif of the entire novel. It follows that the British police arrest Chamcha as an illegal immigrant and brutalize him terribly. Farishta, however, because of his angelic appearance, remains free, having charmed the police and having refused to identify Chamcha.
Thenarrative then abruptly shifts to introduce Mahound, a blasphemous name for Muḥammad, the founder of Islam. Edmund Spenser used the name Mahound in The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) to represent a heathen idol reserved for oaths sworn by the wicked. Rushdie’s Mahound profanely re-creates Muḥammad’s call from Allah through the angel Gabriel. Mahound, like Muḥammad, is a businessman; he climbs Mount Cone and looks down on the city of sand that Rushdie calls Jahilia, a fictive town that corresponds to Mecca. Mahound’s pursuit of his destiny on Mount Cone corresponds to Gibreel’s pursuit of mountain climber Alleluia Cone; his dream-filled sleeps as he awaits the angel Gibreel resemble the trancelike seizures, ever increasing in severity, of Gibreel Farishta.
Mahound’s companions are described as the scum of Jahilia (Muḥammad’s companions were former slaves), and Rushdie puckishly names one of them Salman. They have the habit, dangerous in a city built entirely of sand, of constantly washing themselves (a parody of Muslim ritual purification). The twelve whores of Jahilia (which means “ignorance” or “darkness”), reminiscent of Muḥammad’s twelve wives and known as Mothers of the Believers, reside in a brothel called the Curtain. Translated as hejab, this can be associated with the curtainlike veil worn by pious Muslim women.
Abu Simbel, the name of the village flooded in the 1960’s when Egypt constructed the Aswn High Dam, is the name given here to the ruler of Jahilia, a city also endangered by water. Because he recognizes Mahound as a threat to his power, Abu Simbel offers him a deal. If Mahound’s Allah will accept a mere 3 of Jahilia’s 360 deities into the new monotheistic religion, he will recognize it and give Mahound a seat on the ruling council. It will not be much of a compromise, Abu Simbel insists, since Mahound’s religion already recognizes Gibreel as the voice of Allah and Shaitan (Satan) as the spirit the Qur՚n records would not bow before Adam.
Mahound decides to compromise. He climbs Cone Mountain, consults with his Gibreel, then returns to Jahilia to announce the new verses: “Have you thought upon Lat and Uzza, and Manat, the third, the other?They are the exalted birds, and their intercession is desired indeed.” These are the so-called Satan-inspired inclusions of the goddesses of motherhood (Lat), beauty and love (Uzza), and fate (Manat) as daughters of Allah, which the Qur՚n rejects as heresy. Mahound later publicly recants this heretical insertion and flees to Yathrib (the ancient name for Medina), corresponding to the historical account of the hegira, Muḥammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina. Gibreel reappears to announce: “It was me both times, baba, me first and second also me.” One can draw implications that Islam was founded by rationalizing good and evil, that its founder was both a sincere mystic and a power-hungry entrepreneur, and that Gibreel, an actor who specializes in impersonating deities, had given at least one bravura performance that changed history.
Rushdie goes on to recount a masked sardonic version of the holy war to establish Islam, continuing to blur the distinction between ancient and modern times. A bearded, turbaned imam in exile in London (which he considers Sodom) is in exile from his homeland, called Desh. When a revolution begins in Desh and overthrows the corrupt empress, named Ayesha (ironically also the name of Muḥammad’s favorite wife), Gibreel (perhaps the angel, perhaps the actor Farishta, perhaps one and the same) flies the imam to Desh on his back in time to see the carnage. This episode can be interpreted as the recall to Iran of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who was in exile near Paris until the overthrow of the shah. When the revolution succeeds, Ayesha metamorphoses into the mother goddess, Al-Lat, she whom Mahound had falsely named a daughter of Allah in the satanic verses.
In a parallel sequence, an epileptic peasant girl, also named Ayesha, arouses the lust of a landowner named Mirza Saeed, whose wife is dying of breast cancer. As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, so Ayesha, who declares that her husband the archangel Gibreel has told her to do so, leads the entire village, including Saeed’s wife, on a pilgrimage by foot to Mecca. She declares that the Arabian Sea will open to admit them (recalling the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus); butterflies mark their privileged status, and they are Ayesha’s only food (recalling the manna of the Israelites). All that the unbelievers see as they watch the pilgrims is their disappearance into the Arabian Sea. The implication remains that Ayesha parts the sea for those who believe; to everyone else, the entire enterprise ends as a cult suicide. This motif emphasizes the novel’s focus on migration, which Rushdie has claimed is its central subject.
Much more happens in The Satanic Verses. London, called “Ellowen Deeowen” by Farishta, is beset by ethnic antagonisms. Its police and most whites are brutal racists; its Indians are rogues or displaced mystics. Still, nothing in Rushdie’s novel is what it appears to be, and that is his point. Empires and religions alike arise from a combination of noble and sordid motives. It is impossible to admire or hate anything unreservedly; there is evil even in that which appears absolutely good, and, conversely, one can explain evil in terms of good gone awry. Such relativism is hardly new, but the notoriety The Satanic Verses has received has obscured the author’s point. What is clear is that The Satanic Verses is the logical sequel to ideas Rushdie began to develop in Midnight’s Children and Shame, as well as an allegory that strains narrative and religious sensibilities to the breaking point.
The Moor’s Last Sigh
As a kind of permanent immigrant, a man who can neither return to a home country (India) nor feel really at home in any other land, Rushdie has, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has noted, presented a “vision of migrancy as the very condition of cultural modernity.” A crucial aspect of this aesthetic position, however, has been an intense examination of the various homelands that formed—and continued to inform—the intellectual, spiritual, and political components of Rushdie’s psychological being. Whereas Midnight’s Children and Shame focus on India and Pakistan at specific, contemporary moments in their postcolonial history, The Moor’s Last Sigh is an attempt to account for and understand the origins and evolution of the complex cultural matrix that Rushdie refers to as “Mother India.” Its narrative combines the overall structure of the classic nineteenth century novel, projecting the epic sweep of history, with an episodic linkage of individual incidents and characters akin to the picaresque; it is also similar to Eastern story cycles.
The Moor of the title is Moraes Zogoiby, son of Aurora Da Gama, whose lineage is Indian Muslim, and Abraham Zogoiby, whose ancestors include Muslim and Jewish exiles who were banished from Spain in 1492. Through the course of the novel, Moraes tells the story of his family from the mid-nineteenth century to the present (the 1990’s), where he, the lone survivor, has returned to Spain to continue a frustrating quest for his mother’s legacy: the Moorish paintings that may reveal the essential truth and meaning of his life.
This intricate, swirling mix of history, myth, legend, personal feuds, ethnic rivalries, and disappointed love is the story of a man trying to make some sense of his life as well as the story of his fascinating, driven family. It is also the saga of a country with a long past, an interim as a semisubjugated colonial entity, and a turbulent, troubled present. While much of the narrative is written with the kind of vivid, detailed realism that is one of the marks of Rushdie’s style—an abundance of descriptive images and evocative details—frequent infusions of mystic moments, almost hallucinatory states of being, apparent intrusions of the supernatural, and other features of Magical Realism contribute to a larger dimension than a historic record. This is especially apparent in the presentation of Aurora Zogoiby as a symbol for India itself, an equivalent to the Mother India (the name of a film released in 1957, the year of Moraes’s birth) that represents all of the clashing, tempestuous qualities exerting an immense emotional pull on its inhabitants. It is also apparent in Moraes’s (meaning Rushdie’s) exhilarated response to and evocation of the city of Bombay, an urban masculine complement to the more pastoral, and historically traditional, feminine motherland.
Moraes states early in the novel that his account is one of regret, “a last sigh for a lost world,” and the world that he re-creates or reimagines is a rich fusion of cultures, a hybrid set in sharp contrast to what Rushdie calls “the fundamentalist, totalized explanation of the world” that he has challenged throughout his work. The novel begins in the region of Cochin, where the West (Europe) and the East (India) met and mingled for the first time. It was the central site of the pepper crop, and among other extended metaphors that are threaded through the novel, spice—the source of the Da Gama family wealth—stands for passionate love. The shift from commerce in the spice trade to the contemporary economics of currency and technology underscores the separation of the human from its most significant strengths and is one of the primary causes of the downward course that the Da Gama line takes.
For Rushdie, love begins as an irresistible rush of physical feeling that overwhelms the senses but then is complicated by circumstances of family, ambition, and cultural forces beyond individual control. While Moraes maintains that “defeated love would still be love,” Rushdie has observed that “the central story of Aurora and Abraham in the book is a story of what happens when love dies.” Moraes struggles to fill the “dreadful vortex” of its absence, and though his life in retrospect reveals his failure in all the realms where love matters (nation, parents, partner), his efforts to understand love’s power and to use it in accordance with a set of human values redeem his failure.
The loss of Moraes’s family foundation due to love’s blindness and treachery is balanced by the restoring capacity of the love for a place and by the invigorating experience of artistic consciousness as a means of illumination. The Moor’s Last Sigh is a paen to a special place, the vanishing (perhaps never existent) India of Rushdie’s heart’s core, the “romantic myth of a plural, hybrid nation,” which he lovingly describes in Aurora’s paintings.
A sense of loss permeates the narrative, as Moraes’s three sisters, his treacherous lover Uma Sarasvati (possibly based on Marianne Wiggins), many acquaintances, and various semiadversaries die prematurely. Adding to this loss are his estrangement from his parents and his separation from the places he has known as home. As a compensation of sorts, India continues to glow in Moraes’s mind, rendered indelibly in Rushdie’s verbal paintings. It is the unifying concept for what Rushdie calls “the four anchors of the soul,” which he lists as “place, language, people, customs.” The sheer size of the India that Rushdie constructs, in addition to a palimpsest of its layers, makes it an elusive, almost chimerical country. The Moor’s Last Sigh, laced with loss, disappointment, frustration, and anger, is not a pessimistic vision of existence, because even when place, peoples, and customs are removed, language remains, and Moraes—who exhibits all of the verbal virtuosity that is a feature of Rushdie’s style—utilizes the powers of language in the service of truth, to his last breath.
The Enchantress of Florence
The Enchantress of Florence is an ambitious work; though presented as a novel, it more closely resembles medieval romance. It is concerned with the storytelling process more than with telling a sustained story. Frame tales appear within frame tales, and the result is a work that resembles the fifteenth century collection of stories The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (also known as The Thousand and One Nights) or perhaps John Barth’s Chimera (1972), his own resetting of the Scheherazade tales.
The central figure of The Enchantress of Florence is Akbar the Great, the liberal Mughal emperor of the sixteenth century, a historical figure. Akbar represents toleration of religion, no doubt an attractive symbol for Rushdie, given the precarious circumstances under which he has lived since publication of The Satanic Verses. Akbar sees the world in which he lives dissolving into hatred and violence. Though something of a philosopher king, he seems paralyzed by his inability to trust any of those around him, even his closest advisers.
A mysterious traveler from the West suddenly appears at Akbar’s court. He too has a basis in history, though his identifications are several. The stranger is variously Agostino Vespucci (cousin of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci), though he also calls himself “Uccello.” The immediate reference appears to be to Paolo Uccello, born Paolo di Dono (1397-1475), a Renaissance painter known for his application of mathematical principles to his art in conveying perfect perspective. It is also true, however, that this relatively common Italian surname, meaning “bird,” implies someone wise but crafty and possibly untrustworthy. Vespucci-Uccello has a third identity, perhaps the most significant, that of Mogor dell’Amore, the “Mughal of Love.” Vespucci-Uccello-Mogor dell’Amore claims kinship with Akbar and quickly becomes his closest adviser, though even Akbar is aware of the seductive quality of his new adviser’s tale telling.
The Enchantress of Florence is a verbal arabesque with an enormous number of characters. Many of these are historical figures fictionalized and reworked, such as the Medicis and Niccolò Machiavelli. There is also a variation on the Pygmalion myth. Despite his extensive harem, Akbar is able to conjure up only one, Jodha, who is perfect, and he has done this through a dream. Jodha’s opposite is Qara Köz (“Black Eyes”) whose androgynous sensuality fills Rushdie’s romance. Rushdie channels this sensuality into aesthetics, however, for this is his abiding concern.
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