Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Words, words, words

Once upon a time, a blond Florentine rode a cart into a great Mughal city and met the emperor who had an imaginary wife. He told the emperor a story about three boys, best friends, who grew up in Florence at the time when Savonarola was burning, and...

Likewise, once upon a time, there lived a man who wrote a book, wrote another book, hid from a fatwa, wrote more books, kissed Hugh Grant, saw that scene cut from the movie's theatrical release, married the host of Top Chef, divorced the host of Top Chef, and then... wrote a book that reminded people that he wrote books.

Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is a giant, complicated fairy tale set in the Renaissance era but moving all over (as you can see) from Florence to India to the New World and back. Rushdie has always been the kind of author who delights in words to the point where I think he must secretly get drunk on them, reading the OED until he falls over backwards... but this novel is simply loaded with gorgeous phrases that suit the fairy-tale quality, as well as the catalogs of synonyms that he loves. Like this: "Imagine a pair of woman's lips... puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king." Or, for a reality check, a catalog of STDs.

It's a difficult novel to pin down in some ways, though it is a tremendously enjoyable read. For one thing, it's an odd genre-crossing novel, though quite decidedly a Serious Novel, I think. It's historical fiction, fairy tale, fantasy. It also provides a lengthy list of works cited with the promise to amend it if anyone complains (legal reasons? fear of the many plagiarism lawsuits that have plagued the authors of historical fiction like Ian McEwan lately?), which gives it a weird basis in reality for a novel about magic, beauty, love, and adventure.

What is more, Rushdie is famous for the overtly political facets of his novels; those are always more complicated to tease out in historical fiction/fantasy/fairy tale, though for sure they're there. His fairy tale Haroun and the Sea of Stories was seen as a commentary on free speech and the fatwa. The Enchantress of Florence is, in the same way, a musing on loyalty, religion and transnationalism just as overt as Hamid's Reluctant Fundamentalist that I blogged about just a couple of posts down. How could it not be, when one of the three friends goes off with the condottiere, becomes a Muslim janissary, and then comes back to be the last of the condottiere again? The nature of our interconnectedness just happens to be wrapped up in Florence and magic.

Truly enjoyable, truly beautifully written, and although it's so very long, the ending is very quick and rather unsatisfying -- I actually think it needed to be quicker and not introduce the character it introduces (there you go, no spoilers really) or else longer. Oh, and yes, I noticed in this one more than ever that Rushdie is not a great writer of women; he does pay attention to their thoughts and motivations, but talk about your confined gender roles. And don't tell me it's just the nature of the historical period. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend it. I'll have to reread it when I get back from Europe; this was a very hasty read, but I was absolutely dying to get to it after all the praise being hurled its way.

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