A graceful fool…or perhaps no fool at all. Perhaps someone to be reckoned with. If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself….
—The Enchantress of Florence
In Salman Rushdie’s Fury (2001), a novel of Swiftian dyspepsia published the very week of September 11, the fifty-five-year-old misanthropic Professor Malik Solanka, “retired historian of ideas,” has enjoyed an unexpected popular success for having created a BBC-TV series called The Adventures of Little Brain in which a doll called “Little Brain”—handcrafted by Solanka himself—interviews a series of “Great Minds” dolls in a familiar history-of-philosophy format. Little Brain is a sassy, spiky-haired Candide who, in contemporary talk-show fashion, goads her interviewees into surprising revelations:
The favorite fiction writer of the seventeenth-century heretic Baruch Spinoza turned out to be P.G. Wodehouse, an astonishing coincidence, because of course the favorite philosopher of the immortal shimmying butler Reginald Jeeves was Spinoza…. The Iberian Arab thinker Averroës, like his Jewish counterpart Maimonides, was a huge Yankee fan….
In deep disgust with his contemporaries, especially his fellow academicians at King’s College, Cambridge, Solanka becomes entranced by the possibility of seeing the world “miniaturized”:
It was a trick of the mind to see human life made small, reduced to doll size…. A little modesty about the scale of human endeavor was to be desired. Once you had thrown that switch in your head, the hard thing was to see in the old way. Small was beautiful….
As Jonathan Swift demonstrates in the savage comedy of Gulliver’s Travels, “humanity” is but a matter of scale: rendered as dolls, miniaturized like the Lilliputians of Gulliver’s first voyage, we are reduced not only in size but in stature; our ideals, our suffering, our most grievous quarrels are revealed as ridiculous. In Fury our “Great Minds” become comic characters to be exploited by the media.
Set primarily in New York City—a city “boiling” with money where the very harness bells on the horse-drawn carriages in Central Park jingle like “cash in hand”—Fury exudes an air of personal grievance and rage that seems disproportionate to Solanka’s experience as a professor, historian, husband, father, minor celebrity. Virtually everyone he has known or encounters is despicable, given to embittered ranting monologues in confirmation of Solanka’s conviction that “life is fury”:
Fury—sexual, Oedipal, political, magical, brutal—drives us to our finest helights and coarsest depths. Out of furia comes creation, inspiration, originality, passion, but also violence, pain, pure unafraid destruction, the giving and receiving of blows from which we never recover.
Typically in a novel by Salman Rushdie, the protagonist falls in love with a femme fatale (here named Neela Mahendra) so ravishingly beautiful that strangers stagger up to gape at her; Solanka becomes “deeply enmeshed in her web…. The queen webspyder, mistress of the whole webspyder posse, had him in her net.” Soon, however, he discovers that “this beautiful, accursed girl” is an “incarnation of a Fury”:
…one of the three deadly sisters, the scourges of mankind. Fury was their divine nature and boiling human wrath their favorite food. He could have persuaded himself that behind her low whispers, beneath her unfailingly even tempered tones, he could hear the Erinnyes’ shrieks.
Greeted with a mixed critical reception in 2001, Fury is best appreciated as a machine-gun volley of Swiftian indignation, at its highest pitch fueled by a powerful charge of self-loathing like a cri de coeur from the beleaguered author whose life as a private citizen ended with nightmare abruptness on February 14, 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, or death sentence, for Rushdie’s alleged blasphemy in his pyrotechnic postmodernist black comedy The Satanic Verses (1988). One feels the author speaking through the beleaguered Solanka in terror of the Erinnyes—the Furies of ancient Athens, “serpent-haired, dog-headed, bat-winged”—hounding him for the remainder of his life.
Where the strategy of Fury is to miniaturize by way of corrosive satire, the strategy of Rushdie’s new, tenth novel, The Enchantress of Florence, an elaborately allegorized “romance-adventure” set in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Florence and in Fatehpur Sikri, the capital of India’s Mughal Empire, is to inflate in the more genial, disingenuous way of fables, fairy tales, and The Thousand and One Nights as narrated by the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade. Because The Enchantress of Florence is simultaneously a postmodernist work of prose fiction, highly self-conscious and stylized, variously influenced by metafictionists John Barth (Giles Goat-Boy, Chimera), Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler), and Gabriel Garcìa Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude, The Autumn of the Patriarch), among others, the inflation of Rushdie’s characters and the story in which they participate is presented in comic-epic terms. Here is a “historical novel” that is also an artful parody of the genre, by a master storyteller not unlike his audacious protagonist Niccolò Vespucci, who mesmerizes the despotic Mughal emperor with his storytelling skills: the magician-charlatan-imposter-artist who is “not only himself but a performance of himself as well.”
Rushdie’s storyteller-hero is a somewhat extraordinary person: this bold traveler from the West—we will learn, in time, that he is one Ago Vespucci of Florence, who has renamed himself Niccolò Vespucci after his closest boyhood friend Niccolò “il Machia” (Machiavelli)—rides in a bullock-cart standing up “like a god” when we first see him; his hair is a “dirty yellow” yet flows down around his face “like the golden water of the lake.”
This Western traveler to exotic India has an “overly pretty face”—in fact, he is “certainly beautiful, and knew that his looks had a power of their own.” Somehow, he has acquired seven languages: Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Persian, Russian, English, and Portuguese; he has been “driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and by one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.” As in the oldest and most enduring of young-male-quest tales, the youthful traveler seeks an audience with the ruler of the strange new land he is visiting; the ruler will be a patriarch, an older man likely to be tyrannical, yet drawn to the young man for his very brashness and cunning. If the young man seeks a father, the older man seeks a son: it is inevitable that the Mughal emperor whom the traveler encounters, Akbar the Great (1542–1605), will have sons who have disappointed him, and will long for a young man he can trust:
That young man will not be my son but I will make him more than a son. I will make him my hammer and my anvil. I will make him my beauty and my truth. He will stand upon my palm and fill the sky.
As soon as Akbar meets the yellow-haired traveler—who gives his name as “Mogor dell’Amore”—he succumbs to the youth’s charms, despite his suspicion that the traveler may be a charlatan:
How handsome this young man was, how sure of himself, how proud. And there was something in him that could not be seen: a secret that made him more interesting than a hundred courtiers.
As Rushdie presents Akbar, the emperor is both a brooding philosopher-king who questions the tradition into which he has been born—“Maybe there was no true religion…. He wanted to be able to say, it is man at the center of things, not God”—and something of a buffoon, a comically inflated mega-mythic figure:
The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory—the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, oversexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage.
Much of The Enchantress of Florence is couched in such playful tongue-in-cheek bombast, echoing, at greater length and with more literary ambition, the comedy of Rushdie’s charming book for children, Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), in which folk and fairy tales are genially mocked (“Here’s another Princess Rescue Story I’m getting mixed up in, thought Haroun…. I wonder if this one will go wrong, too”). It isn’t clear when we are to take Akbar seriously and when Rushdie is inviting the reader to laugh at him:
The emperor’s eyes were slanted and large and gazed upon infinity as a dreamy young lady might…. His lips were full and pushed forward in a womanly pout. But in spite of these girlish accents he was a mighty specimen of a man, huge and strong. As a boy he had killed a tigress with his bare hands…. [He was] a Muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher-king: a contradiction in terms. Such was the greatest ruler the land had ever known.
Akbar insists that he is not a tyrant and that he believes that “in the House of God all voices are free to speak as they choose,” yet he executes the grandson of an old enemy:
Then with a cry—Allahu Akbar, God is great, or, just possibly, Akbar is God—he chopped off the pompous little twerp’s cheeky, didactic, and therefore suddenly unnecessary, head…. He was not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world….
What Akbar longs for is the exotic West: which comes to him in the guise of the yellow-haired Mogor dell’Amore with a tale to tell so tangled (“This was his way: to move toward his goal indirectly, with many detours and divagations”) that it will require hundreds of pages of Rushdie’s challenging prose.
As the yellow-haired traveler and the emperor are so exaggerated as to suggest comic-book figures, so too are Rushdie’s female enchantresses exaggerated to the point of burlesque. Of his numerous queens and mistresses, Akbar’s favorite is Jodha, who doesn’t exist at all except as the emperor’s sexual fantasy—“a woman without a past, separate from history, or, rather, possessing only such history as he had been pleased to bestow upon her.” Here is Akbar’s ideal—“mirror”—female:
She was adept at the seven types of unguiculation, which is to say the art of using the nails to enhance the act of love…. She had marked him with the Three Deep Marks, which were scratches made with the first three fingers of her right hand upon his back, his chest, and on his testicles as well: something to remember her by…. She could perform the Hopping of the Hare, marking the areolas around his nipples without touching him anywhere else on his body. And no living woman was as skilled as she at the Peacock’s Foot….