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In the Emperor’s Dream House

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….

But to Akbar’s anima-self is given the insight around which The Enchantress of Florence is constructed, that Western Europe is enthralled by India, as India is enthralled by Western Europe:

This place, Sikri, was a fairyland to them, just as their English and Portugal, their Holland and France were beyond [Jodha’s] ability to comprehend. The world was not all one thing. “We are their dream,” she had told the emperor, “and they are ours.”

And:

The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.

At the court of Akbar it is even fantasized that Queen Elizabeth of England is “nothing less than the Western mirror of the emperor himself”:

She was Akbar in female form, and he, the Shahanshah, the king of kings, could be said to be an Eastern Elizabeth, mustachioed, nonvirginal, but in the essence of their greatness they were the same.

As the credulous Akbar becomes immediately infatuated with the yellow-haired Western traveler, so he becomes infatuated with the traveler’s (fraudulent) representation of the “faraway redhead queen”; he sends Elizabeth love letters that are never answered, declaring “his megalomaniac fantasies of creating a joint global empire that united the eastern and western hemispheres.” In one of those postmodernist flash-forwards intended to break the storyteller’s spell and to remind us as with a nudge in the ribs that this is just fiction, a tall tale being told by a veteran performer, the bemused omniscient narrator allows us a glimpse of the future:

Near the end of his long reign, many years after the time of the charlatan Mogor dell’Amore had passed, the aging emperor nostalgically remembered that strange affair of…the Queen of England…. When the emperor learned the truth he understood all over again how daring a sorcerer he had encountered…. By then, however, the knowledge was of no use to him, except to remind him of what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.1

Witchcraft is usually associated with females: in Rushdie’s fevered cosmology these are invariably femmes fatales of the species to which the spectacularly beautiful webspyder Neela Mahendra of Fury belongs. Rushdie wryly mocks what are clearly his own obsessions: the yellow-haired traveler recalls having fallen in love with a Florentine prostitute who was born with only one breast that, “by way of compensation, was the most beautiful breast in the city, which was to say… in all the known world.”

Qara Köz, the “Hidden Princess,” said to be a descendant of Genghis Khan and preposterously claimed by the traveler to be his mother, is yet more beautiful, a goddess of beauty, whether in her Mughal identity as “Lady Dark Eyes” or as the “Enchantress of Florence.” This paragon of enchantment first appears in a magic mirror owned by the sinister Medici family, as a vision of unearthly beauty, “a visitor from another world”; she is meant “for palaces, and kings”; when she and her “mirror-self” servant are first glimpsed in Florence, brought back by the (Florentine) warrior-hero Argalia, it’s “as if the Madonna had materialized”:

L’ammaliatrice Angelica, the so-called enchantress of Florence, brought men running from the fields, and women from their kitchens…. Woodcutters came from the forests and the butcher Gabburra’s son from the slaughterhouse with bloody hands and potters left their kilns…. Their faces shone with the light of revelation, as though in the early days of their unveiling they were capable of sucking light in from the eyes of all who looked upon them and then flinging it out again as their own personal brilliance, with mesmeric, fantasy-inducing effects.

Somehow, this Mughal princess who has, so far as the reader is allowed to know, never been educated has learned to speak perfect Florentine Italian, as her lover Argalia announces to all of Florence,

in the hope of forging a union between the great cultures of Europe and the East, knowing that she has much to learn from us and believing, too, that she has much to teach.

This declaration comes out of nowhere, for there has been no previous hint that Qara Köz, or the macho warrior-hero Argalia, has the slightest interest or awareness of anything like the “great cultures” of the world: their tales have been Arabian Nights in tone, affably improbable and very far from intellectually serious. Yet the claim has been made by the yellow-haired traveler who spins out his story at the Mughal court:

When the great warrior Argalia met the immortal beauty Qara Köz…a story began which would regenerate all men’s belief—your belief, grand Mughal…in the undying power and extraordinary capacity of the human heart for love.

Love” seems a paltry word to describe the stunned adoration everyone in Rushdie’s novel feels for Qara Köz, who, even when she is beyond the zenith of her powers of enchantment, as she begins to lose her youth—she’s twenty-six, and began her career as a sexual enchantress at seventeen—commands this sort of authority from the macho seafaring adventurer Andrea Doria: the princess’s

face was illumined by an unearthly light, so that she reminded Andrea Doria of Christ himself, the Nazarene performing His miracles, Christ multiplying loaves and fishes or raising Lazarus from the dead…. Her powers were failing but she intended to exercise them one last time as they had never been exercised before, and force the history of the world into the course she required it to take. She would enchant the middle passage into being by the sheer force of her sorcery and her will…. [Andrea Doria] fell to his knees before her…. He thought of Christ in Gethsemane and how He must have looked to His disciples as He prepared Himself to die.

Where the enchantress Neela Mahendra of Fury is exposed as a man-eating Erinnye, the Mughal princess Qara Köz is revealed as Christ the Savior. From the postmodernist perspective perhaps all myths are equally possible, as all myths are absurd?

No contemporary writer has so fetishized femaleness as Salman Rushdie, with unflagging zeal, idealism, and irony, in fiction after fiction. His portrait in The Enchantress of Florence of the great Mughal painter Dashwanth would seem to be a self-portrait of the artist so heedlessly infatuated with his subject that he loses his soul to it and disappears into the artwork: Dashwanth

was working on what would turn out to be the final picture of the so-called Qara-Köz-Nama, the Adventures of Lady Black Eyes…. In spite of the almost constant scrutiny of his peers he had somehow managed to vanish. He was never seen again, not in the Mughal court, nor anywhere in Sikri, not anywhere in all the land of Hindustan.

Eventually, Dashwanth is discovered beneath a border of the portrait, miniaturized, in two dimensions, “crouching down like a little toad…. Instead of bringing a fantasy woman to life, Dashwanth had turned himself into an imaginary being, driven…by the overwhelming force of love.”

By the novel’s end the “barren” Mughal princess has been absorbed into the emperor Akbar’s khayal, “his god-like, omnipotent fancy,” having taken the place of his fantasy-queen Jodha. Even the most extraordinary female in the history of mankind is finally just a man’s fancy, as Qara Köz has been the author’s:

I have come home after all,” she told [Akbar]. “You have allowed me to return, and so here I am, at my journey’s end. And now, Shelter of the World, I am yours.”

Until you’re not, the Universal Ruler thought. My love, until you’re not.

How wonderfully ironic, and appropriate, that in the final lines of Rushdie’s ingeniously constructed postmodernist “romance” the fevered sex-spell is finally broken: male omnipotence out-trumps the most powerful female sorcery, eventually.

Amid this exotic Arabian Nights romance of hidden princesses, lonely emperors, and brash young travelers from the West is a second romance, almost entirely separate from the first, a highly eroticized male romance involving the storyteller Vespucci’s boyhood friends in Florence in the later years of the fifteenth century, one of whom is destined to become the celebrated and controversial author of The Prince: “In the beginning there were three friends, Antonino Argalia, Niccolò ‘il Machia,’ and Ago Vespucci.”

This opening is repeated several times through the hundreds of pages of The Enchantress of Florence as the story moves away from Florence, then returns; and moves away, and returns; and finally moves away again, to vanish into the Mughal emperor’s all-absorbing khayal. Since the storyteller is Ago Vespucci, renamed as “Niccolò,” it’s within his power to shift his scene at will, to evoke the past or the future, to challenge the reader’s capacity to keep characters straight by frequently renaming them, and to gleefully, tirelessly digress—how like Haroun’s storyteller father the “Shah of Blah” for whom “straight answers were beyond [his] powers…, who would never take a short cut if there was a longer, twistier road available.”

After a boyhood that seems to have been spent largely fantasizing about “having occult power over women”—“in the woods most days now, climbing trees and masturbating for mandrakes and telling each other insane stories”—both Argalia and Vespucci leave Florence and become high-concept adventurers (Argalia becomes Pasha Avcalia the Turk, a warrior for the Ottoman Empire; Vespucci becomes a world traveler).

Meanwhile the more intellectually and politically ambitious Niccolò “il Machia” remains behind, a brooding (if bawdy) center of skeptical consciousness meant to mirror the philosopher-king Akbar. Though the two men never meet they are kindred spirits—Niccolò Machiavelli would have been another of Akbar’s “sons,” had Akbar known him—questioning religious tradition and the culture in which each has been born as well as the nature of human identity. These words about the young Machiavelli would be appropriate for Akbar as well:

He believed in this hidden truth the way other men believed in God or love, believed that the truth was in fact always hidden, that the apparent, the overt, was invariably a kind of lie. Because he was a man fond of precision he wanted to capture the hidden truth precisely, to see it clearly and set it down, the truth beyond ideas of right and wrong, ideas of good and evil, ideas of ugliness and beauty, all of which were aspects of the surface deceptions of the world, having little to do with how things really worked, disconnected from the whatness, the secret codes, the hidden forms, the mystery.

Similarly Akbar, when he is not required by the author to play the buffoon-despot or the credulous fool taken in by a yellow-haired Westerner’s tall tale:

…It is man at the center of things, not god. It is man at the heart and the bottom and the top, man at the front and the back and the side, man the angel and the devil, the miracle and the sin, man and always man, and let us henceforth have no other temples but those dedicated to mankind. This was his unspeakable ambition: to found the religion of man.

It may be doubtful that the historic Akbar the Great ever thought such post-Enlightenment thoughts but Rushdie eloquently provides him with the most chilling possibility of all, by which the tragic timeliness of The Enchantress of Florence—and the author’s intention in writing it—is underscored:

If man had created god then man could uncreate him too. Or was it possible for a creation to escape the power of the creator? Could a god, once created, become impossible to destroy? Did such fictions acquire an autonomy of the will that made them immortal?

Both men are fascinated by the contents of their own minds; the emperor in his “omnipotence” is led to brood over the nature of his massive identity:

He, Akbar, had never referred to himself as “I,” not even in private…. He was—what else could he be?—“we.” He was the definition, the Incarnation of the We. He had been born into plurality. When he said “we,” he naturally and truly meant himself as an incarnation of all his subjects, of all his cities and lands and rivers and mountains and lakes…he meant himself as the apogee of his people’s past and present, and the engine of their future…. [But] could he, too, be an “I?” Could there be an “I” that was simply oneself? Were there such naked, solitary “I”s buried beneath the overcrowded “we”s of the earth?

(Ironically, when Akbar tries to establish himself as an “I” separate from the “we” of his role as emperor, he is rebuffed by his fantasy-queen Jodha, his mirror-self.)2

Though his role in the novel is a minor and muted one, Machiavelli emerges as the novel’s most intriguing character, for Rushdie has given him a distinctly contemporary personality and keeps him, for the most part, free of the distracting romance plot with its typically inflated and jocose prose. Machiavelli is the quintessential Renaissance Florentine, a mixture of the high-minded and the lascivious (“Il Machia…seemed to be the reincarnation of the god Priapus, always ready for action”),3 involved in political scheming even in his youth, and highly ambitious; when the Medicis ascend to power in Florence with the election of a Medici pope, Machiavelli falls into disfavor, and, in scenes Rushdie chooses not to dramatize, is terribly tortured. His spirit is broken:

[The people of Florence] did not deserve him…. The pain that had coursed through his body was not pain but knowledge. It was an educative pain…followed by confession followed by death. The people had wanted his death, or at least had not cared if he lived or died. In the city that gave the world the idea of the value and freedom of the individual soul they had not valued him….

An old man at forty-four, Machiavelli too falls under the predictably hypnotic spell of Qara Köz and experiences a temporary respite from his gloom; when the Mughal princess departs Florence, his depression returns. In the wan hope of regaining favor at court Machiavelli immerses himself in “his little mirror-of-princes piece, such a dark mirror that even he feared it might not be liked”; this is The Prince, though Rushdie doesn’t name it, and the year must be about 1518; Machiavelli would die in 1527.

Though The Enchantress of Florence includes a densely printed five-page bibliography of historical books and articles and is being described as a “historical” novel, readers in expectation of a conventional “historical novel” should be forewarned: this is “history” jubilantly mixed with postmodernist magic realism. The veteran performer-author is too playful and too much the exuberant stylist to incorporate much of deadpan “reality” into his ever-shifting, ever-teasing narrative of the power of enchantment of cultural opposites: “We are their dream…and they are ours.”

  1. 1

    The metafictional impulse to shatter narrative verisimilitude is boldly counter to the ambitions of “realism” and of the “historical novel”—to evoke distinctly credible worlds, carefully researched and replicated, in the hope of convincing the reader that this is not fiction but a window into the “real.” The device can be very funny, if disorienting, as in the sudden rev-elation in The Satanic Verses that there is a “Supreme Being,” an author, inventing the trials of the hapless Gibreel Farishta:

    [He] was not abstract in the least. [Gibreel] saw, sitting on the bed, a man of about the same age as himself, of medium height, fairly heavily built, with salt-and-pepper beard cropped close to the line of the jaw…the apparition was balding, seemed to suffer from dandruff and wore glasses.

  2. 2

    In an interview in The Spectator, April 9, 2008, Rushdie said:

    Not that [Akbar] ever thought quite like this, but I wanted to show that these ideas—the sovereign individual self, the plurality of the self—are not exclusively Western ideas…. I suppose there is an unsaid subtext here, which is that there are such things as universals. There are ideas which grew up in the West, and in a slightly different form they grew up as well in the East—the idea of freedom, of open discourses, of tolerance, of sexual freedom even to the level of hedonism…. So to say that we must now consider them to be culturally specific…is a denial of human nature. If there is an author’s message in this book, it was actually the discovery that I made that the worlds of the book were more like each other, than unlike.

  3. 3

    Rushdie’s portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli as a sexually adventurous Florentine youth is substantiated by Maurizio Viroli’s excellent biography Niccolò’s Smile (1998; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), though of necessity Rushdie conflates and abbreviates the philosopher’s political career and the range and depth of his writings.

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