A conversation between Rana Dasgupta and Salman Rushdie
Rushdie talks about his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence
Book review : Florence, Fatehpur Sikri, novel, literature, magical realism, India, England
Monday, April 14, 2008 04:19 GMT
This article appeared in The Telegraph (Kolkata).
The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.
These are the words of Niccolò Vespucci, protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s latest novel: a traveller from Florence who crosses the oceans to find the Emperor Akbar and relay to him a great and secret story. A yellow-haired trickster who hides away in pirate ships and cheats death, Vespucci is a cosmopolite who “could dream in seven languages: Italian, Spanish, Arabic, Persia, Russian, English and Portuguese. He had picked up languages the way most sailors picked up diseases; languages were his gonorrhoea, his syphilis, his scurvy, his ague, his plague.” His story is a an international epic, one that connects the Italian metropolis to the Mughal court in a sparkling mesh of love, secrets and political intrigue.
I’ve been a traveller. That’s been my life. My relationship to home has been quite complex. I’ve always been attracted to stories about travellers, about being on a journey and what that kind of relationship to the world gives you as a human being. But I’ve always envied the other kind of person: belonging to one place, that sense of knowing who you are and being connected to the place you come from. That tension in me has always been in me and in this book I tried to really articulate it.
Akbar’s favourite wife Jodha – in Rushdie’s account a perfect but purely imaginary consort – is this other kind of person. “Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning … and it spirited you away into fairylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.” She sits in the Mughal court pulling Akbar home from his journeys of conquest – and the power she has over the emperor is her extraordinary sexual artistry. More than any of Rushdie’s other novels, this one is driven by the energy of sex. Only the brothels can rival the palace for importance in the descriptions of Fatehpur Sikri, and in the background of the plot are the great manuals of love that Jodha has mastered so well: “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.”
One of the interesting things when I was researching this book was how much at ease Florentines and Mughals were with that world of explicit and hedonistic sexual expression. It was a real discovery that this was a thing the two courts had in common. I was trying in this book to get at essential things about being human – and our erotic selves are very near the heart of what we are as human, whether we like it or not. It seemed to me that these people were more knowledgeable about themselves as people because they were more knowledgeable about themselves as sexual people.
But the sexual intrigue of The Enchantress of Florence is not merely that. This is Rushdie’s most heavily researched novel to date, and it is a novel, above all, about history. The reader follows the threads of desires, jealousies and consummations only to realise, again and again, that these matters have overflowed into the world with devastating effect, and it is the history of Florence and India, the history of the entire world, that hangs in the balance. The novel ends with a stunning series of dénouements, passing through Florence to ancient America, and explaining why the great city of Fatehpur Sikri lost its water and was abandoned.
It feels as if this book takes place in another realm – a virtual realm like that of Persian miniatures, a realm of magic and ideals, a realm containing all the possibilities of the world, where fate is fought over and decided before the effects come crashing down on real people, in history. Is that how you see it?
How shall I put this? The self that writes my books is slightly different from the social self of the rest of my life, and I think that the self that writes my books is much more passionately engaged with invisible things – with the way in which that which is not material is actually present in our lives and shapes them. I think I do have, as a writer, at the moment of writing, a profound belief in the magical. I don’t mean flying carpets, I don’t mean magical realism as such. I mean that there is a possibility in human beings and a possibility in the world which is not describable by conventional, material means. Perhaps only when I’m writing a book do I dare to think like that because it’s not pragmatic. It’s kind of insane, but I’m aware that that’s how my imagination works.
So how do these two selves fit together? Would your personality make sense if it didn’t have this writerly half that believes in these magical things?
I believe that the person who does the writing is the interesting person. One of the reasons I like to do the thing that I do is it’s the only way I can have access to what I think of as my best self. That’s the phrase I use to myself to describe it. I think that the person an artist is in the act of making the art is the artist’s best self. It’s the moment when the artist is completely naked to himself, tells himself no lies, looks at himself and at the world in a way that is completely undefended and unguarded and innocent and vulnerable and open to almost anything. That skinlessness out of which writing comes, or any art – that seems to me to represent my best way of being in the world and I can only do it in the moment of writing. Even talking to you about it like this it seems kind of phony. But it doesn’t seem phony when I’m doing it.
The Enchantress of Florence is possibly the most explicit treatment so far of one of Rushdie’s eternal themes – the dense web of connections binding East and West. In the way it repeatedly grants the upper hand of civilisation to the Mughals, it is also the most trenchant. Of course, Rushdie has made this easy for himself by setting his novel in the time of Akbar: Hindustan is mightier than any European power, and America is but a primeval haze. But he has also chosen to create in Akbar a universal human of extraordinary conscience who, far more than any European, is preoccupied with the great questions. While the Renaissance Italians such as Macchiavelli or Vespucci are caught in the intrigue of their times, Akbar, philosopher and proto-democrat, dreams outside his era of a “culture of inclusion,” where liberty, equality and brotherhood are the rule.
If I detect any anger in this book, it is in the persistence with which you write against the idea that all modern things have originated in Europe.
In my daily life I am often struck by the profundity of people’s ignorance of the world from which I came – the world from which my work still comes. I was also very interested to show that the idea of humanism, which people constantly say is the great creation of the European Renaissance, is also present in the philosophies – the metaphysics and ideas – that are being explored in India at this time. It’s a kind of wilful ignorance on the part of the West that it doesn’t see that these things are not merely their creation. The West does not have the monopoly on these virtues. Neither, by the way, does it have the monopoly on brutality. I wanted to make that very clear too – how savage both worlds were.
What does that do to someone? You’ve picked up a knighthood and a Booker Prize, and many other kinds of acceptance. But the people around you don’t know much about where you’ve come from. What effect does that discrepancy have on someone’s personality?
It heightens my sense of comic absurdity. This is just the nonsense of my life.
And where do you see this Indian humanism now? In the novel, Akbar seems to be speaking in your own voice when he looks at the dried-up lake of Fatehpur Sikri and imagines a future where people would “hate their neighbours and smash their place of worship and kill one another again in the renewed heat of the great quarrel he had sought to end for ever, the quarrel over God” – and this portrait could apply to contemporary India. What do you think, for instance, about the fact that Taslima Nasreen has had to flee to Sweden?
I feel very sorry for Taslima Nasreen and I feel very sorry that India has become so willing to hold writers and other artists responsible for the violence done towards them. It’s a disgrace for India that Taslima’s been driven out, that it drives out people like M.F. Husain and Taslima and anyone who is inconvenient. It seems like these days India has lost sight of the fact that it’s important to defend these imaginative freedoms. Without that all this kind of modernising, job-creating, triumphal India really doesn’t mean anything.
The Enchantress of Florence is a book about a master storyteller. Niccolò Vespucci can tell a great tale, and he is interested in the craft (“A man who always tells his story in the same words is exposed as a liar who has rehearsed his lie too well, he thought.”) And indeed the brilliance of this novel lies in its structure, a peculiar circular structure whose central mystery is the parentage of Vespucci himself, such that, by the end you are desperate for someone to give birth to him so that his story – and the novel itself – can exist. It is a rum trick on the part of a novelist to have you willing his novel so hard into existence, but this is not empty gimmickry. The frisson of the ending is moving and delightful, and sends a revisionist cascade backwards through the plot, as you slowly undo the things you thought you knew.
You’re now sixty years old, and your first novel was published when you were twenty-eight. How is it different, writing now?
Many things that I used to be very exercised by now exercise me less. The kind of language project I was engaged in at the time of Midnight’s Children, no longer really interests me. I’ve done that – I don’t want to go on doing it like a party trick. So certain things that were very central concerns when I was a young writer really just fade away. I’ve become much more interested than I used to be in the question of how people read. I’ve begun to have an almost theoretical view about the sequence in which you offer people information. If you can find exactly the right sequence in which you tell people things then the book remains completely open. It doesn’t have to be chronological or anything simple, it just has to be natural and instinctive. That’s something I didn’t really think about when I started out but which I think about more and more.
I used to feel, until I wrote this book, one of the inevitable consequences of growing older was that you would lose some kind of youthful energy and hopefully you could compensate for that by having some greater control over what you were doing. And to an extent I think that is true in the sense that when I was younger I would write many more pages in a day, but they were much more approximate pages and they would require a lot more remaking. But with this book something strange happened. I had got to the moment when I had done the research, I could see the world I was trying to create, I could set aside the research and start working, and the book then arrived with a kind of fluency that I’d not had access to for quite a while. So maybe the progression is not linear as I thought it was.
What new thoughts and ambitions sustain you in your writing?
I think literature is a long game. It is just a game. It’s a way of spending your life exploring your relationship to the world you live in and the books become reports from that exploration. And I think that pleasure, over the course of a lifetime, of creating a shelf of books that collectively will say I went this way, on my journey – I like that. I like the getting older. I’m not sure that you get better when you get older, I’m not sure that the world takes you more seriously when you get older but I certainly don’t feel I’m finished. I’ve got a lot to do.