The Audience Throws Vegetables
- The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
Cape, 356 pp, £16.99, April 2008, ISBN 978 0 224 06163 6
Even serious and persistent readers often say they can’t finish Salman Rushdie’s novels. His unfinishability has some obvious causes. Wearyingly encrusted description is the natural mode of the earlier fiction. In Midnight’s Children the central character’s dog dies, but dogs can’t just die in Rushdie: they have to be abandoned on the other side of town, they have to be cursed, they have to be superhumanly loyal, they have to run after their owner’s car for miles. Even then they can’t just keel over with exhaustion. They have to have their guts explode: ‘she burst an artery as she ran and died spouting blood from her mouth and her behind, under the gaze of a hungry cow.’ That is an exemplary Rushdie sentence, right down to the presence of the detached observer, the cow who is interested in the dog’s death for all the wrong reasons.
It’s not just description that he tends to overdo. There is always one more location, one more strand of plot, one more episode, one more not entirely distinctive person with a name that probably contains the letters ‘i’ and ‘g’ but doesn’t quite stick in the head. The people (especially the women, who tend to be ice queens of beauty, veiled enigmas or grossly sexual crones) often slip out of your mind by the time you’ve worked through the dense descriptions of the next person’s strange activities (floating on air, having a superhuman sense of smell, being surrounded by butterflies etc). The stories also tend to be so overloaded with different levels of significance that you can’t be quite sure which of them matters. Sometimes this creates free-fall between different layers of narrative and different orders of reality. More often it creates an irony which slides between different versions of reality in order not finally to be pinned down, and perhaps also in order to sound grown-up or politically savvy. Another exemplary Rushdie moment, this time from the end of The Satanic Verses, gives a flavour of this. It describes the death of a black political protester in a prison cell:
It appeared that Dr Simba had been experiencing a nightmare so terrifying that it had caused him to scream piercingly in his sleep, attracting the immediate attention of the two duty officers. These gentlemen, rushing to his cell, arrived in time to see the still-sleeping form of the gigantic man literally lift off its bunk under the malign influence of the dream and plunge to the floor. A loud snap was heard by both officers; it was the sound of Dr Uhuru Simba’s neck breaking. Death had been instantaneous.
We are often told Rushdie is a magic realist. It’s a torpid and inappropriate phrase for what he does, largely because the ‘magical’ explanation, couched as it is here in mock-forensic prose and focalised through two policemen (‘gentlemen’ both), invites its readers to respond with a sceptical ‘yeah yeah’, because we all know, don’t we, how black prisoners really get broken necks. Rushdie very often won’t let you believe in either the magical perspective or the realist one: the ‘magical’ isn’t quite magical enough, and the ‘realist’ is grindingly cynical. His magical version of reality often seems like a palliative response to the truth that we know and don’t want to know, but which we want to be grown-up enough to show that we do in fact know.