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.
For obvious reasons The Satanic Verses marked some sort of change in Rushdie. Its deepest problem – and the problem with it as a novel is probably also at the root of the problems it created for Rushdie – is that it suggests an alignment between the fanatical and the fantastical. Madmen believe they can fly, play Gibreel’s last trumpet, add verses to the Koran, and are almost indistinguishable from religious zealots, and vice versa. Uneasy with religious belief and with fantasy, but drawn to both in a manner that goes way beyond detached curiosity, The Satanic Verses ends up suggesting symmetries between the two which offend believers and leave many secularly-minded readers feeling cheated. Are we left finally with a world in which angels and prophets exist only in the minds of madmen? Are fiction and fantasy no more than parodies of religious belief? And if so, why should we keep on reading, especially when all these characters keep on doing strange things – growing hairy legs, flying on carpets, turning back into men?
The Enchantress of Florence presents a different version of the same problem. It aspires to be a modern-day Orlando Furioso and Arabian Nights rolled into one. It’s about imagination and belief, magic, tolerance, cultural fusions between East and West, the Renaissance, cynicism, sexual fascination, smell; and it’s about storytelling too. Its own story is about a young magic-working Florentine who steals a letter of introduction from Elizabeth I to the Great Mughal and turns up at his court. He claims to be the mughal’s uncle, and to have been born of the enchantingly beautiful Qara Köz, a member of the royal family who was lost during a war almost a century before, and who because she refused to come home was never mentioned in the Mughal court again. The novel begins with the tale of the Florentine’s arrival in the court of the greatest of the great Mughals, Jalaluddin Mohammed, or Akbar the Great, who is famous for his artistic temperament, religious toleration, and for having brought most of North India under Mughal rule by his death in 1605. In Rushdie’s version he is also a dreamer who’s in love with an imaginary wife called Jodha, which is a Rushdie in-joke, since according to some accounts Akbar had a Hindu wife of that name, while others claim she was his daughter-in-law. Rushdie wants Akbar to symbolise a religiously tolerant form of fantasy, and so needs the Hindu wife to have some kind of being, even an imaginary one. The Mughal court is otherwise notable for the presence of technicolour whores, eunuch spies, and an elephant who becomes deranged through having been given an unsuitable name.
After performing a few bits of magic and a murder, the Italian enters Akbar’s court by means of a magic perfume which can allure emperors. He then begins to tell the book’s second set of stories, which are about his supposed mother, in order to prove his identity, and also, like Scheherazade, to persuade the emperor to spare his life. The young man’s stories involve three Florentine friends, Ago Vespucci, Nino Argalia (who joins the Turks, has his body tattooed with tulips, and becomes a fearsome warrior) and Niccolò ‘il Machia’, or Machiavelli. Along the way there are fearsome janissaries, Swiss giants called Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan, more giants, mandrakes, and a dash of Florentine politics. In the central story the three friends are beguiled by the dark-eyed and entrancingly beautiful Qara Köz, who is also known as Angelica, the name of Ariosto’s infinitely elusive Moorish heroine in Orlando Furioso. She is brought back to Florence by Argalia, who becomes condottiere of the city at the request of Lorenzo II. Being infinitely beautiful and magical, Qara Köz fills the whole city with love, until finally Lorenzo decides that she’s too good for his condottiere. Later, as her beauty begins to fade, she is believed by the fickle Florentines to have bewitched and killed Lorenzo (who died of syphilis in 1519), and has to slip out of the back door in a wine barrel, while her tulip-tattooed husband dies holding off the Florentine mob. The narrator eventually claims that he is the child of Qara Köz and Ago Vespucci, conceived in the new world discovered by his kinsman Amerigo, and that his real name is Niccolò Vespucci.
There is a lightness of touch in Rushdie’s storytelling here as a result of his desire to outdo the Arabian knights and Italian epic romance. Sentences are shorter, dialogue richer, and it’s definitely more readable. Despite all that, The Enchantress of Florence never quite gets away from the old Rushdie problems. The main one is that aspiration is about six times greater than achievement. Somewhere in the transcultural exchanges are thoughts about parallels between East and West, and a curious affection for the tolerant dreamy despotism of the Great Mughal as opposed to the pragmatic expansionism of his European counterparts. Somewhere in there too is a wish to celebrate a mystical magical imagined beauty which begins to die at the moment Machiavellian statecraft establishes itself in Europe. An overburdened story is nothing new in the Rushdie canon; and this story too, like so many of those before it, seems to want to deny its own fictive pleasures, and to allow the final triumph of the voice that says ‘yeah yeah’. As Niccolò Vespucci aka Mogor d’Amore tells his spellbinding tale, the mughal’s imaginary wife begins to vanish, and the ghost or the imaginary presence of Qara Köz comes to take her place. The mughal, enchanted by the ghost of the mother of his supposed uncle, incestuously drawn to her indeed, suspects that the fair Florentine youth cannot be her son, and concludes that he must be the product of an incestuous union between Vespucci and his daughter by Qara Köz, since every grown-up knows that magic cannot happen and otherwise the dates would not tie up. As we are eventually told by the ghost of Qara Köz herself at the very end of the book (if you want to read The Enchantress of Florence to its end stop reading now), she was in fact infertile, and Niccolò Vespucci was the product of an incestuous union between Ago Vespucci and his daughter by Qara Köz’s maid (who’s called ‘the Mirror’ because she is like her mistress only slightly less beautiful). So the enchanter of Florence is a fake after all, three-quarters Western and not at all royal, while his mother may be imaginary too. It’s no surprise that a novel by Salman Rushdie should finally depend on the transposable beauty of two virtually identical women, nor is it any surprise that the book should take away from its readers the pleasures of credulity on which the fiction in large measure depends. That’s what he does.
Why he does this is harder to see. Rushdie has a reputation for cockiness, but like a lot of cocky people his problem is not excessive self-belief but its opposite. His writing is often stagily masculine, like a sensitive adolescent who swears too much at not quite the right times in order to show how manly he is. He isn’t, as Byron said of Keats, always frigging his imagination, but he often can’t stop himself from violating it. And this goes along with the instincts of a parodist, which lead him to invoke an earlier text (often one to which he is to a deep degree indebted) by means of a warped or self-disgusted allusion to it. It’s an aspect of his writing which, were one to put Rushdie on the couch, might well turn out to be linked with the repeated presence of false and substitute fathers in his fiction. There is a deep and not entirely controlled unease about his literary paternity underneath his masculine bluster. So The Thousand and One Nights is at one point transformed into the ‘night of one hundred and one copulations’, which were enabled by a preternaturally skinny whore called the Skeleton and her arts as a druggist. At other moments there is a plainer kind of bathos, an intrusion of the wrong place and the wrong stylistic register into a familiar verbal structure. One chapter begins: ‘By the Caspian sea the old potato witches sat down and wept.’ Presumably Psalm 137 belongs in this tale of fictional encounters between East and West because of its peculiarly violent treatment of the East (‘Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy’ – that is, Babylon’s – ‘little ones against the stones’), but it may just be a result of Rushdie’s instinct to take the grand and canonical and manipulate it, an instinct that hasn’t served him particularly well. And there are times when his instinct for parodic bathos is indulged in wretchedly infantile ways. When Argalia the mercenary has to run for his life from the royal gardener, who is superhumanly quick, Qara Köz magically ensures that his pursuer succumbs to ‘a bout of the foullest farting anyone had ever smelled’.
Boys aged between eight and 13 would find a great deal with which to identify here, but like many boys of that age Rushdie is also almost distressingly good at seeing and saying what’s wrong with himself. The narrator of Midnight’s Children declares that ‘maybe there is something unnatural about me, some fundamental lack of emotional response’, and shows an unsettling ability to sum up his own method: ‘Matter of fact descriptions of the outré and bizarre, and their reverse, namely heightened, stylised versions of the everyday’. That describes exactly the stylistic crossover which is the key to the Rushdie idiom, and once stated risks reducing the whole enterprise to a formula: it’s how you describe dogs bursting their guts under the eye of a dispassionate cow or prisoners levitating themselves to a broken neck. The Enchantress of Florence seems to know that it is a cruelly cold-hearted love story: ‘It’s your curse to see the world too fucking clearly, and without a shred of kindness,’ Ago Vespucci says to Machiavelli. Rushdie also seems to acknowledge, by creating a narrator who has to keep himself alive by charming his audience, that a lot of readers have trouble reading him through, and even makes the point explicitly: ‘The Hindustani storyteller always knows when he loses his audience … because the audience simply gets up and leaves, or else it throws vegetables, or, if the audience is the king, it occasionally throws the storyteller head-first off the city ramparts.’
It is hard to believe he will ever eradicate this self-critical awareness, or even that he would want to do so. In The Enchantress of Florence he tries to keep it in check by aligning himself with fictional forms that combine the naive and the self-conscious, which tell yarns (as Boiardo and Ariosto and Scheherazade all do) while telling you that they’re telling yarns. But it’s not just that The Enchantress of Florence seems to know a little too well what’s wrong with itself; it’s more that it fails to recognise that you can do magic only if you really believe, all the way down, that you can. Its kind of magic knows that everyone will think it might be a conjuring trick. That makes it a disappointing book. It is not disappointing in the favoured sense of reviewers (‘less good than the last one’), because it is actually a lot better than the last one, and is in patches one of Rushdie’s most absorbing fictions. It is disappointing because it looks as though it might finally hold in check the voice of the jaundiced teenager within. Because it doesn’t quite do that, The Enchantress of Florence is a book that there are very strong reasons not to read to the end. Its stories of sea voyages, of artificial lakes, of magical smells manufactured by prostitutes, of chequered coats with secret pockets, of tricksters who slaughter giants, are fun when taken on their own, and might indicate that Rushdie recognises his imagination might be able to do the work he used to try to do by jazzed-up prose. But the ending, which multiplies uneasy fictions about the central character’s paternity and legitimacy, makes the whole novel seem finally to throw itself away through lack of self-conviction.