Imagining the self and the world
With The Enchantress of Florence, his latest novel, Salman Rushdie reaches further back in history than he has ever done before. In an exclusive telephonic interview, he talks about the years of research that were involved and the imaginative recreation of history across time, cultures and continents. MUKUND PADMANABHAN
My son has read Haroun and really liked it. But he also knows I wrote it for his elder brother. So he’s been saying, ‘What’s next?’ So I will probably end up writing another one of those.
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan
Salman Rushdie: Handcuffed to history.
With a couple of exceptions, Salman Rushdie’s novels — like Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children — have been “handcuffed to history”. That Booker Prize-winning novel, an allegory of post-Independence India, was followed by Shame, in which the story of a family parallels the history of a country, in this case Pakistan.
As a technique, Rushdie has used stories about the lives of ordinary people as metaphors for periods of history. It is very much in play in his recent novel, Shalimar the Clown, which traces the recent history of Kashmir — the gradual erosion of Kashmiriyat, the growth of the separatist movement, and its eventual takeover by jihadi fundamentalism.
In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie mixes history, fantasy, fable and magic to create a novel of great enchantment. The novel, which he describes as his “most researched”, moves with astonishing speed and energy from the court of Emperor Akbar to Renaissance Florence in Europe, journeying through various destinations on the way. Rushdie pits East against West, explores assimilation and identity, and invites us to think about the power of storytelling and its role in defeating obscurantism and intolerance.
The book is centred around a visit of a European to Akbar’s court, who claims he is a long-lost relative of the Emperor, born of a Mughal princess who was exiled from India to eventually fall in love with an Italian, who is connected to the Turks and the city of Florence. It provides the basis for a tale that moves back and forth between countries and continents as it engages with the cultural and philosophical ideas of that time.
Excerpts from an interview with the author…
Like many of your other novels, The Enchantress of Florence has a clear historical context and works in fantasy, fable and magic. But this one has a long, six-page bibliography at the end of it. Has this got something to do with the nature of the novel — do you regard it as more ‘historical’ or ‘factual’ than the others? Or is it simply because more research went into it?
Both, I think. Without any question, this is the most researched book I have ever done. A surprising amount of the material arises out of historical fact. So I thought it was fair to acknowledge all the books from which I learnt and which I drew on. And then if people want to explore it further, the bibliography gives them an opportunity to do so.
It’s not unusual for historical novels to have a bibliography. I’ve already noticed that people seem very surprised by it, but I don’t think I’ve done anything abnormal.
Absolutely not. Perhaps, it’s just because you’ve written so many novels that have a historical context. But this one also has a long bibliography.
The others deal with a more contemporary history. This time it goes much further back than I’ve ever gone. And it required years and years of reading, in a way that nothing else I have written has. So, the bibliography was just a way of acknowledging all the people from whom I have learnt.
You characterise Emperor Akbar as a man plagued with doubt, a man who is constantly debating issues in his head. Is this something that came through from the history texts you read? Or is this is a fictional characterisation?
Well, it’s a development of the character of the historical Akbar. He was very philosophically interested, very interested in inter-faith debate. He was somebody who believed in trying to create a synthesis of different belief systems.
As for the internal agony, this is something that is really very largely my invention. I wanted to show him as a person in whom ideas of the modern were being born. At one point, he is described as someone who is not content with being but is always trying to become. So there is a kind of internal moral dialogue, which may or may not have been there, although he was clearly a highly intelligent man. But entering into his internal world imaginatively was for me one of the great pleasures of the book.
What about the idea that his murder of the Rana of Cooch Naheen was responsible for his shift towards a synthesised religion – or at least for his creation of The Tent of New Worship? Was that to suggest such a radical shift could have emerged only from a traumatic event?
It was just a way of dramatising his moment of choice. The Rana of Cooch Naheen, of course, is a fictional character and readers of Midnight’s Children will recognise him as the ancestor of the Rani of Cooch Naheen who appears there.
As for The Tent of New Worship, it is based on the historical structure known as the Ibadat Khana that Akbar built in order to allow this kind of theological/ philosophical debate to take place.
The thing that’s a mystery at the site of Fatehpur Sikri is that although we know this was built during the reign of Akbar, one of the most important buildings at the capital, its location has been completely lost. This allowed me to hypothesise that maybe the reason that it disappeared was that it was never a permanent structure — that it was a tent rather than a building. It seemed to me appropriate that a place devoted to thought should not be permanent because thought itself constantly develops and changes. To put it in an impermanent structure seems appropriate — so that’s my little theory on why the building has been lost.
Medieval Europe, with its wars and religious orthodoxies, does not come off very well in comparison to the kingdom of Akbar, with its tolerance and religious pluralism, reflected in the Tent of New Worship. In making this contrast, were you showing up Western stereotypes about Islamic culture and rule?
I try not to write didactically. It is interesting to me that this was a turbulent and brutal period for Europe. But frankly, so was the whole world. If you look at the journey in the novel — west from India, through the Safavid empire in Persia, the Ottomans, and into Europe — the brutality is everywhere. One of things that I came to feel very strongly when writing this novel is that human nature is a constant. If we look at the past, we see exactly the same kind of behaviour patterns that we see in the present. We think of ourselves as living through a brutal moment while we have always lived through brutal moments. On the contrary, we were always capable of great beauty and culture. So the good and the bad of human nature are constant.
This doesn’t seem the work of an atheist so much as the work of someone who is opposed to religion insofar as it destroys such things as doubt, argument, magic and storytelling. In the novel, Mogor dell’Amore says he is ‘attracted to the great polytheist pantheons because the stories are better; more numerous, more dramatic, more humorous, more marvellous...’ and so on. The book seems to suggest that it is the stories that really lead you to think or even live.
I think that’s true. And like the character in the novel, I have always been very interested in the polytheistic religions entirely for narrative reasons. Whether you are looking at Hinduism, the Norse myths, or Greek and Roman stories, these are extremely rich. I am very attracted to these incredible storehouses of narrative. But my interest in them is narrative rather than theological.
The novel grapples with the issue of identity and assimilation. There is a line that asks and in an open-ended manner: ‘Was foreignness something to be embraced as a revitalizing force, bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and society as a whole?’
I am glad you identified that line. In the book there is a constant questioning of the different values that arise out of rigidness and travel, if you like. There are two kinds of people in the book. There are people who draw their sense of themselves and their sense of being in the world from movement between places. And there are other people who find that to be absurd — who think that all the meaning they have of the world arises from the place they belong. I wanted both those attitudes to be there and in tension with each other. I am not necessarily taking one side or the other. These are just profound differences about how people live in the world and I wanted them to be in dialogue with each other.
It was a man’s world, but the book has powerful, self-willed women — the Enchantress herself and of course Jodha, even if she doesn’t exist.
It was a man’s world — very dominated by male power. And yet, there is evidence, for example, that the women of the Mughal court were really quite independent and powerful entities. The real Queen of Akbar, Mariam-uz-Zamani, the mother of Jehangir, was actually a powerful businesswoman. She had ships sailing to the Middle East and was by no means a sequestered meek lady. The aunt of Akbar actually went on a two-year pilgrimage to Mecca and took a great deal of the court with her. These were very intrepid women and so it seemed natural to me that even though it was a world dominated by military, political and male power, that the women should be shown as considerable and independent figures in their own right.
This is a swifter work than any of your others, one that collapses a lot more into a shorter space.
Yes, that is quite deliberate. Given the amount of research and given the richness of the world being described, it could easily have been a 900-page novel. But it was always my firm intention in the book that the virtues of swiftness and lightness should be uppermost in the way the reader experiences it. I didn’t want to bore people with such things as the principal exploits of Florence in the 16th century or political intricacies of the Ottoman empire except in so far as they served the story. My plan all the way through was to use only what served the story and leave the rest impressionistically in the background.
I know this is too early to ask, but what next?
Oh my God! (laughs). I always have some germs of things floating around. Over the next couple of months, I will be too busy with [promoting] this book. The thing I have to do, which will be probably be next…you see, I have promised my younger son [Milan], who will be 11 in May…
You mean another crossover novel?
Yes, I might do another Haroun you know.
That was a crossover novel written even before the term was invented.
Yes, I was ahead of the curve….unfortunately, for my bank balance. (Laughs.) My son is now of that age, and he has read Haroun and really liked it. But he also knows I wrote it for his elder brother. So he’s been saying, ‘What’s next?’ So I will probably end up writing another one of those.
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