Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Book Review: Salman Rushdie's Enchantress of Florence

When the emperor came home from the wars the command of silence felt, in the mud city, like a suffocation. Chickens had to be gagged at the moment of their slaughter for fear of disturbing the repose of the king of kings. A cartwheel that squeaked could earn the cart's driver the lash, and if he cried out under the whip the penalty could be even more severe. Women giving birth withheld their cries and the dumbshow of the marketplace was a kind of madness: 'When the king is here we are all made mad,' the people said, adding, hastily, for their were spies and traitors everywhere, 'for joy.' The mud city loved its emperor, it insisted that it did, without words, for words, for words were made of that forbidden fabric, sound. When the emperor set forth once more on his campaigns--his never-ending (though always victorious) battles against the armies of Gujarat and Rajasthan, of Kabul and Kashmire--then the prison of silence was unlocked, and trumpets burst out, and cheers, and people were finally able to tell each other everything they had been obliged to keep unsaid for months on end. I love you. My mother is dead. Your soup tastes good. If you do not pay me the money you owe me I will break your arms at the elbow. My darling, I love you too. Everything. --excerpt from Rushdie's "The Enchantress of Florence."

I went out for lunch at a Korean/Japanese place yesterday. I made sure to get something vegetarian, but I showed my Asian culinary inexperience by forgetting to make sure that I selected something tame enough that said inexperience could handle it. So I wound up with something super-spicy. And I did not take it well. We're talking sniffles, coughing, full-out tears, the works. The best part was that I was trying to impress a woman at the time. I understand that it is possible to impress women with your sensitivity, but I don't think that's the sort of sensitivity generally meant.

But oh, wait! There's a book review going on! Keep a finger on the "White boy coping with the exotic" story type, 'cause it'll be returning.

The story begins when a young European who calls himself "Mogor dell'Amore" journeys to the Middle Eastern court of the Emperor Akbar. Once there, he starts to tell the story of the Enchantress of Florence, a woman who, a generation ago, held the people of Florence spellbound with her beauty and grace. The book is constantly alternating between the two stories: one set that investigates the Emperor's court, and the other portraying Renaissance Florence and the life of the Enchantress. This book is the first full Rushdie novel I've read, and it's largely what I expected--a well-crafted book that is equal parts cultural history and magic realism. Rushdie is one of the few writers I can name whose work I read, and then have to stop reading on occasion, just I can take a moment to laugh at the sheer brilliance of a passage. (Yes, I do this. Often in bars, libraries, computer rooms, or other places where there are many people around to stare at the crazy man.)

One of the larger themes of the book is its discussion of personal power. As you can see from the quotation, the emperor Akbar definitely falls under this heading. He is roughly comparable to the absolute monarchs in the French tradition, only more so. One of the more interesting subplots concerns his eighth wife, a princess who exists solely because he wills her into existence. He decided one day he wanted the perfect woman as his bride, and, since he couldn't find a real one, he created an imaginary one by sheer force of will. Everyone treats her as real, and even she thinks of herself as real--because if the emperor believes you exist, then you do. It's an interesting twist on the Emperor's New Clothes; no one lets themselves believe that the wife cannot exist, because if they do, then the Emperor is wrong, and everything falls apart. Contrasted with the emperor's power is the power of the Enchantress, who is able to win over any man and most women; at least, as long as they stay near her. There's a clear gender dynamic behind these power discussions, and an element of colonialism as well. The Enchantress needs men to protect her from other men, but she can always seduce a new one, who will remain loyal to her, knowing all the time that she will betray him for her own continued safety, if she has to. The Emperor can will women into existence, but he is enchanted with another woman through the stories the European brings. I guess if the book has a message on this front, it's that no person's power is absolute, because just being human puts bounds on such power.

The story is excellent--my only real complaint is that with magic realism, the longer you try to sustain it, the closer it gets to out and out fantasy, which requires a different set of conventions. Most of the characters are just too mythic or larger than life to be sustained for quite as long as Rushdie uses them. But to be honest, what really drew my attention throughout the book was the narrative framework: a European voyages into the Middle East, reaches an exotic country and its emperor, then gains credit with the emperor by telling him stories of places even more outlandish. It's exactly the same framework at play in Itano Calvino's Invisible Cities, which is one of my all-time favorite books. In that case, it is Marco Polo, and the emperor is Kubla Khan. Rather than an enchantress, the stories Polo shares are all descriptions of cities based around a particular theme--cities underground, cities of the dead, and so forth. Invisible Cities leans on the magical realism even more heavily than The Enchantress of Florence, but since it has much less of a ongoing story thread, I think it pulls it off a little better.

But what can we say about the structure of the books, in terms of postcolonial studies or otherwise? Well, one reading is that you have the Westerner imposing his power on the foreigner. No matter how great the power of the Emperor--and in both books, the power is near absolute--he needs the creative power of the Westerner, and is defeated by it in turn; he needs to know how the story ends. Of course, this view is further complicated in Rushdie's case (not so much in Calvino's) when you add the meta level and remember that he is a Middle Eastern telling this story to a Western audience.

The other facet is that if you change the gender and nationalities, you get another story entirely. If we transform Marco Polo into a female, we get a gender dynamic that takes precedence over the postcolonial aspect. (In fact, a minor, almost throwaway section of the book is where the Emperor tries to court Queen Elizabeth, from a distance of a few thousand miles. In terms of the gender dynamic, it's interesting that between Queen Elizabeth, the eighth wife and the Enchantress, the Emperor spends almost the entire book searching for a female equal.) If you turn that female into a native of the Emperor's court, then you're in the middle of another story, A Thousand and One Arabian Nights. If the one telling the stories is a male from the Emperor's court, then it's a power struggle. If both figures are male Europeans, the stories amount to a meeting of the Explorer's Club, and it becomes part of the European conquest genre (if it wasn't there already.) If the gender between listener and teller are opposite, you inevitably have a seduction story. And if you have one female telling it to another--well, that's so far out of any Western tradition that you can just shrug your shoulders, pronounce them lesbians, and look around for some dude so you can go brag about how manly you are.

I guess that what interests me about this framing device isn't so much its variations as how it draws attention to what stories do and what kind of power they can have. The little boy who notices that the Emperor has no clothes is famous for a day, but the little European who creates the Emperor's dreams is set for life.

Later Days.

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