Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Enchantress of Florence

17 or 18 years ago, in an undergraduate course in Commonwealth Literature (otherwise known as post-colonial lit.), I first read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. I'll admit to finding it a hard slog, at first, densely descriptive introducing politics and histories beyond my ken, but besides having to read it as a course requirement, I was soon captivated by the central character, the organizing premise, and by Rushdie's style, brilliantly crafted sentences and precisely evocative diction -- a style that managed, despite its brilliance, never to distract from the forward momentum of the story itself.

I've since re-read that novel several times and can no longer see what caused me any difficulty in entering the story that first time -- now I only see the vigor of the prose and the humour and power of the tale. I've read most of his other work since then -- a graduate course I took during my MA back in '94 guided me through everything he'd written 'til that point and up until a few years ago I'd tried to keep up as he added to his biblio. I'll admit that Rushdie's work is a stretch for me, something I probably read more for an intellectual/analytical challenge than for a simpler pleasure of recognition, of identifying with a character. I often begin his work with a sense of reading something I should read, a sense of getting to work, albeit pleasurable work -- a very different sense than sitting down with a new mystery, for example.

Interesting, as I write that last bit, to realize that this may be why so many people, who hear that I'm reading a demanding novel like one of Rushdie's, will make comments about my being braver or brighter or somehow more worthy than they are -- many readers want their reading to bring them more straightforward, more immediately and easily accessible rewards and pleasures. If you'll peruse my posts over the last few months or longer, you'll notice that my reading includes many of these quicker rewards, mysteries being among my favourite escapes.

Interesting, also, to realize that my reading self has those two voices: the one that says "Why are you reading this when it's so much more work for less immediate fun than these others?" and the one that says "But this kind of reading work is fun too, and rewarding in a more sustaining way." These two voices often continue to bicker a bit even as I'm working through a more challenging novel, such that I noticed, over the holiday that I was making deals with myself -- finish the Rushdie first and then I could read Wolf Hall. Then I slipped in a mystery novel, but with the proviso that I would be picking up Atwood's Year of the Flood next. Funny, this division into worthy and guilty pleasures, when I really only have to account to myself. My friend Mardel at Dooney's World alluded to a similar system of appraisal in a recent post -- different novels as examples but a similar yardstick applied.

Ahem. . . I seem to have followed a diverging path some ways along. Time to find my way back to naming, at least, the novel I came here to discuss: Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. Since my preamble risks frightening readers away from this book, I should quickly state that there are wonderful stories within its covers, exotic lushly-painted landscapes and vibrant city scenes that brought to mind the Mughal paintings I was lucky enough to see at the British Museum this past summer. As in most Rushdie works, there is a picaresque character or two and the borders between the possible and the impossible shimmer compellingly. What I was perhaps most struck by was how Rushdie has, throughout all his works, exercised my imagination, making me see how constrained it was by my formative education. As he did in The Moor's Last Sigh, he illuminates a history of traffic between India and Europe that transforms the Europe of my 1960s school texts. I read compulsively, if not prodigiously, as a child and teen, but the books I was exposed to (and, really, during those formative years, books were the main window to any world beyond my circumscribed one in small-city daughters-of-the-empire West Coast Canada) did not show me a Europe whose history was intermingled with India's; did not encourage me to imagine the religions and systems of government as equal, if different; certainly did not point to European and Indian cultural and social practices as equally blending the magical with the scientific.

Rushdie does this. He makes me redraw my mental map of the world. He puts singular characters into both cultural landscapes and the reader comprehends relativism anew. Complexity is a value in a Rushdie novel and characters grapple with moral dilemmas -- when they make the "wrong" choices, the reader nonetheless sees their humanity, acknowledges the horns of the dilemma, rather than rushing to condemn at the behest of an overbearing narrator. Rushdie's narrators are generally ironically distanced and distancing, wry rather than warm, but not without sympathy for the human condition. They generally insist on the reader paying attention, analyzing, making assessments and judgements, and, perhaps, this is what I find work -- while the tales are always page-turners (Enchantress has love stories, near-death adventures, dramatic escapes), the narrator wants a thinking and alert reader who is not permitted to disappear into the story.

I know. A better reviewer would offer more specific reference to the novel itself rather than general meanderings about reading and about Rushdie's work overall. Sorry. I will say that this novel bears traces of an impressive body of research bringing alive both Florence's history (especially with the Medicis) and that of the Mughal empire. It also continues Rushdie's thematic interest in the imagination and creativity -- story-telling, magic, art. If you've read it, chime in -- tell me what you thought. Or what other Rushdie novels you've read and what you thought of them. I have still to read Shalimar the Clown. Perhaps I'll put that on my 2010 reading list. Have you made one yet?


  1. Oh joy, I love your review of this book. Although I have not yet it read it (it has been on my stack for some time) I now feel it must move forward in the list. Sometimes when pondering a Rushdie novel I think "how difficult, I'm not up to that right now" and I push it back, but usually when I start I am entranced at the way he draws me in and interacts with all my assumptions, making me see the world in a completely different light.

    Now I must go back and read the post I meant to read.

  2. Exactly, Mardel! In preparation for R. novels, I'm always conscious of assessing my energy level -- they're demanding and worthy of considerable effort. But my mental map of the world is changed with each one; I can almost feel the shift physically!