Salman Rushdie

"The Enchantress of Florence"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple DEC 17, 2008)

Enchantress: "You are already who you are, [sire]...Whereas I am just trying to become what I have it in me to be."

The relationship between the sexes over time and across civilizations is a unifying theme of this broad historical novel and philosophical exploration of the role of the individual within his society. Opening in the court of Akbar the Great, head of the Mughal Empire, Rushdie's latest novel moves back and forth between Mughal India, the Florence of the Medicis, and the Turkish court of the Ottoman Empire. Eventually, his characters even look toward a new land, recently discovered and named by Amerigo Vespucci, a cousin of one of the main characters. Though the novel is complex in its structure and sometimes challenging with its swirling time frame, Rushdie keeps his tone relatively playful, filling the novel with the fantastic, even as he is also depicting violent battles, internecine intrigues, and bloodshed. As always, his prose style is breath-taking, and the questions he raises are thought-provoking.

A yellow-haired stranger wearing a coat of many colors becomes the main storyteller when he arrives at Akbar's court and claims that he is blood kin to the royal family. His tale of his family history, filled with legends about Akbar's family, keep him alive so that he can ingratiate himself with the king, to whom he wishes to present a letter supposedly from Queen Elizabeth. This plot merges with that of Florence when some of the characters mentioned in the Mughal section become main characters in the Florentine section. Three friends, Ago Vespucci, Niccolo "il Machia," and Nino Argalia experience different kinds of lives under different kinds of rulers, a theme that Rushdie ties to that of the individual's search for identity within society.

Throughout the novel, the male characters are sometimes literally bewitched by beautiful women, whom they often idealize to the point that they create new, imaginary characters whom they see as real, including the beautiful, but imaginary, Mughal Queen. One of her distant relatives, "The Enchantress of Florence," known also as Qara Koz, Angelica, and Lady Black Eyes, has lived in the Mughal Empire, Ottoman Turkey, and Florence, a woman who has bewitched every male who comes into contact with her. She, however, just wants to "become what I have it in me to be," and it is she who is supposed to be the mother of the yellow-haired stranger, though she would have been sixty when he was born, perhaps magically.

The novel, while playful and often humorous, has a monumental scope, dealing with three civilizations, many characters with multiple names, complex historical connections shown through vividly depicted wars, elements of fantasy and magic, and movement back and forth in time, as the yellow-haired storyteller tells his story and gets interrupted by his listener(s). This can sometimes be off-putting for the reader, preventing the reader from identifying with characters and instead forcing him/her to be an interpreter of what is happening as the story moves off in many directions at once. The puns, wordplay, and delightful jokes in a novel like The Moor's Last Sigh, for example, are not an important part of this novel, in which the author seems to stand apart, leaving the reader on his/her own.

  • Amazon readers rating: starsfrom 111 reviews

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"Shalimar the Clown"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2005)

"An age of fury was dawning and only the enraged could shape it. Talib the Afghan had become his wrath. He was a student, a scholar of rage. Of all other learning he was contemptuous but he was wise in the ways of anger. It had burned through him and now it was all that remained: the rage…"

When beautiful India Ophuls opens the door to her apartment complex, she finds the body of her father, his throat slashed by her father's chauffeur, known as Shalimar the Clown. Max Ophuls, "the Resistance hero, the philosopher prince, the billionaire power-broker, the maker of the world" is also "America's best loved, then most scandalous Ambassador to India" and, not incidentally, a Jew. Max has been US counter-terrorism chief, and the assumption by the press and police is that he has been assassinated in a planned terrorist act. As the reader soon discovers, his assassination has been an act of pure, personal revenge, unrelated to terrorist organizations.

Max Ophuls's departure from India after a scandal many years ago, was forgiven as a political "misstep" at the time, but it had far-reaching, real-life consequences in the life of Shalimar the Clown. Through an extended flashback, Rushdie recreates the love story of Shalimar, a tightrope walker, and Boonyi Kaul, a dancer and acrobat, in a troupe of performers from Pachigam, a small Kashmiri village where both Muslims and Hindus live and work together peacefully and govern the town together. Shalimar and Boonyi fall deeply in love at fourteen and marry soon after.

Several years later, US Ambassador Max Ophuls is entertained by the Pachigam troupe, and Boonyi, seeing Max's undisguised interest in her, becomes deliberately provocative, recognizing that Max Ophuls could be her ticket out of Pachigam and into a bigger world. Their subsequent affair and her abandonment of her husband turns the enraged Shalimar into a potential assassin, and he vows that one day he will kill everyone involved in the affair.

The love story of Shalimar and Boonyi becomes an allegory for the history of Kashmir, with its Hindu/Muslim conflicts and the political India/Pakistan conflicts, as young Muslim men in Pachigam, including Shalimar, begin to respond to the teachings of the "iron mullahs" with their fundamentalist messages. Boonyi (a Hindu) and Shalimar (a Muslim) were considered exemplars of "Kashmiri-ness" at the time of their marriage, but as surely as their marriage has deteriorated with the appearance of Max Ophuls, the relations between between Muslims and Hindus in Pachigam have deteriorated with the worsening economic situation, complicated by the availability of American arms.

Rushdie incorporates local mythology, legend, and traditional story-telling throughout the sections set in Pachigam, often using these stories to shed new light on the actions of the main characters and to emphasize the traditional beliefs which underlie much of their behavior. Dreams, visions, and prophecies give warnings of the disasters to come. The story of Boonyi, in the aftermath of her affair with Max Ophuls, becomes a story of betrayal by a powerful American, and the fact that Max is Jewish, a point that is emphasized by Shalimar and his fellow extremists, injects fundamentalist hatred of Jews into the controlling allegory.

Though Rushdie emphasizes that Shalimar's assassination of Max Ophuls is a personal revenge, not terrorism, he extends the allegory and symbolism from the personal into the universal. From its focus on Kashmir and the India/Pakistan conflict, the novel moves into the broader realm of all recent world events, and the novel begins to break down thematically. "Everywhere's story is now a part of everywhere else," Rushdie says, in a statement which echoes throughout the novel. Shalimar, for example, has trained in the Philippines to work with Abu Sayyaf, a group aided by Libya and Malaysia. India Ophuls sees her father as Nelson Mandela in a dream. The Los Angeles riots, 9/11, Rodney King, and Reginald Denny are seen as part of the interconnected violence throughout the world, and even the 1974 murder of a nanny in England by Lord Lucan is brought into the thematic mixture.

Stylistically, the novel is dense with imagery, legend, and local color, but Rushdie's humor, word play, puns, and clever repartee have disappeared. The characters, though layered and often complex, illustrate specific aspects of historical allegory and behave in ways that will advance the plot and symbolism, rather than as characters with lives of their own. Journalistic passages, inserted within the plot, give further information about the Indian army, its fight against the insurgency, and reports of fidayeen attacks and atrocities.

A fascinating study of the Kashmiri conflict, the cultures of the area, and the growth of radical Islam, the novel conveys both the spectacular beauty and the spectacular violence of the area, offering much to think about in terms of the origins of such violence. In his attempt to broaden the scope from Kashmir to the world stage and to show that all violence is connected, however, Rushdie has stretched his themes and created a novel which sometimes feels dogmatic.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 80 reviews

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About the Author:

Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie was born in Bombay in 1947 to a middle-class Moslem family. At fourteen, Rushdie was sent to Rugby School in England. In 1964 Rushdie's parents moved to Karachi, Pakistan, joining reluctantly the Muslim exodus - during these years there was a war between India and Pakistan, and the choosing of sides and divided loyalties burdened Rushdie heavily.

Rushdie continued his studies at King's College, Cambridge, where he read history. After graduating in 1968 he worked for a time in television in Pakistan. He was an actor in a theatre group at the Oval House in Kennington and from 1971 to 1981 he worked intermittently as a freelance advertising copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather and Charles Barker.

Salman Rushdie was condemned to death by the former Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14,1989, after publishing Satanic Verses in 1981. Khomeini condemned Rushdie for the crime of "apostasy"—attempting to abandon the Islamic faith— which according to the Hadith is punishable by death. This was due to Rushdie's communication through the novel that he no longer believes in Islam. Khomeini called on all "zealous Muslims" to execute the writer, as well as those of the publishers of the book who knew about the concepts of the book.

In 1990, Rushdie published an essay In Good Faith to appease his critics and issued an apology in which he seems to have reaffirmed his respect for Islam. However, the Iranian clerics did not retract the fatwa.

In early 2005, Khomeini's fatwa against Rushdie was reaffirmed by Iran's spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. In response to requests to withdraw the fatwa, Iran has stated that only the person who issued it may withdraw it; Khomeini, however, died in 1989.

Recently, Rushdie has been contributing editorials regarding Islam.

Rushdie has been married twice, in 1976 to Clarissa Luard and in 1988 to the American writer Marianne Wiggins. The marriage broke up during their enforced underground life. However, on September 1998 the Iranian government announced that the state is not going to put into effect the fatwa or encourage anybody to do so. Rushdie has decided to end his hiding. In the beginning of 2000, he moved from London to New York. He is currently married to actress Padma Lakshmi. About Us | Subscribe | Review Team | History | ©1998-2014