Rushdie's Latest Novel Blurs Imagination, History

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Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center
Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie

Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

Salman Rushdie's days of living in hiding are long over.

Almost 20 years ago, the novelist faced death threats and an Iranian fatwa that called for his execution after his book The Satanic Verses was published. He went underground for nearly a decade.

Today, Rushdie lives and publishes openly. Some critics say his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, released Tuesday in the U.S., should be a front-runner for the Man/Booker Prize in Great Britain. It's a tangled work of historical fiction that spans generations of Mughal Indian emperors and Florentine aristocrats.

In a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel, Rushdie talks about the blurring of imagination and reality to create the novel. Rushie, who studied history at Cambridge University, says he created characters based on historical figures who, in turn, imagined other characters.

"It comes out of the old Pygmalion idea of men who invent women to fall in love with who then escape them," Rushdie says. "In the case of the Emperor Akbar, who is the character in the novel who invents the queen for himself, it came out of the fact that in India today, if you ask people who was the queen of the great emperor Akbar, they all say Jodha. If you look at the historical records, she didn't exist."

Rushdie calls it a "curious legend" of the Hindu queen.

"To show his tolerance, he did not ask her to convert to Islam and indeed continued to observe her religious practices alongside his own," Rushie says. "It's a happy legend for India because it's a myth of inclusion and tolerance."

But that got him thinking about the queen's very existence.

"If she doesn't exist now but everyone thinks she did, then maybe she didn't exist then but everyone thought she did."

In creating the novel, Rushdie says he was serious about sticking to the historical record in his account of India and Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. But then he took the story a step further to give it life.

"No matter how well people are known in history, if you're a novelist, you still have to perform the imaginative act of entering their heads and working out how they would think and feel," Rushdie says. "And of course, that's the pleasure of it."

One phrase that is repeated throughout the book is this: "The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike."

Rushdie says the great discovery he had while writing the book was he began to find "mirrorings and echoes" that showed the similarities between the two civilizations.

"I abandoned one or two story lines as not convincing, then I found this true incident in the early career of the first emperor, Barbar, where he was besieged and had to surrender his beautiful sister to his rival warlord as the price of his own survival," Rushdie says of the Indian leader.

"The great thing about history is the stuff that's there is better than you can make up," he says. "An Uzbek warlord called Lord Wormword is just too good to be true."

Indeed, Rushdie admits that the stuff readers would think is magic realism is actually in the historical record, and the stuff people will assume is real is what he made up.

When it comes to his own personal history, Rushdie says he leads the normal life of a writer despite having lived under protective custody in a suburban Virginia hotel more than a decade ago.

But he's trying to shed the reputation that he has a dark and serious personality.

"The threat against me was arcane and theological and unfunny. There's an assumption that I must be arcane and theological and unfunny," Rushdie says. "And I think it puts people off. When I go around lecturing at colleges and so on, every single time I do it somebody comes up to me and says 'Who knew that you'd be funny?' People have this expectation of a very dark, serious kind of burdened person. I'm just trying to burst back into Technicolor."

Excerpt: 'The Enchantress of Florence'

Book cover

Chapter 1

In the day's last light the glowing lake below the -palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset —this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road—might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests. And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of the larger fortune—the traveler's imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that -mother—ocean! Nor were there guards at the golden water's edge; was the king so generous, then, that he allowed all his subjects, and perhaps even strangers and visitors like the traveler himself, without hindrance to draw up liquid bounty from the lake? That would indeed be a prince among men, a veritable Prester John, whose lost kingdom of song and fable contained impossible wonders. Perhaps (the traveler surmised) the fountain of eternal youth lay within the city walls—perhaps even the legendary doorway to Paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand? But then the sun fell below the horizon, the gold sank beneath the water's surface, and was lost. Mermaids and serpents would guard it until the return of daylight. Until then, water itself would be the only treasure on offer, a gift the thirsty traveler gratefully accepted.

The stranger rode in a -bullock—cart, but instead of being seated on the rough cushions therein he stood up like a god, holding on to the rail of the cart's latticework wooden frame with one insouciant hand. A -bullock—cart ride was far from smooth, the -two—wheeled cart tossing and jerking to the rhythm of the animal's hoofs, and subject, too, to the vagaries of the highway beneath its wheels. A standing man might easily fall and break his neck. Nevertheless the traveler stood, looking careless and content. The driver had long ago given up shouting at him, at first taking the foreigner for a fool—if he wanted to die on the road, let him do so, for no man in this country would be sorry! Quickly, however, the driver's scorn had given way to a grudging admiration. The man might indeed be foolish, one could go so far as to say that he had a fool's overly pretty face and wore a fool's unsuitable clothes—a coat of colored leather lozenges, in such heat!—but his balance was immaculate, to be wondered at. The bullock plodded forward, the cart's wheels hit potholes and rocks, yet the standing man barely swayed, and managed, somehow, to be graceful. A graceful fool, the driver thought, or perhaps no fool at all. Perhaps someone to be reckoned with. If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well, and, the driver thought, around here everybody is a little bit that way too, so maybe this man is not so foreign to us after all. When the passenger mentioned his thirst the driver found himself going to the water's edge to fetch the fellow a drink in a cup made of a hollowed and varnished gourd, and holding it up for the stranger to take, for all the world as if he were an aristocrat worthy of service.

"You just stand there like a grandee and I jump and scurry at your bidding," the driver said, frowning. "I don't know why I'm treating you so well. Who gave you the right to command me? What are you, anyway? Not a nobleman, that's for sure, or you wouldn't be in this cart. And yet you have airs about you. So you're probably some kind of a rogue." The other drank deeply from the gourd. The water ran down from the edges of his mouth and hung on his shaven chin like a liquid beard. At length he handed back the empty gourd, gave a sigh of satisfaction, and wiped the beard away. "What am I?" he said, as if speaking to himself, but using the driver's own language. "I'm a man with a secret, that's what—a secret which only the emperor's ears may hear." The driver felt reassured: the fellow was a fool after all. There was no need to treat him with respect. "Keep your secret," he said. "Secrets are for children, and spies." The stranger got down from the cart outside the caravanserai, where all journeys ended and began. He was surprisingly tall and carried a carpetbag. "And for sorcerers," he told the driver of the bullock—cart. "And for lovers too. And kings."

In the caravanserai all was bustle and hum. Animals were cared for, horses, camels, bullocks, asses, goats, while other, untamable animals ran wild: screechy monkeys, dogs that were no man's pets. Shrieking parrots exploded like green fireworks in the sky. Blacksmiths were at work, and carpenters, and in chandleries on all four sides of the enormous square men planned their journeys, stocking up on groceries, candles, oil, soap, and ropes. Turbaned coolies in red shirts and dhotis ran ceaselessly hither and yon with bundles of improbable size and weight upon their heads. There was, in general, much loading and unloading of goods. Beds for the night were to be cheaply had here, -wood—frame rope beds covered with spiky horsehair mattresses, standing in military ranks upon the roofs of the -single—story buildings surrounding the enormous courtyard of the caravanserai, beds where a man might lie and look up at the heavens and imagine himself divine. Beyond, to the west, lay the murmuring camps of the emperor's regiments, lately returned from the wars. The army was not permitted to enter the zone of the palaces but had to stay here at the foot of the royal hill. An unemployed army, recently home from battle, was to be treated with caution. The stranger thought of ancient Rome. An emperor trusted no soldiers except his praetorian guard. The traveler knew that the question of trust was one he would have to answer convincingly. If he did not he would quickly die.

Excerpted from The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie Copyright © 2008 by Salman Rushdie. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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