CROSS- CUL­TURAL

In his latest act of magic, Salman Rushdie has united mythol­ogy and the In­dia of the Mogul em­pire with the Italy of the Re­nais­sance, writes Jane Corn­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

THERE are no armed guards out­side the Wylie Agency in Bedford Square, Blooms­bury, the pre­mier agency for A- list au­thors in Lon­don. Its Ge­or­gian fa­cade looks calm, wel­com­ing; up three steps and the huge front door buzzes quickly open. A young male re­cep­tion­ist smiles and, with­out so much as a bag check, di­rects me to­wards an ad­ja­cent room. Where, sit­ting on his own — but ris­ing with hand out­stretched, those hooded brown eyes twin­kling — is pos­si­bly the most prom­i­nent nov­el­ist of our time, Salman Rushdie.

‘‘ Have you seen a fin­ished copy?’’ he asks be­fore I’ve even got my coat off, his mel­liflu­ous voice the stuff of a mil­lion au­dio books. Pac­ing over to a wall of shelves he plucks a pris­tine redand- yel­low hard­back from a row all bear­ing the ti­tle The En­chantress of Florence . ‘‘ Look what the clever de­sign­ers have done,’’ he beams, flick­ing the book open to re­veal the 16th- cen­tury In­dian Mogul paint­ing on the inside front cover, and then a de­tail from a panorama of Re­nais­sance Florence inside the back.

‘‘ Mar­vel­lous, just mar­vel­lous,’’ he sighs, look­ing as if he might hap­pily fall into ei­ther and never climb out.

Which is just the sort of thing that hap­pens in a Rushdie novel. Myth and fan­tasy in­ter­twine with real life in the oeu­vre of this Mumbai- born, Cam­bridge- ed­u­cated writer: from 1981’ s Booker Prize- win­ning Mid­night’s Chil­dren ( judged the Booker of Book­ers in 1993 and odds- on for the Best of the Booker prize later this year) to 1988’ s fatwa- in­spir­ing Satanic Verses ( which kept him hid­den in a se­ries of safe houses for nine years) and 2006’ s po­lit­i­cally charged Shal­i­mar the Clown , Rushdie has cre­ated a magic re­al­ist swirl within which of­fi­cial his­tory is chal­lenged, rewrit­ten and fic­tion­alised.

A fan­ta­sia set at the turn of the 15th and 16th cen­turies, The En­chantress of Florence unites the In­dia of the Mogul em­pire with the Italy of the high Re­nais­sance. It be­gins with a tall, yel­lowhaired Euro­pean trav­eller ar­riv­ing by bul­lock cart at the palace- city of Fateh­pur Sikri, seat of the em­peror Ak­bar, armed with a tale that will ob­sess the im­pe­rial cap­i­tal.

He is, he claims, Mo­gor dell’Amore, the Mogul of Love; the son of a lost princess named Qara Koz, who was the youngest sis­ter of the Grand Mogul, Ak­bar’s grand­fa­ther Babar. Which makes him the much older Ak­bar’s un­cle.

Mo­gor’s tale gives way to that of the rav­ish­ing, dark- eyed Qara Koz, an ( al­leged) sor­cer­ess cap­tured by war­lords and shahs be­fore be­com­ing the lover of Floren­tine army com­man­der Ar­galia, boy­hood friend of one Nic­colo Machi­avelli. It’s all rather com­pli­cated. It is also the work of a mas­ter sto­ry­teller. Like a sort of lit­er­ary Rus­sian doll, or a se­ries of Per­sian minia­tures, Rushdie’s au­da­cious novel pulses with sto­ries within sto­ries, worlds within worlds. Time is blurred, turned inside out. Truth is told and stretched. Com­plex ideas — from be­lief and de­sire to power and pro­jec­tion — are ex­plored con­cisely through a teem­ing and vi­brant cast of char­ac­ters.

We get Ar­galia’s tale, and Ago’s, and Machi­avelli’s. We get that of Ak­bar’s schem­ing son, Salim, and Qara Koz’s looka­like lady- in- wait­ing, the Mir­ror. We get, briefly, a de­pres­sive por­trait painter named Dash­wanth who does in­deed fall into his pic­ture of Qara Koz and stay there, in con­trast to the feat achieved by Ak­bar, who has con­jured up his fan­tasy queen, princess Jodha. There are real his­tor­i­cal fig­ures in the shim­mer­ing heat of Fateh­pur Sikri and the sen­sual, tyran­ni­cal world of Florence. But when Rushdie wants ex­tra colour — some Swiss al­bino gi­ants, say, or two whores named Skele­ton and Mat­tress — he sim­ply makes peo­ple up.

‘‘ But an enor­mous amount is true,’’ he says, sip­ping the ex­tra strong cof­fee he’s or­dered from the re­cep­tion­ist; just in from New York, he’s wrestling with jet lag. ‘‘ I kept find­ing out stuff — like the fact the gar­den­ers in Top­kapi Palace were also ex­e­cu­tion­ers — that I wouldn’t have even imag­ined.’’

Seven years in the re­search, 20 years in the think­ing, The En­chantress of Florence was given breath by Rushdie’s up­bring­ing in In­dia ( as the only son of a bar­ris­ter who also stud­ied at Cam­bridge) and his un­der­grad­u­ate his­tory de­gree. ‘‘ I spent a whole stu­dent sum­mer in Florence with­out a bean, hav­ing to . . . choose be­tween a pizza or a ge­lato,’’ he of­fers. ‘‘ A friend of mine had a car so we’d drive to the coun­try­side and find all th­ese old lit­tle churches with huge fres­coes inside.’’

Rushdie has long since re­sumed his in­ter­na­tional travel sched­ule. Al­though the orig­i­nal death sen­tence de­creed by Iran’s Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini on Fe­bru­ary 14, 1989, was re­voked, it was re­placed by a new fatwa: one that seemed to fade away in tan­dem with changes of gov­ern­ment on both sides of the At­lantic in the 1990s and, iron­i­cally, with the rise of Is­lamic rad­i­cal­ism. ‘‘ I was the pre­text they found,’’ says Rushdie, whose 2007 knight­hood briefly re­vi­talised his en­e­mies. ‘‘ Given that they were look­ing for pre­texts.’’

While Rushdie was be­ing guarded round the clock, fel­low writ­ers Roald Dahl and Ger­maine

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