Magazine article The Spectator

'We Have Been Wimpish about Defending Our Ideas'

Magazine article The Spectator

'We Have Been Wimpish about Defending Our Ideas'

Article excerpt

The last time I interviewed Salman Rushdie was, as he remarks, a lifetime ago. That was in February 1993, in a safe house in north London guarded by Special Branch officers, only four years after Ayatollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for the alleged blasphemy of The Satanic Verses. On that occasion, quite understandably, the novelist seemed shrunken: not only spiritually subdued, but physically compressed by the ordeal of the fatwa.

Fifteen years on, we meet in very different circumstances to discuss his new novel:

The Enchantress of Florence, a lushly magnificent exploration of East and West in the 16th century. No longer creeping in the shadow of theocratic murder, Rushdie -- or, more properly these days, Sir Salman -- is animated and puckish. In a magic realist touch, it is as though the 60-year-old novelist is actually younger than he was in 1993. At any rate, his countenance and the spark in his eye today prove that you can come back from the dead.

Not that this particular novel, his tenth, was straightforward to accomplish. The idea has been brewing since 1999. And its delicacy of touch and playfulness (how can one not like a book that includes 'the rarely used Breat Uzbeg Anti-Shiite Potato and Sturgeon Curse'? ) conceal the terrible spectre of writer's block.

'It was a pretty horrible year for me in many ways, last year, with my marriage [his fourth, to Padma Lakshmi] breaking up, ' he says. 'There was certainly a moment, early last year, when there was just so much noise in my head that I really feared that I was losing the book and just losing grip of it. I became, for the first time that I can remember, really scared that I would not be able to write it. By some extra gear of concentration and will, I managed to find it. I worked in a more concentrated, more focused way, as a way of shutting out this destructive stuff that was around me.' Rushdie says he feels as he did after Midnight's Children, which was published in 1981 and went on to win the Booker of Bookers. 'I did feel there was an awful lot riding on that book, and fortunately people thought it was OK. I felt the same thing with this. When I finished it I thought: by any standard that I know, this is a good book, and if people don't agree with me, I will be really devastated. Because it would show that there is either something wrong with the world, or something wrong with me.' Not surprisingly, many have seen a thinly veiled simulacrum of Rushdie's ex-wife in the novel's hypnotic central figure, Qara Köz, a great beauty who transfixes men wherever she travels, and who is both revered as an enchantress and reviled as a witch. But the book does not really have the texture of a roman à clef. Its delight lies in a mixture of fairy tale, deep historical research, and an engagement with timeless philosophical questions.

The story hinges on the arrival at the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great (1542-1605), of a mysterious Westerner calling himself Mogor dell'Amore ('the Mughal of Love') and claiming to be the Emperor's uncle. He also has a tale to tell, about three Florentine friends: Niccolo Machiavelli, Agostino Vespucci (the man who identified Lisa Gherardini as the model for the 'Mona Lisa', and cousin of the famed explorer Amerigo) and Antonino Argalia, who goes on to command the armies of the Ottoman Sultan. All manner of vivid characters stalk these pages, including Savonarola, a prototypical version of the Three Musketeers and d'Artagnan, and even Dracula.

'The interesting thing about history sometimes, ' says the author, 'is that you know these people existed, and you knew what jobs they did but you don't know much about them as people so you actually have to make them up.

So the character of Ago Vespucci in the novel -- I just made him up. But he was a pal and drinking buddy of Machiavelli's and there is one rather sweet letter which exists, which he wrote to Machiavelli when Machiavelli was away on Florentine business, where he says 'please come back soon because when you're not here there is nobody to arrange the fun! …

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