24 June 2008

Salman Rushdie - The Enchantress of Florence

I'll just go ahead and say it: Rushdie's latest is one of the most enjoyable books I've ever read. It just might be the greatest I've ever read (though I'm not keeping score). Equal parts historical fiction and illusionary dreamscape, I found myself as enchanted by this read as those inside were by the Qara Köz (Lady Black Eyes).

The Enchantress of Florence weaves together fictionalized accounts of the lives of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, Niccolò Macchiavelli, Antonin Argalia (Argalia the Turk) and Amerigo Vespucci's cousin, Agostino. Extensive research was conducted to delicately place each of these men in space and time—Renaissance Tuscany and Mughal India—so that their historicity provides the backdrop upon which the existence of a mysterious lost Turkic princess unfolds. While it undoubtedly takes talent to develop complex characters who exist only in the imagination, to breathe life into long-passed historical figures is an even more noteworthy accomplishment.

Recent readings in eastern philosophy (by way of modern physics, no less) illuminated more of this text than I think I would have otherwise discovered. The ancient vedic concept of maya plays a major role in the story of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar. The Western translation of this word as "illusion" tends to lose the nuance of the concept; as opposed to, say, a figment of the imagination, maya should more accurately be viewed as an outlook that deceives reality. Sure, Akbar's most beloved queen is certainly imaginary, but she is as much a part of his conception of the world as any actual physical entity. Our eyes play tricks on us and we interpret the world through our senses. Senses can be deceived and what constitutes "reality" may be far more than what our senses perceive.

Concepts like maya have not been a part of Western philosophy at all, and so when our reality deceives us we have often blamed them on the work of some outside actor instead of seeing them as a natural part of our universe, our human existence. Pre-Enlightenment Europe was continually privvy to witch-hunts and inquisitions that sought to find the living causes of our own misfortune and fate. The mind/body divide is present in Florence, but not in the seat of the Mughal Empire, Sikri.

What Rushdie is able to do in this novel is demonstrate the same-ness of these two approaches to understanding our existence. Though others may purposefully deceive us, just as often we are to blame for deceiving ourselves in our feeble attempts to explain what evades. However helpful human religious outlooks may be in navigating daily existence or providing meaning for events, the answers are always illusory and deceptive. The rogue traveller and storyteller Niccolò Vespucci—the Mogor dell'Amore, the "Mughal of Love—endears himself to the emperor, Akbar, with his near limitless ability to understand his environments and intellectual uncanny. Ultimately, he is undone by his own tale, for he has an important fact wrong and Akbar knows the truth. Of course, even this truth hides another story.
Literary themes aside for a moment, I just read the review in the NYTimes and thought the critic totally missed the point. Then again I'm a complete fiction novice and thought the magic and imagination quite charming. (full paradox disclosure: I play D&D and I loathe Tolkien) Anyway, for a rationalist non-fiction reader to be so enchanted by such a book must mean something, right? Well, even Mr. Gates concedes that it helps to be in the right mood to enjoy this, so presumably he was in a foul mood. Naturally, as a student of history I was caught up in the settings and historical figures and didn't let any "claptrap" bother me. What can I say, sometimes I'm in a good mood and this book helped keep me there.


Bibliophile said...

1. maya should more accurately be viewed as an outlook that deceives reality. This reminds me of the story "The Locked Room" in Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. I think you might like it. I know I've mentioned this book to you before.

2. However helpful human religious outlooks may be in navigating daily existence or providing meaning for events, the answers are always illusory and deceptive. Recently in my readings the theme of science v. religion keeps emerging, so I've been thinking a lot on the topic of the usefulness of religion. As you know, I perhaps do not share the same outlook on this matter as those who have at one time or another been part of institutionalized religion, but this is too wide of a generalization and is unfairly dismissive of religions as a whole. You cannot say that anything is ever always one thing or another, especially when that thing is as diverse as religion. Scientific objectivity and religious belief are not mutually exclusive, especially when it comes to constructing our visions of reality.

Alex said...

wow, i realized i didn't really finish my thought in there (probably because of this fuzzy brain). What I was trying to get at is that Rushdie's Akbar is appreciative of the religious outlooks of his subjects to an extent--his empire allowed complete religious freedom--though was suspicious of devout religiosity himself. There are several instances within the novel in which the role of religion in society is questioned in a thoughtful manner. I should have made this more clear in the review as that's what I was trying to reference.