Books

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Carlin Romano
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

An enlightening arabesque that confirms why Rushdie is Rushdie, and his belittlers far littler.


The Enchantress of Florence

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 9780375504334
Author: Salman Rushdie
Price: $26.00
Length: 368
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2008-05
Amazon

What does a thoroughly modern, Manhattan-based novelist -- not commonly associated with historical novels set centuries ago -- know about Mughal India and Renaissance Florence?

Why would he care about either?

If the novelist is Salman Rushdie, the answer to question one is, "Plenty"/ Consult that 93-item bibliography at the back of his 10th novel, citing academic tomes such as Daily Life in Florence in the Time of the Medici, by J. Dubreton-Lucas, and Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World, by Ruby Lal. Rushdie adds an understandably proud note: "This is not a complete list of the works I consulted." Without doubt, he's told an interviewer The Enchantress of Florence is his "most researched" novel ever.

The reason Rushdie cares so much perhaps comes to this: "Globalization didn't start yesterday, and neither did tolerance." In making his chief protagonist here Akbar the Great (1542-1605), the Mughal emperor famed for openness to all religions, Rushdie plainly found a historical figure who challenged and inspired him.

Novels that rise above genre conventions, however, require the author's own legerdemain. Rushdie provides it here by embedding Akbar in complex cross-cultural encounters between Europe and the East in the 16th century, a time when modern forms of power and empire occupied astute observers in both. The result is an enlightening arabesque that confirms why Rushdie is Rushdie, and his belittlers far littler.

Rushdie begins by introducing Enchantress' other main protagonist, a handsome, mysterious, golden-tressed European wearing "a coat of colored leather lozenges." The traveler, identified first as Uccello di Firenze, is making his way by bullock-cart toward the palace-city of Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal capital Akbar built from scratch.

To the visitor, the magnificent city looks larger than London. He's a magician and storyteller, the bearer, he claims, of a secret "with a curse," a man who can "dream in seven languages."

Rushdie soon backtracks to show us his conjurer stowed away on a Scottish pirate ship to India. Once discovered, Uccello charms its captain, then plucks him "as clean as any chicken," absconding with the captain's letter from Queen Elizabeth for the emperor himself.

Uccello slips offstage, and we next meet Akbar, whose name, you should know, already means "great":

The great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate, but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory - the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, over-sexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage. ...

You may read this sentence and ask: "Was there an editor in the house?" Consider an alternate query: "Can you make time in your life to enjoy a nonpareil writer's reveries, his cascading engagement with worlds we've lost?"

Because even before Akbar meets Uccello, by that time identifying himself as Mogor dell'Amore, Rushdie's unbounded forays into Akbar's thoughts ("such matters as the mutability of the universe, the size of the stars, the breasts of his wives, and the nature of God") contribute no small part to the punch of Enchantress. After Akbar meets the wily European, and confronts his claim to be the emperor's long-lost uncle, son of a Mughal princess and her Italian lover, the fun only grows.

In some ways, Enchantress launches a successor style to now-passe magic realism -- call it sardonic exoticism. On top of Rushdie's customary wryness (one perk in Akbar's water-park capital is "the best of all possible pools"), Rushdie takes Rabelasian risks here that will please all serious readers: those who expect sentences, and not just plots, to surprise them.

Several wild passages involve Skeleton and Mattress, two tag-team whores who contribute, so to speak, a backstory to the plot. In one comparatively innocuous encounter between Skeleton and Mogor, "She got to work, anointing him with civet and violet, magnolia and lily, narcissus and calembic, as well as drops of other occult fluids whose names he did not even like to ask, fluids extracted from the sap of Turkish, Cypriot and Chinese trees, as well as a wax from the intestines of a whale."

Riffs such as that apart, the serious core of Enchantress remains Akbar, to whom the plot returns even after we've been swept through Europe, shared time with Machiavelli and the Medicis, and met gorgeous Qara Koz, the apparent link between Mogor and his putative lost family.

Akbar, as both historic figure and Rushdie's fanciful actor, deserves his place as cynosure of the book. Who wouldn't be riveted by a "Muslim vegetarian" who boldly synthesized different religions, eliminated special taxes on non-Muslims, encouraged broad debate, banned child marriage, and -- one suspects this occurred to Rushdie -- makes a far better role model for Muslims (a few emperorlike brutalities aside) than some other candidates?

As if to honor Akbar, Rushdie festoons Enchantress with philosophical musings, many of which mirror favorite themes of the author. Akbar "wanted, for example, to investigate why one should hold fast to a religion not because it was true but because it was the faith of one's fathers. Was faith not faith but simple family habit? ... Maybe there was no true religion."

As so often in the past, Rushdie laces a message into a mesmerizing tale: Look at the reality of Islamic history, of Indian history, and don't fall for ignorant absolutisms.

Like many novelists of august stature, Rushdie faces great expectations with each new book. Fans who worship one or another of his masterworks, such as Midnight's Children, sometimes demand a book just like it. A few critics appear regularly invested in diminishing him, as if he, rather than the media, allowed his celebrity after the fatwa heard round the world to eclipse his proper image as a writer of bold books.

So let it be said straight out: Enchantress delivered by an unknown, would be applauded as a feat of narrative wizardry: a playful, ruminative, vibrant meditation on subjects that never bore -- power, sex, love, travel, doubt -- and certainly don't here.

At one point long after meeting Mogor, Akbar recalls "what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough." Just so.

9

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

Next Page
Related Articles Around the Web
Film

Subverting the Romcom: Mercedes Grower on Creating 'Brakes'

Noel Fielding (Daniel) and Mercedes Grower (Layla) (courtesy Bulldog Film Distribution)

Brakes plunges straight into the brutal and absurd endings of the relationships of nine couples before travelling back in time to discover the moments of those first sparks of love.

The improvised dark comedy Brakes (2017), a self-described "anti-romcom", is the debut feature of comedienne and writer, director and actress Mercedes Grower. Awarded production completion funding from the BFI Film Fund, Grower now finds herself looking to the future as she develops her second feature film, alongside working with Laura Michalchyshyn from Sundance TV and Wren Arthur from Olive productions on her sitcom, Sailor.

Keep reading... Show less

People aren't cheering Supergirl on here. They're not thanking her for her heroism, or even stopping to take a selfie.

It's rare for any hero who isn't Superman to gain the kind of credibility that grants them the implicitly, unflinching trust of the public. In fact, even Superman struggles to maintain that credibility and he's Superman. If the ultimate paragon of heroes struggles with maintaining the trust of the public, then what hope does any hero have?

Keep reading... Show less

The Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop artist MAJO wraps brand new holiday music for us to enjoy in a bow.

It's that time of year yet again, and with Christmastime comes Christmas tunes. Amongst the countless new covers of holiday classics that will be flooding streaming apps throughout the season from some of our favorite artists, it's always especially heartening to see some original writing flowing in. Such is the gift that Paraguay-born, Brooklyn-based indie pop songwriter MAJO is bringing us this year.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image