On my most recent jaunt to the library, I picked up the latest book by Salman Rushdie (The Enchantress of Florence). Rushdie, you will recall, is the writer for whom the late Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa, death sentence, over his book The Satanic Verses, which according to the Ayatollah insulted the prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him). Rushdie went into hiding for 10 years, but now lives rather openly. Once the Ayatollah Khomeini died, Rushdie applied for a reprieve from the new Ayatollah. After careful consideration the new Ayatollah concluded that only the person who issued the fatwa could lift it, which was hard for Khomeini to do, being dead. Therefore, the fatwa still stands but it seems the interest in killing Rushdie has waned, what with radical extremist Muslims having so much on their plate these days.
I was under the impression all these years that Rushdie was Iranian, since they were paying so much attention to him, but in fact he is British-Indian, born in Mumbai of Indian Muslim parents who were British citizens. Rushdie seems to be an atheist, despite a little white lie to the new Ayatollah saying he had converted to Islam.
I was a little reticent to get Rushdie’s book, because I generally try to avoid anything that seems to fall into the category of “great literature”. That hasn’t always been the case. There was the summer I decided to read all the books by the great Russian writers, although I did draw the line at Tolstoy, because I had no intention of ever reading War and Peace. I had already read almost everything by Dostoyevsky, so I moved on to Gogol and Solsenitzyn. About the time I finished the latter’s book Cancer Ward I found myself thinking that being struck by lightning would be better than reading another one of his books, or anything else that smacked of great literature. Danielle Steele was looking really good.
I am sort of kidding. I have never actually read anything by Danielle Steele. But I did move on to popular fiction writers, and many of them are amazingly good. I appreciate good writing and a good story, and not every book has to address the existential crises of life.
But once in a while I get this twinge of conscience that says I need to read something significant, so that’s why I picked up Rushdie’s book. At the same time I picked up Walter Mosley’s Cinnamon Kiss and read it first. Mosley is most well known for writing Devil in a Blue Dress, which was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. I had forgotten all about Mosley, but since last week it was still Black History month, he was one of the featured writers on the featured table of black writers.
Which brings us to sex in books. My friend Judith and I were discussing this recently, I think as a result of her having read The Horse Whisperer, which I recommended. It was good, except for the sex parts. And that’s the genius of good writers. You probably can’t name a good book in the last 200 years that didn’t have sex in it. But almost nobody does it right. Most of the time it’s the very definition of “gratuitous”. You’re following a good story, then all of a sudden you have to take time out to read about two people gazing into one another’s eyes, and a spark flames, and they are totally overcome by passion. Give me a break. The truth is, that actually does happen, but 99% of writers aren’t able to get it right. More often than not, when I read sex scenes in books I feel like I’m watching a commercial for Johnny Walker Red.
Not so with Mosley. And who knew…not so with Salman Rushdie. The Enchantress of Florence takes place partially in 16th century India, during the reign of Akbar the Great, who was a real person, ruler of the Mughal Empire from 1556 until his death in 1605. It also switches at times to Florence. The reviewer for the NY Times Book Review, who is either normally clinically depressed, or who was having a very bad day, panned the book. In essence he said the language in it is too flowery and Rushdie is full of himself. In fact, it’s a treasure of a book. It is poetic, it’s dreamlike, it’s fantastical, weaving the real and the unreal together, but it never gets too far afield from the story. It’s also often very subtly funny. Take this passage:
“Simonetta possessed a pale, fair beauty so intense that no man could look at her without falling into a state of molten adoration, and nor could any woman, and the same went for most of the city’s cats and dogs, and maybe diseases loved her too, which was why she was dead before she was twenty-four years old.”
In another great passage, one of Akbar’s ministers says that an atheist only believes in one god less than anyone else. Since all religions argue that their god is the only god, between them, he says, they give him all the arguments for believing in none.
So…funny, philosophical, surreal, and sensual. What’s not to like? This is my first Rushdie novel, it will not be my last.