Salman Rushdie's latest novel "The Enchantress of Florence", is a magical flight of the imagination that amounts to more than fine literature. It is a rare feat of mental discipline, produced as a fatwa hangs over the author.
A native of India who has brought up in India and Pakistan, Rushdie is now accepted as one of the greatest living English-language writers. He keeps up a cheerful presence on the literary scene, helping us forget that he writes virtually with a gun to his head. For 20 years he has worked under a death threat from Islamic extremists, authorized by the late Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
For the first few years of the fatwa he was forced to move to new quarters every few weeks to avoid detection by armed militants. Today the fatwa still stands but Iran has withdrawn its death threat - a nuance, however, unlikely to be heeded by Islamic militants bent on killing him.
He lives a more public life but says the fatwa and its impact on firebrand militants remains "an albatross around my neck".
Muslims were told 20 years ago that Rushdie must be killed for his comical treatment of the Prophet Muhammad in "The Satanic Verses", and that the killer, ipso facto, would be assured the blessings of Allah. The "Verses" story of Muhammad's life was found to be blasphemous by some of the Islamic faithful.
The fatwa was an incitement to violent action by religious hot-heads and would be more than enough to shut down the creative forces of a lesser artist. But Rushdie has persevered.
I was living in "Londonistan", as the British capital has become known, when "The Satanic Verses" became a rallying cry for Islamic activists. A parade of thousands of chanting Moslems, mostly Pakistani, weaved its way down Park Lane with banners calling for Rushdie to be punished or killed. Similar demonstrations were organized in Bradford, an English community north of London with a large Islamic population. Few if any of the demonstrators had read the book but it was burned to chanting crowds in public.
Today Rushdie continues his steady output, now totaling 13 books and numerous essays, and cheerfully devotes himself to stories that resound with his blend of east and west, reality and fantasy, magic and reality. "Enchantress", just out in paperback, is perhaps the pinnacle of this genre.
Several chats, speeches and interviews relating to the novel are available on YouTube and other internet sites, the best of which is a talk organized by Google:
Rushdie lives mostly in the United States but when he returns to London British bodyguards are pressed back into service. MI5 agents have the option of declining this assignment, however, on the grounds that it is life-threatening, both to them and to him. The cost of British protection over the years has been calculated at about 10 million pounds, part of it covered by Rushdie.
Traveling internationally is one of his biggest hassles. Most airlines refuse to carry him because of the risk of attack by Islamic extremists.
Rushdie's British knighthood in 2007 triggered protests throughout the Islamic world. "If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honour of the Prophet then it is justified," one government minister told the Pakistani National Assembly.
In Multan, Pakistan, Muslim students burnt effigies of Queen Elizabeth and Rushdie and chanted "Kill him, kill him". Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman has called him "one of the most hated figures in the Moslem world".
"Enchantress" rises above the hatred, however, bringing India's 15th century Moguls together with the Medicis of Florence in a story that finds similar trends in the two disparate cultures. If one measure of intelligence is the ability to link seemingly unrelated ideas, this historical romance does so impressively.
Rushdie says in his Google talk that he wanted to surprise the reader with the parallel liberalizing cultures established by the Mogul Akbar in India and the Medici rule at the same time in Florence, Italy. His research was greatly facilitated, he says, by web access to historical writings, including translated Persian texts that would be difficult to find in a traditional library.
"In many ways, the period was not unlike our own," he says, with truths being questioned and free expression the rule in much of the world.
He lists more than a hundred source works he consulted for historical accuracy, including several websites. The time spent at his computer saved him six months of library drudgery, he says.
The novel has prompted praise from his peers. Novelist Joyce Carol Oates called it history "jubilantly mixed with postmodernist magical realism." One noted its "steely contemporary resonance". And another called it "a prodigious fever dream of a book".
The Times of London, offering the minority view, dismissed it as a "farrago of curses, omens, potions, prophecies, aphrodisiac unguents, evil queens, sorceresses, irresistible beauties, love-struck despots, wise whores, jealous wives, wicked aunts, albino giants, phantoms, "potato witches", magic mirrors, miraculous perfumes and telepathic bathwater".
The drawing above of Salman Rushdie is by the author.
A Rushdie bibliography:
Midnight's Children (1981)
The Satanic Verses (1988)
Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981 - 1991 (1992)
Homeless by Choice (1992, with R. Jhabvala and V. S. Naipaul)
East, West (1994)
The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)
The Firebird's Nest (1997)
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
Shalimar the Clown (2005)
The Enchantress of Florence (2008)
The Best American Short Stories (2008, as Guest Editor)
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