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A Machiavellian obsession

Jun. 12, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Random House
368 pages; $26

There is a character in Salman Rushdie's new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, who goes by the nickname Il Machia. Sociable, funny and an incorrigible womanizer, it comes as quite a surprise when it is revealed that Il Machia is none other than Nicolo Machiavelli.

This literary sleight of hand shines a more sympathetic light on the reviled author of The Prince than we are used to seeing. For Rushdie, the trick was quite deliberate. "The problem with Machiavelli is that the name carries so much baggage. One of the reasons I was always interested in him was that I felt he got an unusually bad rap from history: that his name became this synonym for deviousness, cynicism and realpolitik. Actually he was very unlike that."

Opening the case for the defense, Rushdie argues that Machiavelli was the most successful comic writer of the Renaissance. "La Mandragola [The Mandrake] was by far the most popular comedy of the period." Moreover, as a philosopher, Machiavelli was a profound republican and an anti-despot. "He was strongly opposed to the Medicis returning to power. Then he spent the rest of his life sucking up to them to try and get back."

Rushdie's fascination with Machiavelli is long-standing and profound. When I ask if there is a personal reason for the attraction - both are brilliant writers, hated largely because of a single book and cast into exile - he agrees wholeheartedly.

"Because we both suffered a kind of demonization? I think that's true. My interest in Machiavelli predates The Satanic Verses, but I have always felt very moved by his story. This man suffered torture of the most brutal kind without ever confessing to any crime because he had not committed any."

With admirable understatement, Rushdie adds. "It's true to say that maybe because I have had some experience of getting a bad rap myself, of having my name turned into a byword for something horrible, it did give me an increased interest in writing about him."

Meeting Rushdie in person, it's hard to reconcile the relaxed individual checking his Blackberry and chatting happily about U2, Tottenham Hotspur and Muhammad Ali with the author who lived under a death sentence after The Satanic Verses. Although the threat of the fatwa remains (he receives an annual "Valentine's Day" card from Iran), Rushdie is genial and witty company, even when he warns me off asking about his love life. "Let's not go there," he says with a weary smile.

It is a testament to his courage and his intelligence that the newly minted knight of the realm talks about his years in the wilderness with genuine sadness, lamenting the fact that in large parts of the world his work is either not read at all or deliberately misread. "There is a terrible irony about The Satanic Verses that some of the people it was written about in East London were the people who ended up setting fire to it. That's awful stuff and obviously I am aware of it."

Rushdie even extracts moments of absurd humor from his exile when I ask about the 1990 Pakistani movie International Guerrillas, which portrayed him as a one-man threat to the Islamic world. It is, he says, one of the worst films ever made. "One of those where the sets shake. The heroes are members of what would now be al-Qaida and they were supposed to kill me. That was the happy ending."

The absurd part came when Rushdie defended International Guerrillas after it was banned by the British Board of Film Classification. "I found myself in this weird position of fighting a free speech battle and also being defended by an act of censorship. In the end, I had to write a letter saying that the film should get a certificate. I became the person who got it released in England."

Rushdie argues that banning the movie would only have increased its power. When it was screened in Bradford, no one turned up to watch. "The point being, crappy movie, right? Nobody wants to spend their money on a crappy movie."

The Enchantress of Florence, by contrast, is as fine, enjoyable and sexy a novel as Rushdie has written. Meandering elegantly through Italy, the great Mogul city of Sikri and the mysterious New World, it tells the story of a story, one related by a handsome Westerner calling himself "Mogor Dell'Amore" ('The Mogul of Love'). The audience is the real Grand Mogul Akbar, who must decide whether to believe the blond stranger or execute him. The only problem is the story itself: The Mogor Dell'Amore claims to be the son of a long-lost Mogul princess, Qara Köz (Black Eyes), and therefore the uncle of Akbar himself.

As the novel's extensive bibliography illustrates, Rushdie undertook extensive research about both the Mogul empire and Renaissance Italy. He realized the value of all his reading when he visited the ruined city of Sikri. "I went with eyes I had never possessed before. I was able literally to bring the past to life, to let my characters walk around this phantom city. Once you have done the research, your imagination is set free."

GIVING EXPRESSION to the creative imagination lies at the heart of the novel. The period, Rushdie says, was one defined by stories and storytelling, both in the East and West. At that period, the story was news. "If there's a battle at Marathon, the runner runs 26 miles and the story he tells is what everybody knows of the battle. History at that moment was basically people telling each other stories, which you had to decipher were true or not."

Rushdie has played these ludic narrative games before: most famously in Midnight's Children, which was voted the Booker of Bookers in 1993. Nevertheless, he insists that the telling and receiving of stories is something beyond literature. "Human beings tell each other stories in order to understand the kind of people we are. We are the only creatures on earth that do this weird thing."

For Rushdie, families are a story, religion is a story and nation is a story. In The Enchantress of Florence, even the East and West are stories, being told to each other across both time and space. One of the greatest pleasures Rushdie derives from the novel is how Machiavelli and Akbar conduct a strange sort of conversation even though they are separated by thousands of miles and over half a century.

The pair make for surprisingly sympathetic bedfellows. Like his Italian counterpart, Akbar was a serious intellectual: A pantheistic thinker and tolerant leader, he strove for a country of peace and prosperity. At the same time, this most Epicurean of emperors was prone to the family vices of sex, alcohol and opium. "All the moguls overindulged. All six grand moguls were opium-smoking drunks," Rushdie laughs.

For all his wisdom, the one truth that Akbar both struggles and refuses to entertain is the emergence of the New World. For Rushdie, the discovery of America by Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci signaled the birth of the modern world. "It must have been like an explosion in people's minds, this moment where you think: It's a whole f***ing new place we never knew was there. You have to re-imagine your entire planet."

Rushdie argues that this geographic bombshell combined with the development of humanistic philosophy laid the "foundation of the world we live in now."

Here in a nutshell is his justification for writing a historical novel, no matter how fantastic it might be in his hands. "All history is an echo of the age we live in," he says. "We always see the past through present eyes. It's the problem of the uncertainty principle where the thing doing the seeing is the thing that is seen."

And yet, this same human uncertainty is also what drives the wild and unpredictable power of our imaginations. It is a quality that Rushdie the artist tries hard to embrace. "My view is that you always have to remember that we are dreaming animals. Every single one of us has an imagination that is to some extent out of control. It goes where it will. In order to understand our life on earth fully, we must never lose sight of that dreaming self."

As for Rushdie the man, he confesses that he is relatively happy following his well-publicized divorce from Padma Lakshmi. Now dividing his time between America and Britain, where most of his family and friends live, he is moving on to pastures new, including a sequel of sorts to his children's book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

Rushdie's next artistic endeavour, however, is appearing at a cinema near you: He plays the role of a gynecologist in Helen Hunt's directorial debut, Then She Found Me. It was the fulfillment of a youthful ambition to be an actor (Rushdie was a member of the Footlights at Cambridge), and he clearly loved working alongside the likes of Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler and old mate Colin Firth.

"The greatest compliment I was paid, and which I will probably be telling to my dying day, was that Matthew Broderick said to me, "So, have you done a lot of this?' I thought, Thank you very much. I have not lived in vain." Sir Salman, you can say that again.


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