I remember sitting through a recital and lecture once by pianist Balint Vazsonyi. It was an evening of Beethoven sonatas, with the pianist’s commentary on the pieces, and on music in general, padded generously in between. One thing that he said has always stuck with me. Musicians and others, he remarked, use their art as a means to solve problems, their works being scratch-pads of sorts on which dilemmas both artistic and personal are ironed out.
Those remarks came back to me as I read Salman Rushdie’s latest work, The Enchantress of Florence. The novel contains all the writerly flourishes that are Rushdie’s stock in trade: lovingly wrought descriptions, witty and insightful quotations, a plot that rambles across time and place, and an ethos of free-ranging thought that takes in philosophy, religion, mythology, or anything else that happens to pop into the writer’s head.
This is all well and good, but somewhere around the halfway point of the book, one has to wonder: what is it that Rushdie is puzzling over, exactly? Past works have probed artistic inspiration, the vagaries of memory and history, thorny matters of belief and disbelief, human rights, and a host of other quandaries and conundrums. What new territory is there to be explored, and what does this novel have to say that hasn’t already been offered up in his past works?
Taken out of context, Enchantress is a great story, and is well-told. No gripes there. The long and short of it: the novel’s protagonist travels halfway ’round the world to tell a story as though his life depends on it. Think of Scheherezade condensed down to one really important story. Throw in a motley cast of south Asian nobles, Florentine nobles, various and sundry beautiful women, historical personages, a handful of Medicis and a gaggle of scoundrels, whisking briskly with barely veiled autobiographical references, and you’ve got a corker of a novel.
That’s provided that you take it out of context. If you’ve read Rushdie’s past works, you’ll find much here that’s familiar. It’s almost as though he’s taken the bits he liked best from past works, recombined them through some kind of authorial DNA splicing, and presented the whole of it, repackaged, as his latest masterwork. That’s where both novel and author fall short, especially given that each of the themes explored here were done not only earlier, but better.
The recipe: nick the unreliable narrator from Midnight’s Children, only make him more unreliable. Take the theological and philosophical musings that got the author in trouble when they were stated in The Satanic Verses, and rework them to make them seem new. The thoughts on freedom of speech and expression that were expressed with a fabulist’s simplicity in Haroun and the Sea of Stories are also present, just in a more labored guise. The impossibly beautiful heroine from The Ground Beneath Her Feet (after a makeover) plays a central part in the aforementioned unreliable narrator’s tale.
I could go on. From another author, this would be a perfectly acceptable book. And it’s not as though Rushdie has turned out a piece of unacceptable dreck. But when someone can fairly lay claim to some of the best literature of the last 25 years (or longer) and turns in what amounts to a potboiler that seems, to this reader at least, to have been largely cribbed from earlier, better works, it’s disappointing to say the least. And that’s a puzzlement.