The Enchantress of Florence

The Enchantress of Florence begins and ends like a movie. It opens
with a golden-haired stranger arriving in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s
capital, Fatehpur Sikri, and ends with Akbar meeting a legendary
beauty. What happens in between has the fairytale quality of the
Arabian Nights and uses the same literary device.

The Enchantress of Florence is a tale within a tale – the tale of
the stranger’s growing friendship with Akbar as he tells the emperor
the story of the legendary beauty, the enchantress of the title,
leading up to the revelation of his own identity. Both he and Akbar are
related to the lady, claims the stranger who calls himself Mogor
dell’Amore, the Mughal of Love.

According to him, the Enchantress of Florence is really the Mughal
princess Qara Koz (Lady Black Eyes), Akbar’s grandfather Babur’s “lost”
sister . But if she is Babur’s sister, how is she still a ravishing
beauty when she appears before Akbar? And is the Mughal of Love really
who he claims to be? He is either telling the truth or he isn’t. But,
speaking to the enchantress, Akbar learns it’s not so simple as that.
There’s a third possibility unknown even to the Mughal of Love.

Continue reading “The Enchantress of Florence”

Le Carre: The spy who almost went out into the cold

John Le Carre was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union when he worked for MI6 during the Cold War in the early Sixties. "I wasn’t tempted ideologically, but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest," he tells the Sunday Times.

As a British Foreign Service officer based in Germany, he knew how defectors were spirited across the Iron Curtain and described the manoeuvres vividly in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his most famous thrillers published while he was still in the Foreign Service in 1963.

Le Carre — real name David John Moore Cornwell — was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 after teaching at Eton from 1956 to 1958. His secret service career ended prematurely when his cover was blown by another former British agent, Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963 and revealed the identities of scores of British agents, many of whom were subsequently killed.

The Sunday Times says:

"It seems that in 1987 le Carré was offered the chance of a meeting… with the traitor (Kim Philby), fixed up through a shadowy Russian intermediary…  But le Carré demurred; he could not dine with Philby. “I just couldn’t do it. I said no.”

Why? “I just couldn’t do it.” He pauses for a moment. “There was always an instinct towards corruption in him. And remember, he was responsible for sending countless British agents to their deaths, to be killed – 40 or more in Albania . . . ”

Le Carre also answers questions about his feud with Salman Rushdie whose Satanic Verses he criticised as an affront to Muslims. But his own words now may offend the Muslims.

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Two Indians still in the Booker fray

I am not surprised Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence has failed to get past the long list to the short list for the 2008 Man Booker Prize even though bookmaker Ladbrokes installed it as the 4-1 favourite. As I wrote in an earlier post, the West might find the story too exotic. Midnight's Children, the 1981 Booker winner which went on to the Booker of Bookers award this year, was exotic, but it was also a political allegory published at the right time, four years after the lifting of the state of emergency in India, which made it highly topical and relevant. And, of course, it's a classic.

The Enchantress of Florence is highly relevant, too, if one looks under the surface. It deals with magic, the power of words, and social engineering — for what is the central character, who calls himself Mogor dell'Amore, but a piece of social engineering who has crafted a new persona for himself? Reading the book, I was reminded of Barack Obama who is as charismatic, confident and articulate and who has also been able to forge a persona of his own through his autobiographies.

But The Enchantress of Florence also has the fairytale quality of Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a children's classic, and that's not usually found in Booker winners.

As an Indian, I am rooting for Amitav Ghosh's Sea of Poppies, which has been shortlisted for the Booker.The winner of the 50,000-pound prize will be announced on October 14.

Continue reading “Two Indians still in the Booker fray”

Salman Rushdie, Florence and Tang sculptures

Bookmaker Ladbrokes has installed Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence as the 4-1 favourite to win the Man Booker prize this year. I find the book hard to put down, having finished two-thirds of the novel in the last two days, getting the references easily as an Indian, but I wonder if it’s too exotic for the West though quite a bit of it is about Florence.

David statue copy in Florence
David statue copy in Florence

Ah Florence! Reading the book brought back memories of the trip my wife and I made to Florence. She was in fact standing in the foreground of this picture which I cropped out before posting it here. This place with the copy of Michelangelo’s David, just a short walk from the Uffizi art gallery, is one of the favourite tourist attractions, much more crowded than the church square with a statue of the famous Florentine Dante.

Florence is back in the news again not just for The Enchantress of Florence, which has more to do with India during the rule of Akbar the great Mughal, but also for the Chinese. Yes, the Chinese.

Continue reading “Salman Rushdie, Florence and Tang sculptures”

Rushdie wins again

So Midnight’s Children wins the Booker of Bookers award as the most popular of all the books which have won the Booker Prize now in its 40th year.

I was enchanted when I read the book more than 25 years ago just after it won the Booker Prize and saw the author himself, Salman Rushdie, when he gave a talk in my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata). Slight and earnest in his glasses, he spoke in a soft voice, captivating us with his words. He sounded so English it was surprising he knew so much about India that he could write a book like Midnight’s Children.

No one can imagine the kind of adulation he received as the first Indian to receive the Booker. Back then, we considered it the greatest of all literary prizes, second only to the Nobel.

Other Indian writers have achieved international acclaim since then, but Rushdie was the first. There were older Indian writers who had found recognition earlier like RK Narayan, who was admired by Graham Greene, but they did not achieve the fame and celebrity of subsequent writers like Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Arundhati Roy (another Booker winner), Vikram Chandra and Amitabh Ghosh.

What’s most remarkable about Rushdie is not his scintillating prose or his storytelling power but his ability to write so intimately about India despite all his years abroad. Read about early Indian cricket in The Moor’s Smile, Bombay pop culture in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, New Delhi and Kashmir in Shalimar the Clown. He is so erudite, so stylish, India is fortunate to have a writer like him telling her story in minute detail with so much colour and life.

The Guardian has an audio clip of an interview with him.

Too few voters

Sadly the media seemed more in the Booker of Bookers than ordinary people who were asked to choose the winner by voting online or sending text messages. Only 7,800 people bothered to vote, 37 percent from the UK, followed by 26 percent from North America. Midnight’s Children won 36 percent of the votes. I wonder which came second. Voters chose from a shortlist of six Booker winners:

  • The Siege of Krishapur by JG Farrell (1973)
  • The Conservationist by Nadine Gordimer (1974)
  • Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
  • Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988)
  • The Ghost Road by Pat Barker (1995)
  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee (1999).

Anyone interested in Indian history should read The Siege of Krishnapur. Set during the Indian Revolution of 1857, it describes the plight of Britons besieged by the rebels. But there is no jingoism. Deeply moving, it captures the horror and suffering caused by war. 

Rushdie wants to write another children’s book

Salman Rushdie has the same literary agent as Martin Amis and Philip Roth. Andrew Wylie must be three times lucky to represent such a triumvirate. Or is he? I don't know about Roth, but Rusdhie and Amis are two of the most controversial — and stylish– writers around. But Rushdie is better. I would say that, of course. "To Indian people, he's as large as Faulkner or Hemingway," says the Observer interview with Rushdie today. It's a must-read. Rushdie uses the F-word and the Observer prints the full four-letter word. He also disses the Archbishop of Canterbury and praises Margaret Thatcher. He always makes good copy.

Now that Rusdhie's latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, has appeared to rave reviews, he wants to write a children's book next for his second son, Milan.  Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written for his first son, Zafar, was certainly fantastic. But when did Rushdie ever write a bad book? I don't know about The Satanic Verses, though. It is banned both in India and Singapore.

Here are the Enchantress reviews from the Guardian and the Telegraph.

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Congratulations, Sir Salman!

Congratulations, Sir Salman! Kudos to Tony Blair and the Labour government for giving Salman Rushdie (picture taken from the BBC) a knighthood. I haven’t been blogging since my wife arrived from Calcutta (Kolkata) late last month to spend a month with me in Singapore. But how could I ignore the news of Rushdie  being knighted by the Queen?  He is one of my favourite writers.

I still remember the excitement when he won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children — his second novel — in 1981. Soon after he visited Calcutta. I attended a talk he gave there. Soft-spoken and erudite, he was really impressive.

I haven’t read The Satanic Verses, published in 1988. But whatever his views, there can be no question he is one of the greatest living writers. Martin Amis is the only English writer who rivals him as a stylist. Midnight’s Children may be regarded as his greatest novel, having won the Booker of the Bookers. But my favourite is The Ground Beneath Her Feet, published in 1999. I love rock music and and so does Rushdie  — he wrote wonderfully about it in this book. And who can forget the last paragraphs of Fury, published in 2001? And then followed Shalimar the Clown in 2005.

Apart from his rich prose, what I admire most about Rushdie is his erudition, the wealth of knowledge he brings to whatever he writes about. He stays on top of the latest trends and issues. He wrote with an insider’s knowledge about rock music in The Ground Beneath Her Feet and wrote as knowledgeably about the Internet in Fury and terrorism in Shalimar the Clown.  That gives his writings a topical, journalistic quality.

But first and foremost he is a great novelist, with a rich style, a wonderful imagination and a marvellous storytelling ability.

Just think of Haroun and The Sea of Stories. Published in 1990, two years after The Satanic Verses, this book showed Rushdie’s wonderful storytelling powers. It’s remarkable how he came out with a book like this while living under death threats issued by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran. That even death threats couldn’t stifle his creativity shows his remarkable talent, resilience and courage.