Wed
Dec 9 2009 1:17pm
The Repository of Myth is You-Know-Where in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence

I picked up The Enchantress of Florence because I was sad that Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road wasn’t longer; it seemed like a good idea at the time, but it was probably unfair to Salman Rushdie. I should have learned that lesson: this guy is not the last guy, and he never will be.

The Enchantress of Florence is a nested series of stories, starting with a man, Mogor dell’Amore, who hitches a ride with some pirates to the sultan’s court at Sikri. (“Murdered by pirates is good...”) Mogor tells the sultan how and why he came there, which involves many narrative side trips, and of course what goes on in the court is several stories’ worth, as well: the sultan’s disrespectful sons, his imaginary queen Jodhabai, and his growing obsession with the central figure in the stranger’s tale, black-eyed beauty Qara Köz. The atmosphere is richly textured with perfume, sand, and silk, and the magic is both subtle and powerful. It’s enough to set my freaking teeth on edge.

Here’s the problem: I know that Mogor is talking to an easily bored, casually violent, and highly sexed sultan who has already tried to have him trampled by elephants. Mogor is our Scheherazade, and, duh, hot babes make for a helpfully compelling narrative. I was annoyed, however, at the way every female character is only there for sex. I’m not exaggerating; every female character is a prostitute, a concubine, a courtesan, or someone’s extravagantly unfaithful wife:

The concubines had blended into a single supernatural Woman, a composite Concubine, and She was all around the two men, besieging them with love. The eunuch had slipped away outside the circle of the planets of desire. The single woman of many arms and infinite possibilities, the Concubine, silenced their tongues, her softness touching their hardness. Mogor gave himself up to her. He thought of other women far away and long ago, Simonetta Vespucci and Alessandra Fiorentina, and the woman whose story he had come to Sikri to tell. They were part of the Concubine, too.

This is coming from the third-person narrator, by the way, and not from within Mogor’s story to the sultan, which leads me to think that I’m actually annoyed at Salman Rushdie. This is the sandbox he wanted to play in, one where women exist to have sex, or, pardon the mangling, to be had sex with:

There is a weakness that comes over men at the battle’s end, when they become aware of the fragility of life, they clutch it to their bosoms like a crystal bowl they almost dropped, and the treasure of life scares away their courage. At such a time all men are cowards, and can think of noting but women’s embraces, nothing but the healing words only women can whisper, nothing but losing themselves in the fatal labyrinths of love.

And since every woman’s fatal labyrinth of love is pretty much the same, women are interchangeable, all part of that great Concubine whether they like it or not. I was tempted to joke that all the women in Enchantress like it, wink wink, nudge nudge, but there’s no question of their likes or dislikes. It’s nature, it’s fate, it’s the way women are.

The whole thing is so messily and uncomfortably Freudian. The caring mother-figure is collapsed with the object of sexual desire, and sex takes on the mother’s role of restoring comfort and order to the universe. Rushdie puts a lot of power into women’s laps, but it’s not power they can use. It’s all about Rushdie’s men seeking something; not to get in over my head, but it sounds a lot like the “myth of a primary experience of satisfaction [which] is an illusion to cover the fact that all satisfaction is marked by a loss in relation to a supposed initial, complete satisfaction.” To put it bluntly, the men in this book long for the simplicity and surety they imagine they had in the womb, so the obvious solution is to try and crawl back up there. It almost goes without saying that this book fails the Bechdel test.

There are many more examples of women as sexual objects—the memory palace, Jodha, the Skeleton and the Mattress—and I could go on, but I won’t; I just wanted to get a few quotes out there, along with enough commentary to feel that I’ve purged my bitterness at a book I wanted to like. But every time I felt myself getting drawn into the story, I was reminded that I, too, was a magical, mind-expanding, cosmic piece of ass. Gag me with a—well, with whatever you want, clearly.

Did anyone else read this? What did you think? I haven’t enjoyed Rushdie in the past, either, so it is just me?


Megan Messinger is a production assistant at Tor.com and she is now reading something else.

19 comments
Seamus Cooper
1. Seamuscooper
I've never cared for Rushdie's work much either. I don't think he respects the implied contract between author and reader (give me a few hours, I'll do my best to tell you a story that makes some freaking sense.).

So I haven't read this one.

But I think "magical, mind-expanding, cosmic piece of ass" would make a great t-shirt.
Carolyn Goodwin
2. metacarolyn
I have really enjoyed Rushdie in the past - The Ground Beneath Her Feet is actually one of my all-time favorite novels. But I am in complete agreement with you on this book. I kept putting it down and reading something else. I only finished it when I ran out of other books.
Kate Nepveu
3. katenepveu
The single woman of many arms and infinite possibilities, the Concubine

All I have to say is:

Ewww.
Kate Nepveu
4. katenepveu
However, "fatal labyrinth of love" would be a great band name.
Tim Nolan
5. Dr_Fidelius
I've not read enough of him to know: is there a 'good Salman, bad Salman' trend in his work?

I often recommend Haroun and the Sea of Stories to my friends; if you've never read Rushdie and you like a good fairy-tale it's a great place to start.

I've only read one other book by him but I always run out of superlatives trying to describe Midnight's Children. It's clearly not everyone's cup of tea but for this reader the hype is more than justified.
Nikki O
6. Nikki O
I extend many, many props for the fact that you actually finished it. I lasted about a quarter of the way before I threw my hands in the air and set the book aside.

I recall on the cover, a blurb describing it as a "baroque whirlwind of a narrative" - keyword being "whirlwind" - although I think hurricane is a more accurate term.

In short, I didn't like it at all.
Agnes Kormendi
7. tapsi
I read it this summer and I had exactly the same reaction. I wanted to like this book because I got from my mother and because it was so colourful, but I hated the picture it painted of women.

Apart from "The Enchantress of Florence", I only read "Shalimar the clown" by Rushdie and I didn't like it either.
Mary O'Dea
8. thorn
i haven't read it - thanks for the warning. i would have noticed this in the most glaring way, because...

i just finished asimov's book 'foundation'. i can't believe i'm saying this but - um - in the rushdie at least there *are* some women. 'foundation' has zero until like the last 1/8th of the book. one is an alluded-to set containing 'dowager duchesses', one is some guy's mother (i think) -- a memory only? -- and one who gets to talk. the one who gets to talk doesn't seem to like her husband at all, but is *way* into jewelry.

i've heard great things about rushdie's 'the moor's last sigh'; it's on my 'to read' list. *is* there a 'good salman/bad salman'? or: dare we hope that the narrative voice in 'the enchantress of florence' is 'just another character' whom we're supposed to construe as a clueless blot; and not rushdie himself, any more or less than the figure of mogor is?

i *so* do not want to have to read 'the enchantress' to find out.
Nikki O
9. photon
Of Rushdie's work, I loved "satanic verses", "midnight's children" and felt ambivalent about "the moor's last sigh" and "the ground beneath her feet".
I think it is worth reading more of his work. He is my favorite Indian author right now. I often think of his work in relation to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or the best Joyce Carol Oates.
Tex Anne
10. TexAnne
At such a time all men are cowards, and can think of noting but women’s embraces, nothing but the healing words only women can whisper, nothing but losing themselves in the fatal labyrinths of love.

Right, because there has never been a gay soldier in the history of the Theban Band, I mean warfare. Thank you for saving me from this book.
Nikki O
11. lampwick
So _that's_ why I disliked The Enchantress of Florence. I wasn't motivated enough to figure it out -- kudos for staying with it.

That said, I liked Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses a lot. I don't think it's good Salman/bad Salman but early Salman/late Salman. His later stuff seems somehow vaguer, less carefully worked out.
R T
12. gallantrose
Rushdie did an interview with Michael Silverblatt (of KCRW's Bookworm) where they talk about this issue. Although I don't recall exactly what Rushdie said, it seems that the lack of subject position for the female characters is a thematic choice. I was quite in charity with him by the end of the interview, but then, what the author intends is not always borne out by their work and Rushdie is a lucid and compelling speaker.
Kristin Franseen
13. musichistorygeek
I have to admit that I enjoyed the book as a narrative. I first heard about it on a public radio show (To the Best of Our Knowledge, maybe?) and thought the premise seemed intriguing. I am a big fan of the story-within-a-story concept, and found some ideas interesting.

That being said, I totally agree with everyone here about the treatment of female characters. One could, I suppose, make a case that the (over?)sexualization of every female character in the book (not to mention heterosexism in some passages) is the result of an (or many) unreliable (male) narrator(s), but still...

Probably won't reread this one.
Clark Tracy
14. claatra
I read The Enchantress of Florence in May and I was blown away. I had never read any Rushdie novels before and I was pretty impressed with this one. If I recall correctly all the male characters in this story are empowered through sex as well as the women characters, and I didn't pick up on the severe misogyny that you apparently picked up on. Rushdie has to work with the reality of the harem and the attitudes of sixteenth century Europe and Asia within his fantasy world where a king can bring a woman to life through the shear force of his will (if that's what he's really doing, and if this is really a magical realist work in the first place and not simply the subjects going along with the king's delusions) and the fact that the women of the harem, the mattress, and Qara Koz don't see the horror that we see in their official situation as subservient to men doesn't necessarily mean that they, or real women of that era, see the horror and subjugation that they are under.

To acknowledge current values, morals, and sexual views would have violated the spirit of what Rushdie was trying to get across. He couldn't politicize his characters with the issues that we deal with today, that would have made The Enchantress of Florence into a morality play where past=bad or stupid and present=enlightened and good and just as it is a mistake to pass judgment on the people of the past while studying history it is also a mistake as an author to bring along modern morals and values along when writing a historical magical realist novel. How could the Mughal emperor or the fraud Uccello possibly look at women as people? They don't even look at other men as people! I guess my point is that I disagree that Rushdie is promoting some kind of male misogynist women are objects worldview and that just because his characters are wicked from our point of view it doesn't take away from the worth of the novel, at least to myself.
Mimi Epstein
15. hummingrose
I'll agree about the female issues, but I liked Enchantress despite them. It's definitely not as strong as his earlier work; Midnight's Children is so absurdly good that it's not hard to see why it's the Booker of Bookers (of Bookers, or whatever iteration it's on at this point). But after the sheer awfulness of both Fury and Shalimar the Clown, I felt like this one came closer to the things that made him great: the verbal ingenuity, the twistiness, the ability to tell a good story.

I'd argue that even when he's writing from a third-person point of view, the narrator's voice doesn't equate with the author's voice (yeah, true for most authors, I know...). He's played some fun tricks with that in the past: Satanic Verses is third person, in theory, but there's a definite narrator character telling the story. Most of his other books are first person. He's got a tendency to play with different voices all the time, so I took the anti-female traits in this book to be a function of that rather than his own opinion--he's certainly written strong female characters in the past. I don't know if that makes everything automatically better, but it mitigates a lot for me.
Megan Messinger
16. thumbelinablues
claatra @ 14, Worth is difficult to pin down, and it doesn't necessarily correlate to enjoyment. I don't know or care what The Enchantress of Florence is *worth,* but I know that it was profoundly uncomfortable to read.

Hummingrose @ 15, I believe that Salman Rushdie is as changeable as any writer, but what's written in the other books doesn't change this book. I know I descended into ad hominem territory in the post, but he *did* write the thing, whatever else he's written. I'm curious to listen to the interview @12 and see what he has to say for himself....

And I hear you, claatra - I also hate it when, in a historical work, our viewpoint character is the only person who bathes, realizes that bleeding is bad for sick people, or doesn't accept a holy text as the literal word of God, among a number of other quirks designed to endear him or her to modern readers. But Rushdie could treat his women with complexity and variation without descending into a fable of modern morals; Dorothy Dunnett managed. I know Rushdie is telling more of a fairy tale than Dunnett, and maybe this fairy tale needed its wish-granters, its jinn, in order to be a fairy tale and not a more realistic historical novel. But only maybe. I don't think it had to be like this, with such unequivocal and constant portrayals of women's lives being entirely compassed by sex. As I said, I wanted to like the book, and I'm sad that I was too squicked out to enjoy it.
Avram Grumer
17. avram
Megan, did you have any similar problems with the treatment of women in Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, which you praised? (I realize that it's hard to discuss that matter without spoiler warnings.)
Mimi Epstein
18. hummingrose
Megan: Interestingly, I read Enchantress right after finishing my first read of the Lymond Chronicles. Heh. I don't know; maybe because he's an author I know I like I was willing to forgive more than I should have? I certainly don't mean to knock your perspective, and I think there's a better than even chance that when I pick it up again in a couple years I'll see exactly the problems you pointed out.

On a side note, I believe it was nominated for one of the various Bad Sex awards, though a cursory Google search didn't give me a direct link...
Megan Messinger
19. thumbelinablues
Avram @17, it's even a bit of a spoiler to say it's a spoiler! :-P I'll try whiting it out - major spoilers if you haven't read Gentlemen of the Road: I didn't have a problem with Filaq as a character, partially because I have a thing for women dressing up as men (blame Tamora Pierce!) and partially because she had a personality: she was grumpy, she loved the elephants, etc. She didn't spend all her time thinking, "But why doesn't Zelikman LOVE ME?!" I'm never a fan of rape as a plot point, but it's not as bad as rape as character development. Rape has historically been a tool of political subjugation and erasure, which is how Chabon invokes it, and trying to read historical fiction and fantasy with no rape in it would be a full-time job on its own - a post for another day, definitely. I remember that Filaq and Zelikman sleep together the once, and I think it was matter-of-fact rather than eye-roll-worthy, so while I object the portrayal of sex as the ultimate experience (and thus, to Enchantress), I can live with the sex in Gentlemen of the Road. And I would hate to think that Filaq only agrees to become the bek and kagan and live as a man forever because she's so irrevocably scarred by her rape. She survives, she find a way to deal, she makes a decision that has nothing to do with sex.

Hummingrose @18, Oh, no, my perspective didn't feel knocked at all! I hope yours didn't either. I really, really hope he got nominated for the tentacle-Concubine passage (so to speak?) but I can only find references to his nomination for Shalimar the Clown!

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