Cassocks and Codpieces

Salman Rushdie’s ebullient historical novel manifests both his dexterous erudition and his bawdy wit.

Illustration by Jacqui Oakley

Salman Rushdie is so much identified with seriousness—his choice of subjects, from Kashmir to Andalusia; his position as a literary negotiator of East and West; his decade and more of internal exile in hiding from the edict of a fanatical theocrat—that it can be easy to forget how humorous he is. In much the same way, his extraordinary knowledge of classical literature sometimes causes people to overlook his command of the vernacular. Here are two examples of wit and idiom from his latest fiction, The Enchantress of Florence. In the first, an enigmatic wanderer, appareled in a coat of many colors, enters a splendid city:

Not far from the caravanserai, a tower studded with elephant tusks marked the way to the palace gate. All elephants belonged to the emperor, and by spiking a tower with their teeth he was demonstrating his power. Beware! the tower said. You are entering the realm of the Elephant King, a sovereign so rich in pachyderms that he can waste the gnashers of a thousand of the beasts just to decorate me.

This is the offbeat manner in which one might start a tale for children, as Rushdie did in Haroun and the Sea of Stories. By contrast, here is Ago Vespucci in Florence, trying by strenuous exercise in a whorehouse to cure his revulsion at the entry of the king of France to the city.

On the threshold of manhood Ago had agreed with his friend Niccolò “il Machia” on one thing: whatever hardships the times might bring, a good, energetic night with the ladies would put everything right. “There are few woes in the world, dear Ago,” il Machia had advised him when they were still only thirteen, “that a woman’s fanny will not cure.” Ago was an earnest boy, good-hearted beneath his pose of a foul-mouthed rapscallion. “And the ladies,” he asked, “where do they go to cure their woes?” Il Machia looked perplexed, as if he had never considered the matter, or, perhaps, as if to indicate that a man’s time should not be wasted on the consideration of such things. “To each other, no doubt,” he said with an adolescent finality that sounded to Ago like the last word on the matter. Why should women not seek consolation in each other’s arms at a time when half the young men of Florence did the same thing?

The first extract introduces us to the court of Akbar, Mughal emperor of India. Akbar of course means “great,” as Rushdie reminds us with one of many plays on words. As the emperor decapitates a foe “with a cry—Allahu Akbar, God is great, or, just possibly, Akbar is God,” he begins to register a terrible melancholy that in turn leads him to try to establish a just city where philosophers will set the tone.

In counterpoint, the second extract takes us to the novel’s other chief setting, which is Florence in the age of the Medicis. Here we find three friends, Antonino “Nino” Argalia, Niccolò “il Machia” Machiavelli, and Ago Vespucci. Here also, amid countless feuds and intrigues, the idea of a politics advised by thinkers is struggling to take shape. But in both places, politics is much more than government, and Rushdie introduces a number of magical and less quantifiable—one might say more enchanting—factors that can also be said to constitute earthly powers. One of these is water, to which all potentates and serfs are in the end equally subservient. Another is beauty: those nasal elements of Cleopatra’s or facial features of Helen’s that can set armies on the march in their own right.

Is power the only justification for an extrovert personality? the traveler asked himself, and could not answer, but found himself hoping that beauty might be another such excuse, for he was certainly beautiful, and knew that his looks had a power of their own.

“The whole world obeys the rule of beauty,” as Rushdie phrased it in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, but it’s fair to say that the above is the last time in this novel that male pulchritude gets much of a look-in. Not for nothing, in other words, is the book titled for an enchantress. In long passages both bawdy and fantastic, we are shown how the feminine principle makes nonsense of all forms of statecraft, including even the cleverest ones adumbrated in The Prince, and how the distance between the boudoir and the bordello or zenana or harem is disconcertingly short. In a deft reengineering of the Scheherazade legend, Rushdie makes several of his femmes fatales into conjured or perhaps better say incanted figures: seductresses of the imagination who nonetheless exert tremendous power in the “real” world; women of mystical and mythical authority who are projected along the song lines. When the fantasized Princess Qara Köz, who even comes accompanied by an only slightly less bewitching body double, disembarks at Genoa, the toughest admiral of them all is unmanned and Andrea Doria himself “stood open-mouthed as the strangers approached, a sea-god in thrall to nymphs arising from the waters.”

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Christopher Hitchens was an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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