The almost cartoonish hyperbole here, of the sort that shows men walking into trees or walls with their tongues hanging out—the “banquet for the senses”; the “autonomy of her great beauty, which no man could own, which owned itself, and which would blow wherever it pleased, like the wind”—has compelled Rushdie to admit to some interviewers that, yes indeed, he was writing somewhat under the influence of his recent divorce from the celebrated heartbreaker Padma Lakshmi. “What a short journey from enchantress to witch,” as the narrator says and as many journalists will be eager to interpret it. But this facile reading of the novel ignores a crucial moment, when the great condottiere Argalia, who has protected the protean and fickle Qara Köz through many hazards, comes to the realization that he has to save her from a vengeful mob and must die in the doing of it:
He did not use the word “love.” For the last time in his life he wondered if he had wasted his love on a woman who only gave her love until it was time to take it back. He set the thought aside. He had given his heart this once in his life and counted himself blessed to have had the chance to do so. The question of whether she was worthy of his love had no meaning. His heart had answered that question long ago.
So, after all the lurid brothel scenes and interludes of lust and obscenity, where it appears for long stretches as if the world is ruled by crude sexual urgency and its power-related sublimations, we find a shining illustration of the precept of Amor Vincit Omnia. Except, of course, that while love itself may win in the long run, the actual lovers are often betrayed or killed. But then, is this not the very essence of romance?
This is a historical romance to boot, taking in epic sweeps of warfare and conquest and murder and torture, as well as dynastic rivalries and intense struggles over the interpretation of scripture. It veers somewhere between Salammbô and Romola. From the Mughal and Medici lands, it detours to take in the Ottoman and Persian empires and the blood-soaked Walachia of Vlad the Impaler. A six-page bibliography at the conclusion directs the interested reader to the work of Ariosto, of Sir Richard Burton, and of Godfrey Goodwin on the Janissaries, as well as to articles in learned journals on such subjects as “Sorcery in Early Renaissance Florence.” The erudition is dexterously deployed, with a heartening leaven of demotic obscenity. “It’s your curse to see the world too fucking clearly,” Niccolò Machiavelli is at one point informed by a candid friend, “and without a shred of kindness, and then you can’t keep it to yourself, you just have to spit it out, and to hell with people’s feelings. Why don’t you go and masturbate a diseased goat.”
It is the figure of Akbar, however, that is the summa of the novel’s accomplishment. Moody and wise and ironic, he takes on the great imposture of religion and, as emperors should, ponders whether or not it possesses any clothes:
Maybe there was no true religion. Yes, he had allowed himself to think this. He wanted to be able to tell someone of his suspicion that men had made their gods and not the other way around. He wanted to be able to say, it is man at the center of things, not god.
Elsewhere, and with admirable understatement, Akbar objects to the divinity on the mildly stated but massively heretical grounds “that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves.” The contrast between him and Shah Ismail of Persia—“the self-appointed representative on earth of the Twelfth Imam”—could hardly be more pointed. In the person of a man who was “by repute arrogant, egotistical, and a fanatic proselytizer of Ithna Ashari, that is to say Twelver Shiite Islam,” a man who calls himself “Vali Allah, the vicar of God … Modesty, generosity, kindness: these were not his most renowned characteristics,” it is perhaps not fanciful to discern the outline of a prototype Khomeini.
In Florence, too, the hell-on-earth created by priestcraft is coarsely and pungently denounced: young Vespucci capers happily around the pyre on the day that Savonarola is burned and the reign of clerical puritan terror brought to a close.
“The Devil sent us these devils to warn us against devilry,” he said on the day the long darkness came to an end. “And they bedeviled us for four fucking years. The cassock of holiness cloaks the codpiece of evil, every fucking time.”
In the result, the worlds of illusion and enchantment seem to collapse in upon themselves, leaving a rich compost of legend and myth for successor generations. In a stern reminder and recognition of the watery yet material substratum of existence, the River Arno betrays Florence by going dry for a year and a day, and a similar lethal aridity causes the crumbling of Akbar’s great and noble city at Fatehpur Sikri. In which direction can the parched imagination now turn? A clue may seem to lie in the first name of another young Vespucci of Florence: the “Amerigo” who gave a vague yet unforgettable title to the concept of a new world. Even the hypnotizing Qara Köz, approaching the exhaustion of her magic reign, feels the pull from the West: “She reacted to the new place names as if she were hearing an incantation, a charm that could bring her her heart’s desire. She wanted to hear more, more.” That was just how Scheherazade tried to leave her one-man audience, in another proof of where real power resides.