Photo: Beowulf Sheehan Salman Rushdie: Handcuffed to history.
Like many of your other novels, The Enchantress of Florence has a clear historical context and works in fantasy, fable and magic. But this one has a long, six-page bibliography at the end of it. Has this got something to do with the nature of the novel — do you regard it as more ‘historical’ or ‘factual’ than the others? Or is it simply because more research went into it?
Absolutely not. Perhaps, it’s just because you’ve written so many novels that have a historical context. But this one also has a long bibliography.
The others deal with a more contemporary history. This time it goes much further back than I’ve ever gone. And it required years and years of reading, in a way that nothing else I have written has. So, the bibliography was just a way of acknowledging all the people from whom I have learnt.
As for the internal agony, this is something that is really very largely my invention. I wanted to show him as a person in whom ideas of the modern were being born. At one point, he is described as someone who is not content with being but is always trying to become. So there is a kind of internal moral dialogue, which may or may not have been there, although he was clearly a highly intelligent man. But entering into his internal world imaginatively was for me one of the great pleasures of the book.
What about the idea that his murder of the Rana of Cooch Naheen was responsible for his shift towards a synthesised religion – or at least for his creation of The Tent of New Worship? Was that to suggest such a radical shift could have emerged only from a traumatic event?
It was just a way of dramatising his moment of choice. The Rana of Cooch Naheen, of course, is a fictional character and readers of Midnight’s Children will recognise him as the ancestor of the Rani of Cooch Naheen who appears there.
The thing that’s a mystery at the site of Fatehpur Sikri is that although we know this was built during the reign of Akbar, one of the most important buildings at the capital, its location has been completely lost. This allowed me to hypothesise that maybe the reason that it disappeared was that it was never a permanent structure — that it was a tent rather than a building. It seemed to me appropriate that a place devoted to thought should not be permanent because thought itself constantly develops and changes. To put it in an impermanent structure seems appropriate — so that’s my little theory on why the building has been lost.
Medieval Europe, with its wars and religious orthodoxies, does not come off very well in comparison to the kingdom of Akbar, with its tolerance and religious pluralism, reflected in the Tent of New Worship. In making this contrast, were you showing up Western stereotypes about Islamic culture and rule?
I try not to write didactically. It is interesting to me that this was a turbulent and brutal period for Europe. But frankly, so was the whole world. If you look at the journey in the novel — west from India, through the Safavid empire in Persia, the Ottomans, and into Europe — the brutality is everywhere. One of things that I came to feel very strongly when writing this novel is that human nature is a constant. If we look at the past, we see exactly the same kind of behaviour patterns that we see in the present. We think of ourselves as living through a brutal moment while we have always lived through brutal moments. On the contrary, we were always capable of great beauty and culture. So the good and the bad of human nature are constant.
The novel grapples with the issue of identity and assimilation. There is a line that asks and in an open-ended manner: ‘Was foreignness something to be embraced as a revitalizing force, bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and society as a whole?’
It was a man’s world, but the book has powerful, self-willed women — the Enchantress herself and of course Jodha, even if she doesn’t exist.
Yes, that is quite deliberate. Given the amount of research and given the richness of the world being described, it could easily have been a 900-page novel. But it was always my firm intention in the book that the virtues of swiftness and lightness should be uppermost in the way the reader experiences it. I didn’t want to bore people with such things as the principal exploits of Florence in the 16th century or political intricacies of the Ottoman empire except in so far as they served the story. My plan all the way through was to use only what served the story and leave the rest impressionistically in the background.
You mean another crossover novel?
Yes, I might do another Haroun you know.
That was a crossover novel written even before the term was invented.
Yes, I was ahead of the curve….unfortunately, for my bank balance. (Laughs.) My son is now of that age, and he has read Haroun and really liked it. But he also knows I wrote it for his elder brother. So he’s been saying, ‘What’s next?’ So I will probably end up writing another one of those.