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Salman Rushdie`s new novel may quiet the gossip

Nada Almutawa
27/04/2008 12:00 AM


Salman Rushdie`s new novel may quiet the gossip

By Patricia Cohen

Published: May 27, 2008

NEW YORK: The written record cannot be trusted in Salman Rushdie`s newest novel, "The Enchantress of Florence," a story that roams from the red sandstone palace of the great Mogul emperor Akbar to the towered Palazzo in Machiavelli`s Florence. One character is erased from official history, a second is imagined into existence, a third is hopelessly mischaracterized. It is a situation with which Rushdie is all too familiar, who is well known to millions of people who have never read him as a blasphemer of Islam, an arrogant and ungrateful British subject, or a member of a literary Brat Pack.

"A cartoon of yourself is created, then it is used to attack you with," Rushdie said over lunch in New York.

"Enchantress," which comes out in the United States on Tuesday, may return the spotlight to the book instead of the tittle-tattle. In Britain, where it has already been released, most reviewers have been smitten. John Sutherland, who has twice been a judge for the Man Booker literary prize, wrote in The Financial Times that if it "doesn`t win this year`s Man Booker I`ll curry my proof copy and eat it."

Rushdie was hurled into global and religious politics when his novel "The Satanic Verses" prompted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to lay a death sentence on his head in 1989. A nightmarish underground life enveloped him for nearly 10 years, until Iran withdrew its support of the fatwa.

The subterranean existence was then followed by a paparazzi-filled one, during which he left his third wife and a son for Padma Lakshmi, an Indian-born model 23 years his junior.

Last June, when Queen Elizabeth knighted him, many of the issues that have dogged Rushdie over the past 20 years were freshly aroused, not only among Muslims around the world but also among political kin contemptuous that an avowed leftist would accept such an imperial honor, and conservatives who lashed out at him because they believed he was once again endangering Britain`s security.

"I was quite hurt and shocked by the assaults on me," Rushdie said. "I do not understand the animus."

Then, a few weeks later, he announced that Lakshmi was leaving him (she informed him via e-mail). Now if Rushdie happens to be spotted having a drink with an attractive woman, he is soon likely to be greeted with a headline like "Salman Rushdie Is on the Prowl in Midtown," as he was last month in New York magazine.

"All the people I`ve been associated with" in such reports "are not true," he said to set the record straight. "I`m totally eligible, single and available."

The novelist Ian McEwan, a close friend for more than 25 years, described the gossip that surrounds Rushdie as "an occupational hazard."

As Rushdie himself acknowledges, he enjoys going out and socializing. "I find it helpful to get out of myself" after a day spent working, he said, as long as "I don`t get so wasted that I can`t work the next day."

Not being able to work was one of the terrible byproducts of his breakup with Lakshmi, Rushdie said. He has described the split as a "nuclear bomb dropped in your living room when you`re trying to work."

In the end, he said, "a lifetime of discipline got me back to work."

Beauty and betrayal are both elements of "Enchantress." "That a woman so beautiful should not be tender, this I did not expect," says the lover of the mysterious Qara Koz when she leaves him. "I did not expect her to turn away from me so casually, as if she were changing a shoe."

"I did not expect her to break my heart."

If his latest novel is about beauty, it is also about history, religion, East versus West - subjects that have long animated Rushdie`s writing. It opens with a mysterious blond Westerner traveling to see the emperor in the new capital, Fatehpur Sikri, to reveal a fantastic story, which he does in tantalizing bits like Scheherazade.

Rushdie now lives in Manhattan but regularly commutes to London to see his family, and keeps a punishing lecture and touring schedule in North America and Europe. A theme that repeatedly surfaces in "Enchantress" is the illusion that one can come home after a long journey and find peace.

On a recent weeknight, though, he was helping to host a dinner at a Manhattan hotel for about two dozen writers who journeyed to New York for the PEN literary festival, an event of which Rushdie has been the chairman for the past four years. Some close friends were there, like McEwan and the writer Michael Ondaatje.



Umberto Eco was seated at the center of a long narrow table, opposite Rushdie and Diane Von Furstenberg. He and Rushdie were to travel to Rochester, New York, and then return to New York City to appear at the 92nd Street Y with Mario Vargas Llosa: a scaled-down literary version of the Three Tenors.

Rushdie, who like Eco has studied history, did an enormous amount of research for "Enchantress," and there is the odd inclusion, for a novel, of an 83-book bibliography. The purpose, he said, was to acknowledge the work he built upon as well as to ward off any accusations that he copied other sources - something that has dogged McEwan`s "Atonement."

"I certainly thought I don`t want some smart aleck to go find a fact in a book and to say, `He stole it from him.` Obviously I`ve taken stuff from all over the place," Rushdie said. The only existing record of the Ottoman campaign against Dracula, for instance, is a journal written by a young Serbian janissary named Konstantine, who describes arriving at a town finding 20,000 people impaled on stakes.

"The image that particularly haunted me was of a mother with a baby, and he uses this description of `crows nesting in her hollowed breasts.` That`s his, not mine," said Rushdie, who used it in "Enchantress." "But who can beat that for a description?"

Rushdie said he finds writing both scary ("Are you going to be able to sustain it all the way to the end?") and exhilarating.

"There`s a writing self which is not quite your ordinary social self and which you don`t really have access to except at the moment when you`re writing, and certainly in my view, I think of that as my best self," he said. "To be able to be that person feels good; it feels better than anything else."