The Acid Tongue
The Magician's Last Sigh
Selected By Cyril Wong
To me, Michiko Kakutani's review of Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, in The New York Times (3 Jun 2008), was not surprising, considering the fact that many years have passed since arguably his most important works, such as The Satanic Verses and Midnight's Children, had been published. I had already begun to believe that Rushdie would never write such novels of epic proportions ever again, novels that combined the best of storytelling strategies with a persuasive sense of postmodern self-awareness. Kakutani's review begins with a general survey of the tricks in Rushdie's literary bag, after first summarising the novel as "a weary, predictable parody of something by John Barth", another meta-fictionist:
The fecund language and exuberant inventiveness that have distinguished Mr. Rushdie's best novels have given way here to more conventional, even academic constructions. And the capacious political analogies embedded in those earlier novels (in which a character's or family's fate became a metaphor for, say, the course of Indian history) have been replaced by musty philosophical musings about the craft of storytelling and the relationship between life and art. There are familiar Scheherazade-esque stories within stories within stories, and interminable Tristram Shandy-esque digressions that circle around and around and around.
Eventually, the review soon hones in on what is rotten:
"The Enchantress of Florence," in contrast, feels static and enervated, as though it had been mechanically assembled from a recipe that included lots of research (about Medici Florence and the Mughal empire), a rote sprinkling of fantasy, and some perfunctory and strained allusions to some greater politico- religious issues (like the Sunni-Shiite split and Islam's troubled role on the world stage). Although the novel gains narrative momentum in its final chapters, large portions of the book consist of tiresome free-associative digressions and asides, heaped one on top of another in such profusion that they threaten to topple the slender frame story around which the book is constructed...instead of developing Akbar into a full-fledged character like the Moor in "The Moor's Last Sigh," Mr. Rushdie allows him to become a cardboard figure — a pseudo-Pygmalion, whose favorite wife, Jodha, we are to believe, is a fantasy figure he has brought to life, and who spends an inordinate amount of time musing about the porous boundaries between life and art.
Kakutani then dismisses the minor aspects of Rushdie's plot and use of motifs:
...a subplot concerning Niccolò Machiavelli, assertions that Angelica is a divine enchantress (or maybe a devilish witch) and lots of talk about two mirrors: a Medici family mirror that is said to reveal "to the reigning Duke the image of the most desirable woman in the known world" and Angelica's personal mirror, a servant girl who looks exactly like her though the teensiest bit less beautiful.
Then comes the final blow:
QLRS Vol. 7 No. 3 Jul 2008
Such talk about sorcery and mysterious doubles isn't delivered here with the sort of dazzling sleight of hand that have made Mr. Rushdie's most powerful work, like the most powerful work of Gabriel García Márquez, so mesmerizing and so phantasmagorical. Rather it's lacquered onto a plywood story with a heavy paintbrush that leaves lots of streaks and spots and results in a work that feels jerry-built, meretricious — and yes, quite devoid of magic.