/ 16 May 2008

An impetuous mix of history with fable

From a sea of stories our master fisherman has brought up two gleaming, intertwining prizes — a tale about three boys from Florence in the age of Lorenzo de’ Medici and a story of Akbar, greatest of the Mughal emperors, who established both the wondrous and shortlived city of Fatehpur Sikri and a wondrous and shortlived policy of religious tolerance.

Both stories are about story itself, the power of history and fable, and why it is that we can seldom be sure which is which.

Fabulous as his life was, Akbar was a historical figure, and one of the young Florentines is Niccolo Machiavelli, our byword for political realism.

But Machiavelli’s friend Argalia flies off on the peacock wings of the novelist’s invention to become the bosom friend of Akbar before returning to fight for a lost cause in Florence. Some characters are the inventions of other characters: Queen Jodha and Qara Koz, the Enchantress, are Akbar’s daydreams of the Perfect Wife, the Perfect Lover, brought into existence by tale-tellers and artists and Akbar’s all-powerful desire and obsession.

They are accepted by his people, ‘such occurrences being normal at that time, before the real and the unreal were segregated forever and doomed to live apart under different monarchs and separate legal systems”.

This brilliant, fascinating, generous novel swarms with gorgeous young women, both historical and imagined, beautiful queens and irresistible enchantresses, along with whores and a few quarrelsome old wives — all stock figures, females perceived solely in relation to the male. Women are never treated unkindly by the author, but they have no autonomous being.

The enchantress herself, who turns everyone into puppets of her will, has no personality at all and exists — literally — by pleasing men. Akbar calls her a ‘woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king”. But, in fact, she does nothing but sell herself to the highest bidder and her power is an illusion permitted by him.

The swashbuckling Argalia’s adventures, which links the Florentine and the Indian strands of the double tale, are full of Rushdian charm and extravagance (descending sometimes into facetiousness, as in the case of the four giant albino Swiss mercenaries named Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan). But Argalia’s exploits are less interesting than the misfortunes of Machiavelli or the mind of the Akbar.

Rushdie’s Akbar is imperial, intelligent and very likable, a marvellous spokesperson for his author. Akbar tried to unite all India, ‘all races, tribes, clans, faiths and nations” — a powerful dream indeed, though doomed to perish with him. What winds were blowing in the late 15th century to waken that emperor’s syncretic vision, even as Europe began to free itself from the church’s control of ideas? ‘If there had never been a God, the emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was.”

Goodness might not lie in self-abnegation before an Almighty, but in ‘the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path”. Lord of a theocratic, absolutist society, he glimpses harmony not as the enemy of discord, but as the result of it: ‘difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence might be the wellsprings of the good”.

Akbar is the moral centre of the book, its centre of gravity, and provides its strongest link to the issues that have concerned Rushdie in his works and his life. It all comes down to the question of responsibility. Akbar’s objection to God is ‘that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves”. The curious notion that without religion we have no morals has seldom been dismissed with such quiet, good humour. Rushdie leaves ranting to the fanatics who fear him.

Driven from his magical city when its lake goes dry, Akbar gravely foresees his defeat: ‘All he had worked to make, his philosophy and way of being, would evaporate like water. The future would not be what he hoped for, but a dry, hostile, antagonistic place” where people would hate and kill ‘in the great quarrel he had sought to end forever, the quarrel over God” — the quarrel our fanatics now so enthusiastically pursue.

But there is another theme to the book: ‘Religion could be rethought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.” Akbar in his splendid city, and the Florentines in theirs, inhabited a world of magic ‘as passionately as they inhabited the world of tangible materials”. This is the great difference between them and us. We have separated the real and the unreal, put them in different kingdoms with different laws.

But, like all serious fantasy, Rushdie’s story erases this division by making us realists inhabit, for the span of our reading, the realm of imagination, which is controlled by, but not limited to, observation of fact.

This is the land of story: the child’s world, the ancestral, pre-scientific world, where we are all emperors or enchantresses, making up the rules as we go along. Modern literary fantasy is given a paradoxical intensity, sometimes a tragic dimension, by our consciousness of the other kingdom we inhabit, daily life, where the laws of physics cannot be broken and whose government was described by Machiavelli.

Some boast that science has ousted the incomprehensible; others cry that science has driven magic out of the world and plead for ‘re-enchantment”.

But it’s clear that Charles Darwin lived in as wondrous a world, as full of discoveries, amazements and profound mysteries as that of any fantasist.

The people who disenchant the world are not the scientists, but those who see it as meaningless in itself, a machine operated by a deity. Science and literary fantasy would seem to be intellectually incompatible, yet both describe the world; the imagination functions actively in both modes, seeking meaning, and wins intellectual consent through strict attention to detail and coherence of thought, whether one is describing a beetle or an enchantress.

Religion, which prescribes and proscribes, is irreconcilable with both of them and because it demands belief, must shun their common ground, imagination. So the true believer must condemn both Darwin and Rushdie as ‘disobedient, irreverent, iconoclastic” dissidents from revealed truth.

The essential compatibility of the realistic and the fantastic imagination may explain the success of Rushdie’s sumptuous, impetuous mixture of history with fable. But, in the end, of course, it is the hand of the master artist, past all explanation, that gives this book its glamour and power, its humour and shock, its verve and its glory. It is a wonderful tale, full of follies and enchantments. We English-speakers have our own Ariosto now, our Tasso, stolen out of India. Aren’t we the lucky ones? —