Book Review - Salman Rushdie: The enchanter of Emory

The acclaimed author returns to Atlanta

I received my messages from Salman Rushdie early on a Sunday morning, relayed to me from an undisclosed e-mail address by someone in his network of contacts.

Putting it that way makes the exchange sound exciting, as if Rushdie were still an author in hiding from Islamist militants. On Valentine’s Day 1989, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa requiring Rushdie’s execution for his satirical portrayal of Mohammed in The Satanic Verses. For most of the following decade, the Indian-born author lived in England under police protection.

Today, however, he’s hard to reach not because he’s staying out of the public eye, but because he’s putting himself into it. The Emory University distinguished writer in residence is currently traveling on a promotional tour for his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which brings him to the Carter Center for a lecture and Q&A July 7. Between his busy schedule of writing fabulist fictions full of multicultural ideas, as well as the occasional movie cameo, Rushdie only had time for a short e-mail interview.

Fortunately, Rushdie’s security concerns have cooled down considerably in almost 20 years. Iran never officially rescinded the fatwa but Rushdie says, “It’s reached the point where it’s a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat.” Even in a post-9/11 climate, he doesn’t travel with bodyguards.

In hindsight, the fatwa almost seems like part curse, part blessing, that transformed Rushdie into a best-selling cause célèbre in the 1990s and an international celebrity today. Without it, Rushdie would probably have the career of one of those international lions of letters such as Gunther Grass or Umberto Eco. He’d still be on the Nobel Prize short list, but would never have inspired a “Seinfeld” episode.

Instead, the magic realist author and essayist is practically a rock star: U2 recorded the song “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” based on Rushdie’s rock-music novel of the same name, and credited him as the song’s writer. This year you can see him canoodling with Scarlett Johansson in her music video for “Falling Down,” and playing Helen Hunt’s doctor in Then She Found Me. Fame also shines an unwanted spotlight on such details as Rushdie’s recent divorce from his fourth wife, “Top Chef” host Padma Lakshmi.

So how did Emory University attract Rushdie to Atlanta for several weeks out of the year to write and teach an annual seminar? The university landed him as a five-year writer in residence after striking a deal to purchase the author’s archive, which includes notes, unpublished novels, several computers and the first draft of his most acclaimed book, Midnight’s Children. Rushdie says, “After Emory acquired my archive, they asked if I would do a bit of teaching, and I agreed. The first two years have been a delight, and yes, I’m slowly getting to find my way around Atlanta.”

Rushdie’s accustomed to hot climates, having been born in Bombay (now Mumbai), although he was educated in England. His writing frequently focuses on immigration and the post-colonial clash of cultures, particularly in The Satanic Verses. Given his experiences with Islamist fundamentalism, he holds little hope that it can find peace with the West’s modern values. “Everything on earth is incompatible with Islamic fundamentalism, including Islam. We must hope that, like Soviet Communism, it will wither away as disenchantment with it grows.”

He’s more optimistic that nations and cultures will be able to retain their identities in the face of homogenizing, flattening forces like the Internet and multinational corporations. “In my experience, cultures are pretty resistant to being homogenized. Bombay, Paris, London may be full of Gap and Nike stores but they are still very recognizably themselves.”

While many people associate Rushdie’s name with political and religious themes, fewer probably know that he’s interested in pop culture as a literary subject. His 1994 anthology East, West includes the short story “Chekhov and Zulu,” about Indian nationalism, espionage and the original 1960s “Star Trek” series. If journalism is the rough draft of history, Rushdie at times treats pop culture like the rough draft of mythology. “I’ve grown up with rock music, movies, TV, and see no reason not to use them as familiar reference points in my work. Once upon a time, a reading audience would be familiar with references to mythology that would now be somewhat arcane, but we have a shared storehouse of film and musical knowledge that fills that gap.”

The contemporary zeitgeist shaped Rushdie’s recent books, such as the name-dropping New York novel Fury, and Shalimar the Clown, which recounted Kashmir’s tragic history through a doomed Romeo and Juliet love affair between a Muslim boy and Hindu girl. His latest book, The Enchantress of Florence, offers a change of pace and takes place entirely in 16th-century Italy and India, as if Rushdie wanted to cleanse his palate of modern-day political conflicts.

The heavily researched book depicts the relationship between Emperor Akbar of India’s Mughal empire and a Florentine confidence man, whose fates become entwined through an elaborate tale of love, war and East-West collisions. Rushdie says, “I just found what I thought was a great story to tell. No other ulterior motives. The Enchantress of Florence is in part a novel about the nature of power, so it’s not just escapism!”

Enchantress features hypnotic, fairy-tale details such as walk-on roles ranging from Machiavelli to Vlad the Impaler, and some of Rushdie’s most luxurious writing. You can imagine reading it while propped up on satin pillows in a perfumed tent while attendants feed you exotic candied figs before anointing your skin with oils.

Rushdie emphasizes that the storytelling offers more than sensual pleasures. “This was the age in which India and the West first really engaged with each other, and also the age in which much of the modern world was being formed (and a whole New World was just bubbling up on the western horizon), and it was fascinating to study that: the birth of the modern. It’s not an allegory, though if contemporary readers find resonances with the contemporary world, so much the better.”

Rushdie wrote parts of The Enchantress of Florence while at Emory, and according to Emory Magazine, he assigned a graduate assistant to research rude words and epithets that would be used in Renaissance-era Florence and India. Overall, Rushdie’s annual visits elevate the local literary scene, and now that he’s no longer a prisoner of history, it’s nice having him stop by to teach us some enchantments.

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. Random House. 356 pp. $26.