I've never read a novel of Rushdie's before (though his editorials are of great interest and I greatly admired his performance in Bridget Jones' Diary), nor have I ever felt particularly inclined to. Something about this book, though, drew me to it.
It's been a long time since I was excited about a book's glorious physicality. It's a completely subjective experience, and my impression is one I'm entirely unable to explain, but I think this book as physical object is beautiful, and I want to fondle it, turn it over and over and over.
The dust jacket is yellow and orange-red, the colour of spice, and it makes me hungry. Its design is a weird mix of Florentine flourish and orientalist illumination.
The most striking element, to me, is the endsheets — a minor detail, but one that has me exclaiming, "Look at this! Isn't this book beautiful?!" Beautiful!
As for the story, it's magical and riveting. I've had a hard time putting it aside. It's been the perfect complement to my reading of Amir Hamza, similar in flavour, but more modern (read: accessible) in its language and pacing — and I was thrilled to see the great hero referenced herein — and to the family's recent viewing of Sinbad movies. There's nothing I love so much as a vaguely middle-eastern mystical mythical adventure romance.
Pirates! A mysterious ambassador! Brothels! Secrets! An imaginary queen made real! Revenge! A forgotten princess! A painting the painter hides himself in! Vampires (and none other than Vlad Dracula himself)! Tulip superstitions! The four Swiss albino giants (Otho, Botho, Clotho, and D'Artagnan)! Macchiavelli! A magic mirror! Screaming mandrake roots!
Behind the fabulous stories is a philosophical exploration of being in the world.
The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning "the great," and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory — the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, over-sexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage — this all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster who referred to himself in the first person plural — had begun to meditate, during his long, tedious journey home, on which he was accompanied by the heads of his defeated enemies bobbing in their sealed earthen pickle-jars, about the disturbing possibilities of the first person singular — the "I."
The interminable days of slow equestrian progress encouraged many languid wonderings in a man of speculative temperament, and the emperor pondered, as he rode, such matters as the mutability of the universe, the size of the stars, the breasts of this wives, and the nature of God. Also, today, this grammatical question of the self and its Three Persons, the first, the second and the third, the singulars and plurals of the soul. He, Akbar, had never referred to himself as "I," not even in private, not even in anger or dreams. He was — what else could he be? — "we." He was the definition, the incarnation of the We. He had been born into plurality. When he said "we," he naturally and truly meant himself as an incarnation of all his subjects, of all his cities and lands and rivers and mountains and lakes, as well as all the animals and plants and trees within his frontiers, and also the birds that flew overhead and the mordant twilight mosquitoes and the nameless monsters in their underworld lairs, gnawing slowly at the roots of things; he meant himself as the sum total of all this victories, himself as containing the characters, the abilities, the histories, perhaps even the souls of his decapitated or merely pacified opponents; and, in addition, he meant himself as the apogee of his people's past and present, and the engine of their future.
There are human mirrors. Doubles. Reflections. East and west. Counterparts comprising a whole. Dream, reality. God, man. Plot parallels and situational analogues.
There is great awe of women and the mysterious power of the feminine that holds sway over even emperors.
Sometimes in the woods near the farm in Percussina he lay on the leaf-soft ground and listened to the two-tone song of the birds, high low high, high low high low, high low high low high. Sometimes by a woodland stream he watched the water rush over the pebbled bed, its tiny modulations of bounce and flow. A woman's body was like that. If you watched it carefully enough you could see how it moved to the rhythm of the world, the deep rhythm, the music below the music, the truth below the truth. He believed in this hidden truth the way other men believed in God or love, believed that truth was in fact always hidden, that the apparent, the overt, was invariably a kind of lie. Because he was a man fond of precision he wanted to capture the hidden truth precisely, to see it clearly and set it down, the truth beyond ideas of right and wrong, ideas of good and evil, ideas of ugliness and beauty, all of which were aspects of the surface deceptions of the world, having little to do with how things really worked, disconnected from the whatness, the secret codes, the hidden forms, the mystery.
Here in this woman's body the mystery could be seen.
There are pages of bibliographic references at the novel's close, among which is listed Calvino's Italian Folktales. A good reason to pull that one down off the shelf for a revisit.
And it's funny.
"The Hindustani storyteller always knows when he loses his audience," he said. "Because the audience simply gets up and leaves, or else it throws vegetables, or, if the audience is the king, it occasionally throws the storyteller head-first off the city ramparts. And in this case, my dear Mogor-Uncle, the audience is indeed the king."