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Salman Rushdie’s Historical Embroideries

By Breanne Boland July 10, 2008 Issue

The Enchantress of Venice (Random House, 355 pages) blends history, myth and magic into a shaded narrative that brings East to West and fancy to fact.

It’s a story connected by stories—characters reinvent their own pasts, regale each other with epic tales and construct their own reputations in a way that sometimes makes it unclear which point of view is the tale and which is the telling.

The lynchpin of all this is a young, blond man with many names who brings his latest incarnation to the court of emperor Akbar of Mughal. From the start, he wants to ingratiate himself to the emperor and become part of the court, but his reason and his endgame are unclear. The young man entrances the emperor with a tale of a beautiful young woman and her look-alike servant who have a knack for being the spoils of war, creating a long path that leads her out of south Asia and the Middle East into Florence. There the town’s suspicion turns to love as the citizens are taken in by her calming influence and tremendous beauty.

However, to say that this book is about this enchantress or any of the others referenced in the book is to unforgivably simplify this fanciful tour of history. The cast of characters includes Niccolo Machiavelli, a fortune-seeking orphan, a make-believe wife, harems, eunuchs and Medicis. Two worlds come together through the yellow-haired stranger, to the point that it’s sometimes unclear which world is the dream and which is the ordinary reality seeking an escape in the exotic.

Rushdie’s book bobs and weaves, using dreamy, arm-length sentences and stunning descriptions to bring both Florence and the emperor’s realm into our own dreary reality. Discovery and explorations are matters of course, the boundary of the world’s edge is being pushed by Columbus and Vespucci, and the world is infused with a glittery magic that makes anything seem possible. And in a world with seas believed to be riddled with giant, boat-eating monsters, this doesn’t seem out of place.

Rushdie admits to taking some liberties with history, but his grounding research keeps his pretty story from slipping into being a mere fable or fairy tale. He embellishes and embroiders rather than out and out fabricating. In a book full of entertainers and yarn spinners, this just seems another layer added in the telling. This isn’t precisely historical fiction, but that may just be because the idea of Rushdie’s version of the past is so lovely that it would be a wonderful thing if it were true.

Extinguishing the Flames
David Sedaris has written another volume of autobiographical essays. Whenever anyone makes a living exploiting their own past and that of their loved ones, there’s a risk of hitting the bottom of the barrel by volume two or three. It’s the same fate many one-album bands meet—the quirky situations and crazy characters of ordinary life are vanquished by the stability of being a successful author.

Sedaris’s neuroses are brought forth to sustain his latest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames (Little, Brown and Company, 336 pages). Always present in his past books, they step into the spotlight here, whether he’s musing over his nonexistent man-butt or angst-ing over sartorial choices. The effect can be bloggish; it feels like an editor should’ve stepped in and gently opined that such musings can be very interesting over dinner, but several pages of stories about a crabby ex-neighbor can be a little wearing.

Even so, there are some worthwhile gems in here. The standout is the title essay, a many-part story of his trip to Japan, a shift meant to help him quit smoking. Sedaris was a hopelessly devoted smoker, and his struggles with shedding the addiction while trying to learn Japanese brings out the best in him.

Flames is not his best effort—that would be Naked or Me Talk Pretty One Day—but this book still has more “Oh my god, I have to read this to you” passages than most.

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