Tuesday, 22 April 2008
A WILY mountebank hypnotises a Scottish privateer and steals the Scot's letter of passage from Queen Elizabeth.
Using it, he persuades Akbar, the Mughal emperor who first united India, that the English queen wishes an alliance.
Across the known world, in Renaissance Italy, three lads search for the magical mandrake plant, hoping that it will be brought forth by the sperm of hanged men.
One of the boys is Niccolo Machiavelli; another, Argalia, runs away to be a mercenary, and becomes a close friend of the Mughal Akbar.
Argalia brings home a dark-eyed Indian lover, who sets Florence aflame with lust.
Rushdie's latest story is full of religious and ethical theory, woven in with hot-breathed sexual descriptions and sleight-of-hand. I found it all a bit tiresome.
The descriptions are entirely sensational. Nothing can be ordinary; everything is a thrilling scéal mór an uafás with the gasping lip-smacking of someone describing a nasty traffic accident.
And in the middle of this Sargasso Sea of colour, sparkle, wit, jokes, tortures, wisdom, episodes and one new character after another, the story sinks and drowns.
The characters are the conscious stereotypes of the fairytale: the skeletal tart with the golden heart; the magician hero with a secret in his past.
There are occasional wonderful stories, though, as when the hero is saved from a rogue elephant by the besotted prostitute who has scented him with the body odour of the elephant's imperial owner.
This is a book for those who love magical realism, and feel sure that every map has a secret key.