The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 359 p.

The Enchantress of Florence cover

A foreigner turns up to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, at Fatehpur Sikri with a claim to be related to him and a tale to tell to justify it. The foreigner has called himself variously Uccello di Firenze, Mogor dell’ Amore (the Mughal of love) and Niccolò Vespucci. So begins this typical piece of Rushdian flamboyance.

Containing elements of fable, fairy tale and Rushdie’s usual dose of magic realism (among other things Akbar has managed to conjure up for himself an imaginary – and therefore perfect – wife) there is nevertheless something about the treatment that does not quite hit the mark. Rushdie has always been fond of digression, word games and allusions (in this case, for example, take the mercenaries Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan) but it has to be said; in amongst the showing here, there is a lot of telling. As if to underline this there is a list of works consulted for research given in a bibliography.

Yet, as the author notes, “The untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.” That is what fiction is for after all. But then again, “Those sceptics who by virtue of their sour temperament resist a supernatural account of events may prefer more conventional explanations.” Indeed.

It might seem, too, that in a novel entitled The Enchantress of Florence that the woman concerned could be expected to appear in the narrative somewhat earlier than two-thirds of the way through but while this is her story it is also the story of Akbar, of the Florence of the Medici (and the monk Giralomo,) and of three friends from that city, Antonino Argalia, last of the condottieri, Niccolò – ‘il Machia’ – Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) and Agostino Vespucci (cousin to Amerigo.) It is also the tale of why the Mughal court had to leave Fatehpur Sikri.

The enchantress is Qara Köz, “Lady Black Eyes,” Akbar’s Great Aunt, sister of Babar the first Mughal, eliminated from the family history when she rejected a return from capture. Her enchantments seem to lie in the ability to entrance men, if only for a while. Her destiny is to pass through the hands of a warlord, to the Safavid Shah Ismail, to Antonino Argalia and finally to the New World with Agostino Vespucci. She has a companion, her mirror in all respects (bar one.) Yet she is an absence in the book, an emptiness around which Rushdie weaves his tale of folly, wisdom, hope and loss. Akbar is at the heart of it, a ruler wise to his surroundings and to the machinations of the power hungry. There is a barbed inversion of insular Western conceptions when Akbar muses that, “The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.”

A noteworthy aspect of this edition is that it is endowed with beautiful endpapers picturing at the front a detail from The Building of Fatehpur Sikri Palace from the Akbamama and at the rear from the Carta della Catena showing a panorama of Florence.

Pedant’s corner:- A 16th century Scottish pirate may well have been carrying letters of marque or even diplomatic credentials from Queen Elizabeth (of England) but I doubt he would treasure a locket containing her portrait. Equally he may have boasted of climbing all Scotland’s Munros but not in those terms. They were not named as such for a further three centuries. “I’d keeped her locked up” (keep,) rowboat.

Blameless? I Don’t Think So

In an article in Friday’s Guardian, Nicholas Tucker put forward the thesis that “naughty” words could be got away with in more innocent days.

The trigger for this was the change of name of one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons from Titty to Tatty in a new BBC adaptation of the books, Titty being of course too (err…) tittersome for these days.

He mentions the innocent use in bygone times of “intercourse,” “screw”, “ejaculate” and, in the case of Dr Seuss, “Boners.”

However, the quotation he gives for his next example “cock” – as in a fairground giant cockerel which a maiden aunt of Just William mounts on a merry-go-round – undermines his thesis as the text goes on to say, “It seemed to give her a joy that all her blameless life had so far failed to produce.”

For what is the purpose of that word “blameless”? It seems to me to be present precisely to signal exactly that knowledge which Tucker claims to be absent. Otherwise why include it? If the point was the one Tucker is making then the phrasing, “a joy that all her life so far had failed to produce,” would make it far more effectively, and poignantly.

Tucker then uses the same word to describe Just William’s author, Richmal Crompton, saying she was a blameless ex-classics teacher. But are not the classics – of which she therefore must have had extensive knowledge – full of instances of sexual mayhem? (The Rape of the Sabine Women for one. In case this may be thought to be an egregious example unlikely to be mentioned in school, this incident was one of those encountered by the good lady in her Latin class.)

Tucker says a similar fairground cockerel also appears in an Angela Thirkell story and adduces for her innocence of any double entendre that she was a distinctly snobbish granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. As if artists (and particularly the pre-Raphaelites) were entirely free of sexual knowledge and/or shenanigans. Moreover a glance at Thirkell’s life story might suggest rather a lack of innocence.

This Year’s Cygnets

I was in Beveridge Park, Kirkcaldy last month and the swans have seven cygnets this year.

This Year's Cygnets

This Year's Cygnets 2

Friday on my Mind 121: Pretty Ballerina

I’ve just been googling The Left Banke again and discovered that their bassist Michael Brown passed away on 19th March this year.)

He was a co-writer of Walk Away Renee (which I featured here) but this song, Pretty Ballerina, was all his.

The Left Banke : Pretty Ballerina

Michael Brown (Michael David Lookofsky): 25/4/1949 – 19/3/2015. So it goes.

War Memorials at Stirling Castle

As at Edinburgh Castle there are War Memorials on the esplanade of Stirling Castle.

Again there is one to the Indian Mutiny, this one dedicated to the men of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment who died at Seringapatam, Delhi and in the Relief of Lucknow.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The other side of the memorial names the officers (1 colonel, 2 captains, 6 lieutenants and 1 surgeon) but only gives the total numbers of other ranks (13 sergeants, 9 corporals, 3 drummers and 216 privates) – all of the 75th Stirlingshire Regiment – who died in the mutiny, 1857-8.

Indian Mutiny Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Again too there is a Memorial to the South African War (Second Boer War) dedicated to the men of the 1st Battalion (Princess Louise’s) Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaque here gives the names of the officers and non-commissioned officers who died:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

The plaques on these two sides give the names of the privates:-

Boer War Memorial, Stirling Castle Esplanade

Staring out towards the scene of his great victory at Bannockburn is a statue of Robert Bruce.

Statue of Bruce, Stirling Castle EsplanadeStirling Castle 6 Bruce

Another Memorial to the Scottish Horse

Further to my post about the War Memorials on Edinburgh Castle Esplanade one of which was for the men of the Scottish horse the last time I was in Dunkeld I noticed this memorial on one of the walls in the town square:-

Memorial to Scottish Horse, Dunkeld

Again it commemorates the South African War (Second Boer War.)

1864

 1864cover

When this Danish TV series – the most expensive production in Danish television history – was first trailed on the BBC and I saw the blue uniforms I thought it would be about the War Between the States (known on this side of the Atlantic as the American Civil War) as the date fitted. I was immediately interested. I’ve read a lot about that conflict and watched the Jim Burns TV series several times. Looking more closely I realised that I didn’t recognise the painting shown on the trailer or the figures within it (I most likely would have for an American Civil War painting) and of course the uniforms’ details weren’t quite right.

I was therefore even more intrigued when it dawned the series was about the Second Schleswig War as that was something I knew vaguely about from History, at school. Once read, who can forget the comment the UK Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, made about the intricacies of the Schleswig-Holstein question – which in the series was uttered to that fine actress Barbara Flynn, in the person of Queen Victoria – that there were only three men who ever understood it; the Prince Consort, who was dead, a German professor who had gone mad and Palmerston himself, who had forgotten all about it?

As presented in the series, the war seems to have been provoked by Denmark in a fit of collective insanity. The programme, which has been criticised for historical inaccuracies (it would be difficult to portray any conflict televisually without some of that I’d have thought) certainly presented the Danish Prime Minister, Monrad, as an utter nutter. There seemed to be an element of hysteria in the air that prefigured the Germany of 1939. (Then again there was widespread welcome to Britain’s declaration of war in 1914, so no need to point fingers; except the UK hadn’t sought that conflict – at least not directly.)

However the dire results of the Second Schleswig War for Denmark meant that, to that country’s credit, no Danish military action outside its frontiers again took place until the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999.

Scenes were shown from both sides of the conflict and also the sidelines as Palmerston affected to intercede. The subtitles were no intrusion (1864 went out in the BBC 4 European detective slot on Saturdays at 9 pm.) As near as I could tell each nationality in the series spoke in its own language. (I have a smattering of German but no Danish except what I could glean from the dialogue’s similarities to German, English and, occasionally, Scots.)

For the series the necessity of introducing a human aspect to the conflict in the shape of estate manager’s daughter Inge and the two brothers Laust and Peter, with whom she has a special bond, allowed the introduction of those perennial literary concerns, love, sex and death. There was love to be sure, but not much sex – only four scenes as I recall, three of them having not much to do with love, plus another featuring boys attempting to masturbate – but enough death and destruction to slake anyone’s desires. The battle scenes were impressive – and visceral.

Overall the series was magnificent television, well worth checking out if you didn’t catch it, but I thought the elements of mysticism involving one of the soldiers from the village were unconvincing and the framing device wherein a disaffected young woman from our century sent to his house for a form of community service helps read out Inge’s memoirs to an old man (who is Inge’s grandson) was perhaps unnecessary, though it did give the sense of consequences cascading down the years and a contrast to the privations of the soldiers of 150 years earlier.

When I last looked in the BBC shop, the DVD of this was out of stock but the Blu-ray was available.

Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

As well as the Ensign Ewart Memorial there are four other memorials to British (make that Scottish) regimental involvements in various wars. Three of them can be seen on the right and one on the left in this view of the castle from the esplanade.

Edinburgh Castle From Esplanade

The first was erected in 1861 to the memory of the 256 men from all ranks of the 78th Highlanders (78th Regiment of Foot) who died during the Indian Mutiny. Pity about the traffic cone in the foreground!

78th Highlanders Memorial Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

The second was erected in memory of the men of the Scottish Horse who died in the South African War (the Second Boer War.)

Memorial to Scottish Horse, Edinburgh Castle

The thinnest one is to the memory to the men of the 72nd Highlanders who died in the Afghan War 1878-80. That was the Second Anglo-Afghan War. (Despite “Never Invade Afghanistan” being Harold MacMillan’s first rule of politics there have now been no fewer than four Anglo-Afghan Wars.)

72nd Highlanders Memorial, Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

The Memorial on the south wall of the castle Esplanade is to the Gordon Highlanders who died in the Second Boer War, the South African War, 1899-1902.

Gordon Highlanders Memorial, Edinburgh Castle Esplanade

This detail shows a fine stag’s head.

Gordon Highlanders Memorial Detail

The entrance to the castle itself is flanked by statues to Scotland’s two great warrior heroes, Bruce and Wallace,and surmounted by the Royal Emblem (the Lion Rampant) and motto, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit.

Edinburgh Castle Entrance

Sacrifice on Spica III by Eric Brown

The Telemass Quartet II, PS Publishing, 2014, 81 p.

 Sacrifice on Spica III cover

Still in search of his wife and daughter, Matt Hendrick has arrived on Kallithea, a planet with an eccentric orbit around its two primaries which leads to a five year long winter, but before he even steps off the Telemass platform Hendrick is sidetracked by a chance meeting with Ed Miller, a former colleague in the Amsterdam Police, into tracking down Katerina Nordstrom, wanted for the murder of her lover back on Earth. Nordstrom just happens to have been Hendrick’s first real love, when he was a tyro detective twenty years ago. Also on the trip are Acolytes of the Ice, members of a bizarre cult inspired by Kallithea’s native culture, whereby devotees give themselves up to death in the freezing wastes.

A weird religion, past traumas, a private life tangled up with the mission at hand, are all typical Brown tropes. Once again it is the changes he rings on the ingredients that provide the impulse to keep reading. The details of the immolation cult are strange and Brown renders them well.

In the context of the Telemass Quartet it is perhaps a drawback that Hendrick’s personal quest is a sideshow to this novella’s plot, though. It causes him to take his eye off the greater ball and so his wife and daughter evade him. No spoiler really as of course this serves Brown’s purposes, as Telemass III and IV are still to come.

Pedant’s corner:- as its swung away (it,) epicentre, “I wouldn’t have through Kat” (thought,) the beneficent gaze His Holiness (gaze of His,) what as right (what was right) and a fair few instances of “time interval” later.

Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay

Picador, 2007, 202 p.

Wish I Was Here cover

I was impressed by Kay’s novel Trumpet last year. This is her second book of short stories. I have yet to read her first. Wish I Was Here has very wide margins so you’re actually getting fewer words than you might think but all the stories are insightful and magnificently readable. There are only occasional intrusions of Scottishness into the narratives.

You Go When You Can No Longer Stay relates the breakdown of the twenty-five year relationship between Hilary and Ruth; a breakdown premonitored by Hilary quoting from Martin Amis – one example of which provides this story’s title. Another such bon mot (which actually is nonsense) is, “All marriage turns into a sibling relationship.”

In What is Left Behind1 a (heterosexually) married woman who has monthly trips away for assignations with a female lover remembers all the rooms they have (not) slept in. This one is written in USian from a USian’s viewpoint.

Wish I Was Here2 has a woman whose best friend has recently found a New Lover (also a woman) wait for the couple to arrive at their holiday hotel. In this story what is not said, what the narrator does not think – what she dismisses – is what is most important.

In How to Get Away with Suicide3 Malkie spends his day trying to think of a way to commit suicide while making it look accidental. This is because his wife has left him for another man, and taken the kids. Among his observations are, “Glasgow’s changed; it used to be a dark city and now it’s light,” and, “it’s only love that matters in the end.”

Blinds features a woman who has recently split up with her partner having a conversation with the man who comes to measure up for the blinds in the terraced cottage she’s just moved into. She feels exposed. Of the woman who waves and smiles into her kitchen she thinks, “We all want friendly neighbours, of course. But too friendly neighbours fill us with alarm and dread.”

In The Silence a man asked by his wife to, “give me a minute’s peace at my breakfast,” tells her, “I’ll shut up, then.” And does. For ever.

My Daughter the Fox3 is a metaphor about motherhood and the disruption it brings. It tells the story of a woman who gives birth to a fox. She names her offspring Anya.

What Ever5 gives us four snapshots from the life of Ina McEwan, each one featuring an encounter with bird life, respectively quails, a little tern, a robin and a gull.

In Not the Queen6 Margaret Dorothy Lockhart is a Glaswegian woman who is the spitting image of the Queen. She has been since birth. It isn’t a happy thing to be.

Pruning.7 A woman whose female partner of fifteen years is having an affair with another woman finally loses it. The last line here is deliciously ironic.

The longest and most affecting of these tales is Sonata8 in which a woman on an all-night train journey through an unnamed Eastern European country hears the story of another. Contains perceptions such as, “The ugly have no rights. They don’t even feel the right to be loved. They feel grateful for the simplest of kindnesses,” and, “And what does it all matter, those petty jealousies compared to a life, a love, what does it matter.”

In The Mirrored Twins9 two male mountain climbers who have become an item set out one day to see the mirrored twins of Ben More and Stob Binnein. One of them observes, “If people just came out and walked up here every now and again, there would be less wars.”

Pedant’s corner:- 1 The song lyric, “Sonny, once so true, I love you-ooo,” is quoted. I always understood that to be ”Sunny one so true.”
2 Unless the narrator is again USian the use of “New Years” ought to be New Year.
3 Despite Malkie being Glaswegian the word bairns is used for his children. Also Kenny Dalgleish should be Dalglish.
4 medieval
5 When first encountered the family is referred to as the McEwan’s but later on the same page – correctly – as the McEwans. “It was the site she returned to, what ever.” I can’t see the purpose in rendering whatever as two words.
6 I hate the formulation “Queen of England.” In its first appearance here it may be forgivable as it’s that woman herself looking in the mirror – but she surely knows well enough she is Monarch of many other countries besides. But for Maggie’s fellow Glaswegian husband to say, “not a bloody person in the whole of England wid be able to tell the difference!” strikes me as unlikely as he’d be more than aware that he didn’t live in England but still had the same Queen. On a train journey south Maggie knew Scotland changed into England “but she couldn’t see the difference properly.” Really? No difference in the patterns of fields, in the appearance and dimensions of houses?
7 ass (arse.)
8 “you have those kind of looks” (that kind – or those kinds.)
9 “there would be less wars” (fewer.)

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