The power of Sir Salman Rushdie’s work rests in his ability to blend the miraculous (Saleem’s unusually large nose and its ability to smell emotion from Midnight’s Children comes to mind) and the real, allowing us to believe that the supernatural — the extraordinary, the mythic, and the magical — can be a part of everyday life and found in the simplest places (even a nose).
In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which Rushdie was on hand to read at Harvard’s Memorial Church on Monday night, he employs his trademark magical realism, to varying degrees of success. Lines like “ . . . but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world” and his continuous unreal-in-the-real motifs frustrate as much as they wow. And out of all his works, The Enchantress poses the greatest test to our willing-suspension-of-disbelief, primarily because Rushdie himself seems to doubt the feasibility of the events he’s relaying.
At Monday’s sell-out reading in the sweltering Memorial Church, Sir Salman read from the beginning of the love story between Argalia the mercenary fighter (representative of the opulent West) and Kara Koz (of the seductive East), an excerpt that included a tulip-tattooed penis, a race for freedom, and explosive farting. The reverent crowd, it’s fair to say, was amused.
But Rushdie was at his best during the Q&A, offering witty remarks on his own writing process: “I cannot write in restaurants,” he said, explaining that that’s the sort of thing that poets do. And woe to the poets in the audience, for further remarks on them were both damning and hilarious. The final question of the night — the classic “What advice would you give to aspiring writers?” — provoked some gushing about Zadie Smith (“I met her when she was so young,” he said, “eighteen or nineteen, something pornographic,”), and how he could see her fire immediately, that true writers burn like that. He closed his answer — and the evening — with harsh words: “if you need the advice, don’t write the book.” (Begging the question, can you tell us, Mr. Rushdie, that you yourself never received any advice at the beginning of your career?) The young woman cowered back to her seat.
Listen to the full reading and Q&A session here:
DOWNLOAD: Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence (Live at Harvard's Memorial Church) [mp3]
— Sheridan Maguire