When we first encounter Rushdie’s all-powerful medieval ruler from the East, Akbar the Great, we think of Italo Calvino and Invisible Cities. Once we’re introduced to his imaginary queen Jodha, who dreams of Akbar while waiting for him in an imperial capital that hovers “between sanity and delirium, between what was fanciful and what was real,” we’re reminded of Jorge Luis Borges and his story, “The Circular Ruins.” But as Akbar’s fantasy solidifies around his brutal victory over the Rana, and his real queens’ mounting jealousy of the imaginary one; as we see the point of the pencil with which he etches the lines of Jodha’s face, and the point with which Jodha etches his, as her honed fingernails carve runes across his chest, lips, and testicles; as the impossibilities pile up in front of our credulous eyes—then we think of M. C. Escher, and his self-referential, recursive graphic art.
As artistic tropes, self-reference and recursion may have reached their high point in 1980, when Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bac won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction. Hofstadter showed how advancements in computer science gave power to some perplexing ideas: that every system of thought was incapable of expressing certain ideas about itself; that the thinker and the thought were inseparable; that meta- was a cool, endlessly attachable prefix. Artists may have eventually overused these tools—they quickly became cliches of popular culture—but in “The Shelter of the World,” Rushdie applies them to politics and romance with a deftness that Calvino and Borges would undoubtedly admire.
Based on an actual 16th-century Mughal emperor, Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, Rushdie’s Akbar meditates on the closed logical system that defines him as emperor, “this all-engulfing flood of a ruler, this swallower of worlds, this many-headed monster who referred to himself in the first-person plural,” and wonders if he can step outside a box so enormous. He is the box. Akbar wonders if he needs then to give up the first-person plural and redefine himself as an individual, as an “I,” even if it means the end of empire.
But love is a recursive system. In love, our imaginations create, usually from paltry human material, an avatar worthy of our affection, who in turn elevates and ennobles us. Akbar discovers that love requires an imperial imagination, an imagination that encompasses not only the beloved, but the whole of existence: “all his cities and lands and rivers and mountains and lakes …” The moment in which he experiments with surrendering the first-person plural, by presenting himself to Jodha as “I,” Akbar begins to lose his queen, who of course doesn’t exist anyway. Akbar will never repeat the experiment, unable to leave the logical system that defines who he is.
From the first line of “The Shelter of the World” we are set up for the possibilities of magic, for the possibility that things that are real may seem unreal: the city (solid) appears “made of red smoke” and the queens “float around like ghosts.” The city is magically silent, and Jodha’s presence, though imagined, is palpable, and given more weight through legend and deference. When Rushdie begins to put solid words to her, it is easy to believe she is real. He says that she was Akbar’s “mirror … but she was herself as well. Now the act of creation was complete, she was free to be the person he had created … how full of blood and rage.”
But while Rushdie is creating this world, he is simultaneously undermining the possibility of it. Rushdie tells us that the magic of the kingdom is largely manmade, constructed for the benefit of the king. The silence is under penalty of death, the real city is built of “wood and mud and dung.” And what if we reconsider the lines where Jodha is embodied? What does she feel? “His approaching need … his footfalls.” Where once Akbar gave her attributes of the other queens, now he endows her with himself. Even when she ragefully decides to be “herself and not subservient,” it is because of him: “He did not like subservient women.”
The meaning of the ending, of course, depends on whether you believe Jodha has achieved corporeality. If she is embodied, the last encounter is heartbreaking. Akbar comes home to humble himself for love. He strains to use the pronoun ‘I’ with a “sheepish grin,” like an awkward teenager, trying to woo a girl out of his league. But Jodha isn’t paying attention, “thinking only of the words she had to say to make him hers.” When she does speak, she says the wrong thing, and so although “the spell had almost broken…. The magic held.” This is two lovers doing what we so often do ourselves—misperceiving, and thus destroying what we intend to preserve.
But maybe “The magic held” refers not to her embodiment, but to their love—his love for her and his imagined love for himself. The magic holds so they are able to disappoint each other. He is not a man at peace with himself, and in the end, that self-hatred remains truer than ever. Not even Akbar can love Akbar.
But why make a story end with the king hating himself, when we could be so moved by the lovers desperately trying to entice each other? Here my own battle with myself takes over: What makes a lover’s quarrel more moving than self-hatred? Why do we find self-hatred so palatable and unsurprising? Why doesn’t it break our hearts that this king who can love no one, even his imaginary wife, will never find peace with himself? Most of us are endowed with plenty of self-hatred, and I suppose it’s possible that acknowledging the sadness of this would cause civilization to crumble. Or maybe it’s just easier to be cynical and annoyed by all the self-help talk, yes we hate ourselves, blah, blah. Or maybe we know that it’s easier to move on from the heartbreak of love than to actually love ourselves when the hatred runs deep.
Or I can take the easy way out: Maybe the point of the story is that in order to be moved by love, by this lovers’ quarrel, we have to ignore all the signs that point to magic not existing and just accept the happy impossibilities of the world.
The challenge for Salman Rushdie nowadays is finding a fitting subject for his self-consciously lush style. When he writes about celebrity musicians (Ground Beneath Her Feet), fashion models (that really embarrassing New York novel), or tries to forge heroes out of the contemporary global elites (Moor’s Last Sigh, Shalimar the Clown), we find it hard to take his “languid play … in the curtained afternoons” while “the sun was at its zenith.” To avoid giving the sense that he is a queen dressed as an emperor, Rushdie should write about emperors and queens from faraway longago, as he does in this excerpt from his newest novel. We are too skeptical of our modern characters to give them the splendor of a sentence like this one: “In the melancholy after battle, as evening fell upon the empty dead, below the broken fortress melting into blood, within earshot of a little waterfall’s nightingale song-bul-bul, bul-bul, it sang-the Emperor in his brocade tent sipped watered wine and lamented his gory genealogy.”
But Rushdie was born to write such sentences. The fairy-tale matter suits him perfectly, as it did in the madcap bedtime tale for his son, Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The form also fits him like one of those bustier ball gowns that strains to contain full hips and breasts only to announce to the onlooker, “Here are hips and breasts crying to be let out of this dress!” You can feel Rushdie is constrained. He has to get everything in, as always: the opulence and the poverty, war and love and philosophy, the canny metafictions and the pro forma jokes, but it’s only a short space in which to work. Left too much on his own, Rushdie tends to let it all hang out. Here, whether thanks to the form itself or the work of expert New Yorker tailors (er, editors), the proportions are right. Even so, it’s still a pastiche of a number of modes we’ve grown overly familiar with over the years. “In the hours after he killed the Rana, the Emperor was possessed by his familiar demon of loneliness” is a sentence that could only be written after Marquez wrote two whole novels about those demons. The rest of the story too comes back to us across a double reflection of cultures and periods. Richard Francis Burton’s 19th-century Arabian Nights reappropriated with the diasporic zeal of someone whose knowledge of his “authentic” storytelling culture comes only at second-hand. This isn’t to say that the pastiche qualities interfere with my enjoyment. I’d rather read Rushdie’s versions than many translations, either of Marquez or Mughal tales or the Arabian Nights.
The end is pat: “She understood that he had changed. And now everything else would change as well.” Er, yes and no, and he hadn’t really changed, and the last graph is an assertion of perpetual sameness. It was an attempted change that went nowhere, a truncated intellectual development. But so what? This is the perfect New Yorker story for me, because the ending is so mysterious and probably wrong-headed or too glib, and yet one is so eager to turn the page to the next article, or one has luxuriated so long in the perfumed object, soaking it in as an array of impressions-and Rushdie is always impressive and trying to impress-that the nagging doubt can be shooed away. Why be a critic when you can be a voyeur?