I don’t quite know what to make of this book. There were so many storylines in so many countries at so many different times, all overlapping and sloshing around at the same time, that at times the book became overwhelming. The writing is beautiful, the concept fascinating, but somehow I didn’t find the book as compelling as I expected to.
I went to see Salman Rushdie at the Southbank Centre in London last year and he read from the book and talked about it. It sounded fascinating – the main theme is the relationship between East and West, how each perceives the other, how in the end there are more similarities than differences. It’s also about storytelling – the plot is driven by a traveller from Italy who turns up at the Mughal court with a bizarre, unbelievable tale to tell. His life depends on telling the story and being believed. He’s not the only character in the book who faces this situation – Argalia saves his own life several times by telling tall tales as he goes from Italian orphan to stowaway to fearsome Turkish warrior to powerful Florentine condottiere. Meanwhile the Mughal emperor Akbar has so powerful an imagination that he invents an imaginary wife who acts as a character in the novel.
At times I was swept up by all the beauty in the writing, the dazzling stories within stories within stories, the skill with which Rushdie constantly sails close to the wind, presenting us with increasingly bizarre and unbelievable situations and yet somehow always keeping the story just about believable. But when it was all over, I was left feeling a little disappointed. I think perhaps there was just so much going on that I never developed a real affinity for any particular character. I was so busy trying to remember the names of the enormous cast of characters and how they related to each other, and then having to restart all over again each time the book shifted to a different continent or century, that I had no time or mental energy left over for caring about the characters themselves. So while I enjoyed the story and how it was told, I didn’t really care how it would end. And while the book dazzled me as I read it, I don’t think I’ll remember it for very long.