Among other things, Salman Rushdie's latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is a hymn to the creative and destructive power of female beauty. The heroine is a young woman of such transporting physical allure that on seeing her men fall instantly and insanely in love, heedless to the ensuing dangers. Wherever could he have come by the idea?
'Ridiculously beautiful, comically beautiful' was how he once described Padma Lakshmi, the woman who became his fourth wife. But in fact, Rushdie insists, he had the concept of the novel before he met the Indian-American model, actress and cookbook author. Still, that piece of chronology won't prevent many readers from glimpsing the shade of Lakshmi in the 'slender' and ravishing 'banquet for the senses' that is Qara Koz, a woman 'meant for palaces, and kings'.
To be fair to Lakshmi, she seemed more at home at premieres than palaces, but then celebrity is the new royalty. From a distance, or more specifically through the prism of gossip columns, she looked like trouble from the very start, someone who was unlikely ever to provide a happy ending, at least in the conventional narrative sense.
According to Rushdie, the irony is that not only did she not inspire the book, she was very nearly the cause of its demise. 'To put it bluntly,' he says, 'I had to write it in spite of her. Because what happened to me last year when I was writing this book was a colossal calamity.' By this he means the end of his marriage. In January of 2007, Lakshmi asked for a divorce.
'It was like a nuclear bomb dropped in your living room when you're trying to work,' he says. 'I really feared for a time at the beginning of last year that I'd lost the book. I was in such a state of turmoil that I couldn't work. I've always prided myself on my discipline as a writer. I do it like a job. I get up in the morning and go to my desk. And I got scared because I thought, if I lose this, I've lost everything. Genuinely, I think it was the biggest act of will that I've ever been asked to make, including after the fatwa, just to pull my head back together.'