Salman Rushdie’s “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella Consummate their Relationship”

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(Nine of diamonds picture credit: http://eprints.utas.edu.au/6867/ )

Week 43 of my annual Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge produced the nine of diamonds which led me to the story. “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella Consummate their Relationship” by Salman Rushdie. Originally published in the June 17, 1991 issue of the New Yorker magazine, I “own” it via my digital subscription, which allows access to the vast short story archive of that fine publication. (Deal Me In fodder for years to come!) This story was recommended to me for DMI2014 by my blogging colleague and trusted reading advisor, Dale, whose work you may read at his excellent blog “Mirror with Clouds” coincidentally, Dale also had this story on his DMI roster and drew his card last week, just missing a “strange coincidence.”

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This very short story contains the author’s speculation on what the “relationship” between two famous historical figures might have been like. Once again I was amazed at how a skilled author can pack so much into just a few pages – how a story of such brevity can feel so complete and not leave the reader wanting to read more. The story follows the multiple petitionings of Columbus at Isabella’s court and their initial lack of success. The ups and down of Columbus’s emotions as he despairs of ever being accepted or even heard. After one failure, Rushdie writes of Columbus: “Invisibility claims him. He surrenders to its will.” At one point though, the later-to-be-famous explorer muses that “The search for money and patronage is not so different from the search for love.” and somewhat changes his approach.

What finally wins over the queen to patronage is her own epiphany – albeit prompted by external events: “Isabella…is shaken by the realization that she will never, never, NEVER! be satisfied by the possession of the known. Only the unknown, perhaps only the unknowable will satisfy her.” She then agrees to finance Columbus’s travels into an unknown that she may hopefully possess.

As a former history major, I must somewhat red-facedly admit that I don’t know very much about the preliminaries surrounding Columbus’s initial voyage (other than what every school kid in America learns, right or wrong. I do remember that Isabella was a quite powerful and effective monarch, who would likely make most lists like “top ten monarchs,” etc. (There’s a good bit of homework for you- who else would you put on that list?) Reading this story makes me want to read more about her and this period in history. And how appropriate that Deal Me In’s “hand of fate” led me to draw this card during the week of the “Columbus Day” holiday here in the U.S…

(Below: author Salman Rushdie)

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What are your reading experiences with Salman Rushdie? Any recommendations? This story is worth seeking out at your library or via the New Yorker archives if you have access.

(Below: Columbus pleads his case before the monarchs)

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6 Comments

  1. Bellezza said,

    October 25, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    Doesn’t it look like Salman Rushdie is winking at us with an all-knowing eye? As much as I like him, he seems a bit of a scamp or a scoundrel in his appearance. The only book I’ve read of him was Midnight’s Children, a rather hefty tome. I have The Enchantress of Florence to get to one day, but I think you were wise to read him in short story form. Unless of you have weeks to devote to his verbosity.

    As for Isabel which you described for us here through Salman’s eyes, I think my mother would be her best friend. Talk about two seemingly peas in a pod with an attitude for uncovering the unknown!

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    • Jay said,

      October 26, 2014 at 8:26 am

      It sure does in the picture I shared anyway! 🙂 I don’t have sufficient experience with him to know, but your comment has made me a little wary now…

      & That’s one of the great things about being a frequent reader of short stories. It’s a little like literary speed dating, you can decide quickly if there’s “enough there’ to want to see/read them again.

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  2. Dale said,

    October 25, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    I am glad I started with a Rushdie short story and sometime I want to read the rest from the collection. But I am interested in reading his novels. I have heard that his more infamous novel, “The Satanic Verses”, can be difficult to “get”. Some of his other ones sound very intriguing, though.

    I liked the way you brought out Isabella’s interest in conquering the unknown.

    I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll mention Rushdie’s memoir “Jospeh Anton” again. It was very good.

    And glad you liked the story. I did, too.

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    • Jay said,

      October 26, 2014 at 8:21 am

      I was ransacking though the online New Yorker short story archive yesterday (to populate one of my suits for next year’s DMI) and have included his story “In the South” on my tentative list. I also like the concept of the collection this particular story is in and hope to read it at some point,

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  3. Jason M. said,

    October 26, 2014 at 8:06 pm

    My understanding is that Ferdinand and Isabella in reality had little to do with financing Columbus’ voyage, which in turn was privately funded and evidently had more than a little to do with the looming expulsion of all the Jews from Spain at that time… of course, after 525 years, these things are wide open for debate and re-interpretation. I suspect Rushdie was playing off of perceptions of history, which are usually more powerful than the actual events themselves …

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    • Jay said,

      October 27, 2014 at 7:49 am

      Well put and likely true. They also didn’t teach us about the Europeans bringing over the “gift” of smallpox. I did read an interesting non-fiction book about the pre-Columbian Americas. “1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus” by Charles Mann that I’d recommend.

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