The Enchantress of Florence
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2008
Hardcover, 356 pages
Mostly Bewitched, But Also A Bit Bewildered
I am an enthusiastic fan
I am an enthusiastic fan of Salman Rushdie’s writing. I have read most of his novels and many of his essays. In my estimation, he is one of the top five fiction writers in the English-speaking world, and the publication of his latest novel is an event I greet with credit card extended: there will be no waiting for the paperback for me.
Consequently, when I say that The Enchantress of Florence is not Rushdie’s greatest book, my assessment is based on a whole different measuring system than I would apply to almost any other writer. I have no doubt that this man’s grocery lists are of superior literary quality to much of the writing being published today, and my remarks are offered in that context.
The six pages of bibliography at the end of this novel, which is Rushdie’s tenth, indicate the amount of research that went into The Enchantress of Florence. The resources that have been consulted span subjects from the obscure to the panoramic—Italian witchcraft, the Medici, the Renaissance, the history of India, the Ottoman Empire, the reign of the Mughals and the life of Amerigo Vespucci being just a few examples.
This reference list may also suggest the source of the novel’s most significant flaw: there is just too much unanchored detail in this book. Those of us who are not steeped in the history in which Rushdie has immersed himself (which, at least in the Western world, must include most of us) frequently find ourselves politically and even geographically adrift. The construction of entire paragraphs out of details that are basically irrelevant to the plot do little to draw the reader in:
“[Akbar] also sprang by direct descent from the loins of the man whose name was Iron. In the language of his forefathers the word for iron was timur. Timur-e-Lang, the limping iron man. Timur, who destroyed Damascus and Baghdad, who left Delhi in ruins, haunted by fifty thousand ghosts. Akbar would have preferred not to have had Timur for a forebear. He had stopped speaking Timur’s language, Chaghatai, named after one of the sons of Genghis Khan…” (etc, etc)
I do not expect to be a passive participant when I am reading, and I often have atlases and other references at hand so that I can better understand the context of a novel, but in this case I would have been grateful for some help from the author: the weaving in of a few explanations regarding the physical extent of the Mughal empire (at its peak in the mid-1500s, which includes the time frame of this novel, it encompassed 1.5 million square miles of the Indian subcontinent), historical connections among the Turks, Persians and Mongols, the history of contact between European royalty and the Mughals, and a few other bits of background would have been a help. And where in the world was Sikri, the city that Akbar built, which is where most of the “present” time frame of the novel takes place? (I know the answer now. I recommend that you find it out before you start to read.) A map or two would have also been most welcome.
The need to wade through paragraphs
The need to wade through paragraphs of historical detail which offer all of the excitement of the “begats” in Genesis may be a chore that is reluctantly assumed, but it is also one that is forgiven each time we come across an example of Rushdie’s flair for the evocative, of which there are hundreds in this book. Take his description of emperor Akbar’s longing for genuine intimacy. Akbar is the central character of this novel—a man so powerful, Rushdie tells us, that despite the fact that his name means ‘great,’ it was considered no redundancy to call him “Akbar the Great.”
After a battle in which Akbar kills an opponent with whom he might under other circumstances have enjoyed a stimulating conversation, he reflects on the isolation his eminence has conferred upon him. He considers the joy he would feel were he able speak of himself in the first person singular rather than the formal “we,” or to be addressed informally by others. “Might that little word, that tu turn out to be the most arousing word in the language?” he wonders. “‘I,’ he practiced under his breath. Here ‘I’ am. ‘I’ love you. Come to ‘me’.”
In those few sentences, the reader gains an appreciation not only for Akbar’s almost mythic stature and the loneliness to which it has condemned him, but also the extent of his longing to be loved by someone who is his equal. Akbar has gathered around him the most brilliant and talented men as his advisors, and the most beautiful and interesting women as his wives, but he remains a man without intellectual or visionary equal. Even Jodha, the woman he loves most in the world, the “scholar of his need,” is unable to appreciate, much less satisfy, his longing for fundamental intimacy—which is ironic since the emperor has invented her.
Jodha embodies Akbar’s concept of perfection—“She was immortal, because she had been created from love.” She haunts the corridors of his palace, freed by her provenance from the confines of the women’s quarters but also utterly alone, ignored by the rest of the court when Akbar is away at war, envied and hated because of her pre-eminence in his affections when he is at home.
Into this situation
Into this situation comes a man from the west who calls himself the Mogor dell’Amore, the mughal of love, who claims to be the emperor’s uncle. To support his claim, he begins to relate the story of the Enchantress of Florence, aka Lady Black Eyes (aka Qara Köz, aka Angelica)—a woman with superhuman powers who was considered the most beautiful woman in the world, and was beloved by a succession of powerful rulers and worshipped by entire populations.
Qara Köz was a magician and a temptress and clearly her powers have extended beyond the grave for, as the story of Mogor progresses, everyone in Sikri falls under the spell of the Enchantress. Even Akbar’s love for Jodha is fatally compromised. Furthermore, in the Mogor, the emperor believes he may have found a man who, unlike his sons, will be able to provide him with a trustworthy and appropriate successor. (“His sons would grow up into glittering heroes with excellent moustaches and they would turn against him, he could already see it in their eyes. Among their kind…it was customary for children to plot against their crowned sires, to attempt to dethrone them, to imprison them in their own fortresses or on islands in lakes or to execute them with their own swords.”) This kind of thinking about the Mogor does not contribute to peace in Akbar’s kingdom, of course, and it ultimately leads to power struggles, wars and the devastation of Akbar’s wondrous city.
It is a hallmark of Rushdie’s narrative style that magic realism meets myth meets history in a way that allows the reader to catch glimpses of the possible through the gauze of the fantastic. In one scene, the kingdom’s pre-eminent vocalist is badly burned when he sings the song of fire—the Deepak raag—so beautifully that he causes the lamps to burst into flames. “In the ecstasy of the performance he hadn’t noticed his own body beginning to show scorch marks as it heated up under the fierce blaze of his genius.” The magical is always deliciously inseparable from the real, and both metaphorical and concrete interpretations come together seamlessly. In the case of Jodha, not only are we uncertain whether the other members of the emperor’s court actually see her or whether it is merely Akbar’s power which causes them the desperate need to do so, we also understand that it doesn’t really matter one way or the other.
This is a book about
This is a book about the nature of love, but it also reflects deeply on the importance of narrative. The redemptive, transformative and even life-saving power of storytelling is a subject that has intrigued Rushdie in the past, and he returns to the theme again and again throughout this book. When the Mogor is imprisoned in a dungeon, we are told that “he felt his story slipping away from him, becoming inconsequential, ceasing to be. He had no story. There was no story. He was not a man.” The sign of his return to life and health is the return of his voice. The ability to tell story is essential, Rushdie suggests, to being human and alive.
Not only does Rushdie explore the power of story, he also shows by example how powerful a strong narrative can be. Although the novel’s multiplicity of facts are (I am sure) historically correct, those same details also so successfully support the metaphorical and magical aspects of the narrative in such a way that they all come together with a satisfying chunk at the end—like the grooves and tongues in a solidly constructed cabin.
Rushdie’s strengths as a story-teller and a writer are everywhere in The Enchantress. He is open-minded, wise and visionary. He is hugely intelligent, of course: trite is not his currency. He deals in larger issues (“Maybe there was no true religion,” Akbar considers. And later, he says, “Only when we accept the truths of death can we begin to learn the truths of being alive.”)
In The Enchantress of Florence, as always, Rushdie is the consummate feminist. His female characters are strong, resilient, inventive—even inspiring to the female reader, which is always a nice bonus in a book by a male writer. Whether they live in 16th-century Florence or 21st-century New York, Rushdie’s women always take a firm hand in deciding their own fates.
As Sir Rushdie himself has stated recently to the press, he’s also funny: “When [Akbar’s aunt] Gulbadan started climbing the family tree like an agitated parrot there was no telling how many branches she would need to settle on briefly before she decided to rest.”
His writing appeals through its liberal perspectives, its powerfully strong characters, and the way he makes words dance. But perhaps what I like best about Rushdie’s writing is its energy. It is always clear that he is excited about his story, and that he exults in the challenge of getting it down for us to read. In his role as author, he is as enchanting as is Lady Black Eyes.
By the way
By the way, each chapter in The Enchantress of Florence takes as its title the chapter’s first few words. I like that idea. It draws the reader in.
In fact, I like a lot about this book. (More, now that I’ve reread sections in order to write this essay than I did before I started!) But if you are afraid of reading Rushdie, as many people are—perhaps concerned he will be too difficult—don’t start here. Read The Ground Beneath Her Feet, or Shalimar the Clown. They are better introductions to the innumerable pleasures of reading Rushdie.
The Enchantress of Florence is a book for those already held in Rushdie’s sway. These are the readers who are prepared to pick away the inessential threads until they find the tapestry. The tapestry itself is marvelous, and more than worth the effort.