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Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

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“In the caravanserai all was bustle and hum,” begins an evocative central passage in the adventurous The Enchantress of Florence as workers and planners, blacksmiths and carpenters industriously go about their jobs to keep up trade and transit between the East and the West, as do turbaned coolies in red shirts and dhotis who run “ceaselessly hither and yon with bundles of improbable size and weight” upon their heads, while animals run wild, including screechy monkeys, and shrieking parrots exploding like “green fireworks in the sky.”

In Salman Rushdie’s tenth novel, such a multitudinous but often impenetrable narrative — couched in a magical realist every-which-way-but-lucid fever dream — often makes this tale of two epochs more commotion and drone than bustle and hum. But there’s still a lot of poetry in motion, and we’re talking about more than Bekin’s man prosody as Rushdie plops his unrushed plots in two tantalizing settings: sixteenth-century Renaissance Florence and Mughal India's cultural zenith reached the following century at Emperor Akbar's court in Sikri. The connecting link between the two cities and times is the magically beautiful "hidden princess," Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes, believed to possess powers of enchantment and sorcery.

As suggested, just as compelling as the circuitous journeys and destinations are the main characters driving the plot-thickened storyline, and the equally captivating secondary personalities and historical figures. So when a mysterious yellow-haired stranger "driven out of his door by stories of wonder," steps off a rented bullock cart and walks old Sikri speaking fluent Persian and claiming to be Akbar's uncle, he has a bold claim, and a tall tale. Presenting himself as an emissary of Queen Elizabeth I, his account is the story of Akbar's great-aunt, Qara Köz, that the man, her reputed son, has come to the court to tell. The tale dates to the time of Akbar's grandfather, Babar (Qara Köz's brother), and it involves her relationship with the Persian Shah. In the Shah's employ is Janissary general Nino Argalia, an Italian convert to Islam, whose own story takes the narrative to Renaissance Florence.

Fortunately, readers not taken with the complications of this particular story, or those whose patience have been tried and found untrue with such an ever-convoluted fable — at one point, even Akbar issues a “curse on all storytellers," telling his visitor "You're taking too long … You can't draw this out forever…" — have several other considerations interwoven throughout Enchantress. The blonde dude abides with what turns out to be amusing and intriguing subplots involving three Florentine friends: Niccolo Machiavelli, Agostino Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo, and the man who identified Lisa Gherardini as the model for the Mona Lisa), and Antonino Argalia, who goes on to command the armies of the Ottoman Sultan. Other figures who roam the tome include Savonarola, a prototypical version of the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan, and even Dracula.

With their philosophical, artistic, and eccentric bents, these highbrow/high-strung high-jinkster types make for a couple notches above escapist fare as the titular seductress finds her way from Italy to the emperor, lending breadth to the love story and deepening the mystery while giving such who’s-on-first clues to her ultimate identity with some kaleidoscopic ’splainin’ to do: "The Mirror's daughter was the mirror of her mother and of the woman whose mirror the Mirror had been."

Indeed, such reflections often come and go with the dazzling displays of ideas, wordplay, whimsy, and poetic passages that ebb and flow, keeping afloat Rushdie’s mixture of historical research, philosophical quests, and interest in myth and folklore.

Overall, the novel is a dialogue of sorts, back and forth over the decades and across thousands of miles between, for example, Machiavelli, brooding over the nature of power and morality in sensual, humanist Florence; and the troubled Akbar, pondering the same mysteries in the hedonistic Mughal capital. There is also much traffic across what Rushie refers to as “the frontier of the real,” the Checkpoint Charlie of the imagination. Akbar has the power to dream into reality, notably his favorite wife, Jodha. Traveling the other way, the artist Dashwanth becomes so bizarrely absorbed by Qara Köz that he chooses to disappear into his own paintings of her. “A dreamer could become his dream,” observes the Mughal Emperor.

The character of Akbar is just the one to ponder such seeming imponderables – wanting to, in one case, investigate why somebody should hold fast to an untrue religion just because it was the faith of one’s fathers. “Was faith not faith but simply family habit?” he asks himself. “Maybe there was no true religion but only this eternal handing down. And error could be handed down as easily as virtue. Was faith no more than an error of our ancestors?”

Then again, maybe he had too much time and money on his hands. A stint making with the bustle and hum of the caravanserai could take care of that…

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch