The Enchantress of Florence opens at dusk, with the arrival of a thirsty blond European traveler at the court of the Emperor Akbar. It is late in the 15th Century and the beautiful stranger, dressed in an unusual leather multi-pocketed patchwork coat, has come to tell the Emperor a magical, compelling story. It’s an auspicious beginning and beautifully wrought, full of characterisation created partly by setting, and the kind of sensory overload that Rushdie has become known for.
As always, Rushdie manages to go beyond the here and now into a world full of synthesesia: smells, sights, sensations, longing, hunger, fear, colour, place and emotion mingling until there’s almost too much for the reader to take in. Clearly there were rich pickings for Rushdie in Akbar's wealthy Mughal world, where the man known as the "greatest of the Mughal emperors" commanded more than simply his subjects. In The Enchantress of Florence Akbar's imagination and power are so great that he can conjure a queen out of nothing and raise the dead. His musings on life, his kingdoms, the responsibilities of leadership, and even the nature of migration are powerfully thought-provoking:
Was foreignness itself a thing to be embraced as a revitalizing force bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and the society as a whole, did it initiate a process of decay which would end in an alienated, inauthentic death? (403)
In many ways, The Enchantress of Florence is a story about the story: a metafiction that looks at the line between invention and reality and crosses it. It may seem like a magical fairy tale, but psychologically, invention is behind most of our reality. We are all locked, to a certain extent, in our own perceptions, so the man or women we love is always partly determined by how we’ve created them in our own minds. History too, is never entirely factual. There are always imaginings, templates, perspectives, and shades that can never be black or white. This is the notion that Rushdie plays with in The Enchantress of Florence, and like many modern novelists, he does it in the guise of historical fiction, rather than the other way around. The invention drives the research and the facts, so that it’s innate truths about love, power, fear, and desire that push the story forward, rather than the research behind the real Akbar.
Fictional imperative aside however, there was clearly a lot of research done for this story. In addition to Akbar the Great, there’s a veritable laundry list of famous people on parade through this novel, from Lorenzo de’ Medici, Machiavelli, Savonarola, Botticelli, Andrea Doria, and even Elizabeth the I. Each of these figures has his own story and a multiplicity of names and incarnations; enough to create a novel from each of them. Clustered here as they are, amidst a completely different story, their inclusion comes across as a series of unnecessary asides, detracting from the already dense main tale of Akbar, the blond stranger who calls himself the Mogor dell'Amore, and the mysterious black-eyed Enchantress Angelica, or Qara Köz. There’s so much material already in their East-West dance and the clash and connections, that there’s really no need to include so many additional stories. The inclusions come across as incidental in a story that is already ambitious and complex.
In addition to the density of its characters and the many subplots and sub-stories, the language of the book also threatens to overwhelm it. It’s partly Rushdie’s natural style to have breathlessly rich run-on sentences, but he goes further in this novel than he has before. At times The Enchantress of Florence bows under the weight of its verbosity:
In the high-ceilinged salon of Allesandra Fiorentina, under a domed ceiling frescoed with flying cherubs in a blue sky attending upon the cloud mattress where Ares and Aphrodite were making love, listening to the celestial music of the German Heinrich Zink, the greatest player of the cornetto curvo in all of Italy, Ago Vespucci felt as if he had been illuminated by a ray of the sun at midnight, and turned once again into that petrified virgin of years before who had sat on a skinny tart’s bed reading her the verses of the great poets of the day and blushing and sneezing when she decided to get to the point. (198)
Despite the linguistic heavy-handedness, the story does move along, impelled by the powerful musings of Akbar, and the natural desire to see how the Enchantress will sort out her own destiny. Or whether the Enchantress even exists. There’s a kind of quantum science underpinning her role in this novel that’s tremendously evocative. Is she sprung from Akbar, or he from her? Who is the parent and who the child? Who is real and who is a fiction? Like Schrödinger's Cat, Qara Köz is both alive and dead simultaneously. Rushdie’s handling of dichotomy in this novel, as in all of his novels, remains masterful. Life and death; East and West; male and female; real and imaginary; civilization and barbarism; permanence and change, are all managed with a deftness that few other novelists could handle.
If The Enchantress of Florence were expertly edited, and I’m afraid that few would dare edit someone of Rushdie’s caliber to the extent required, it could have been a masterpiece. As it is, it’s an enjoyable, but convoluted novel that takes on a difficult and fascinating historical subject matter and turns it into something entirely modern. Shortfalls aside, there are few who have the kind of literary skill that Rushdie has. As he himself puts it, “Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”