The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Random House 2008  357 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


The Enchantress of Florence is, to quote a fictional Siamese king, a puzzlement.  This dazzling, complex story of the relations—between the Mughal Empire and Renaissance Florence, ethereally beautiful spirits and real bloody warriors, sly magicians and pragmatic sea captains, and, ultimately, men and women—inspires a good deal of admiration for the author, yet an enigma for the reader as to the novelÕs purpose.

After stowing away on an Italian ship and fleecing its wealthy Scottish passenger, a clever young man named Mogor dellÕAmore—like many of the bookÕs characters, one of several names and contested identities—arrives at the court of the Mughal Emperor, daring the king to make him part of his inner circle.  Emperor Akbar, with two dissolute sons and a third he fears may try to overthrow him, invites the man into his court, inspiring love, jealously, and social transformation among the members of his retinue.

The king himself, a demi-god to his people, has taken to heart the idea that Ņthe creation of a real life from a dream was a superhuman act, usurping the prerogative of the gods.Ó  Not content with any woman in the kingdom as his wife, Akbar has invented one, Jodha, who apparently fulfills his every desire (the mechanics of this arenÕt made clear, and confused further by the existence of an extensive harem).  But the woman on center stage in this tale is AkbarÕs relative, Qara Kšz, a.k.a., Black Eyes, whose extraordinary beauty, and practical approach to her sexuality, wreaks havoc with men, women, and passing livestock.  Here she arrives in Percussina, Italy, with her stunning maid:

ŅThey were riding as men rode, straddling their mounts in a manner that made their female audience gasp for one reason while the watching menÕs gasps were of another kind, and their faces shone with the light of revelation, as though in those early days of their unveiling they were capable of sucking light in from the eyes of all who looked upon them and then flinging it out again as their own personal brilliance, with mesmeric, fantasy-inducing effects.Ó

We flash back and forth between India and Florence, running into Niccol˜ Machiavelli as a boy and disappointed adult, Amerigo VespucciÕs cousin, the Medicis, and other figures from this colorful period. 

The Enchantress of Florence is a folk tale, one infused with postmodern steroids (and IÕm sure thereÕs such a substance in RushdieÕs desk drawer).  The credulousness which informs the narrator of this convoluted story stems both from the superstitions of the time period, shared respectively by Renaissance Florence and the Mughal Empire, and RushdieÕs postmodern musings on the role of the imagination in the construction of reality.  As such, are we to revel in the imaginative delights of the devils, witches and spells of these two pre-Enlightenment civilizations, or glory in the viral spread of Derrida and Foucault into storytelling?  Hard to say.

Like other recent, but less gifted authors, Rushdie has seen fit to include a bibliography of sources for this tale, which in addition to his admirable desire to extend intellectual credit where itÕs due, lends an odd defensiveness to the volume.  If Ņthe untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world,Ó why would an author who repeatedly wants us to believe in the contingency of the real and its dependence on the imaginative want to assure us of the source of his Ņfacts?Ó

There is much to admire in this story: the glittering prose, the complex plotting, the evocation of a past, exotic world.  As such, fans of the author should find this an accomplished and satisfying experience.  Indeed, of RushdieÕs genius there should be no question, yet for this reader the complex effusiveness of the prose becomes, over time, all a little too . . . much.