The most unusual section of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, is not to be found on the first page of the narrative, nor on the last, nor in between. Rather, it is a bibliography attached to the narrative — a list with books such as Daily Life in Renaissance Italy, Dress in Italian Painting 1460-1500, Private Life of the Mughals of India 1526-1803 AD, the Baburnama, The Illustrated Kama Sutra. This extensive list of sources indicates the lengths to which Rushdie has gone to research his latest world-roving narrative, a book that replicates the awesome “chutnification” of history of Midnight’s Children by imagining the teeming worlds of Mughal India and Florentine Italy as linked together by a common ancestor.
Twin worlds: The second half of the book is set in Florence (left); Rushdie says it’s his “sexiest novel so far”.
The opening scene of The Enchantress gives us a clue as to how to read it, which is as a fairytale. We are shown a traveller from a distant land entering a great palace city at sunset, passing a lake which seems to be filled with molten gold. The traveller is, like Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children, “a teller of tales”, and he brings with him a secret so immense that only the emperor of the kingdom may hear it. That emperor is Akbar, the greatest of the Mughals, and Akbar is taken aback when the yellow-haired stranger introduces himself as Mogor dell’Amore, or the Mughal of Love. Mogor claims to be the son of Qara Koz, a lost sister of Babur’s. In effect, this yellow-haired Italian is Akbar’s uncle.
In a later passage, Akbar, after being hoodwinked by the wily Mogor on some small matter, realizes that “witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough”. Indeed, all of Rushdie’s books are actually paeans to language, to the liberating power of the imagination. The early sections of The Enchantress, with their evocation of the magical city of Fatehpur Sikri, the mighty warrior and thinker ensconced on its throne, and his imaginary wife, Jodha, make for some of the most sublime pages ever conjured up by the Rushdian tongue.
The Enchantress of Florence: Jonathan Cape, 359 pages, Rs595.
The Akbar we find here is unmistakably a Rushdian Akbar, “a man of speculative temperament”, “burdened by the names of the marauder past”, given to dreaming and wordplay. In a marvellous passage that echoes a comment made by a Scottish seafarer to Mogor early in the novel about “the majesty of that highest of sovereigns, the individual human self”, we find Akbar thinking about his self and his selves, the singular “I” and the royal “We”. The man “born into plurality” is shown contemplating “the disturbing possibilities of the first-person singular”. This is novelistic thinking and pattern-making of the highest order.
Rushdie’s take on the question of Akbar’s Hindu wife Jodha is just as brilliant. Some people have argued that Jodha never really existed, to which Rushdie’s response is: Quite true. Jodha appears in his book as one of the many enchantresses of the narrative, a person dreamed up by Akbar because of his dissatisfaction with his other queens. But, we are told, “the emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the non-existent beloved who was real”.
This is a characteristic Rushdian inversion of the hierarchy between reality and the imagination, but it seems absolutely true because this schema serves as a metaphor for what happens to all of us when we fall in love. The loved one (as we find out later, to our dismay) is often an invented person. Rushdie shows us Jodha wandering around the passages and halls of the palace, wondering: “If he died, could she go on living?”
Unfortunately, Rushdie’s narrative soon falls away from its pursuit of the great Mughal potentate, his imaginary-yet-real wife, and his strange European uncle, and instead leaps across to the lush, sensual world of 15th century Florence, and to the story of Mogor’s mother Qara Koz.
Rushdie’s research notwithstanding, these sections are far more cartoonish than his depiction of Fatehpur Sikri, and the language far slacker and drunk with excess (“The concubines had blended into a single supernatural Woman, a composite Concubine, and She was all around the two men, besieging them with love”). Qara Koz, a spellbinding beauty who maddens every man who crosses her path, is a character reminiscent of Remedios the Beauty in Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. As a character, she possesses all the weaknesses of Remedios, which are simply that such a person in fiction is neither very believable nor very interesting.
Rushdie’s women have never been as engaging as his men, and the excess of enchantresses and whores in his book sometimes make it seem no more than an adolescent fantasy: Women are rated by their ability to give pleasure to men.
Although his point about the sensual existence of Florence and of Mughal India is taken, sentences about concubines who “stirred the air around the emperor into a magic soup flavoured with the spices of arousal” can only undo the beauty of lines such as the one imagining a low red moon as “God’s cold, mad eye”, or the sophistication of Akbar’s notion that “if there had never been a God...it might have been easier to work out what goodness was”.
The Enchantress of Florence is most interesting and vital when furthest from the wiles of its many super-sexy enchantresses.
Respond to this review at email@example.com