The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

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Inspired by all the spices that go into Christmas baking: the nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and cloves I thought a book such as this set in part in the far East would be a perfect compliment to the season. It was my second go at this book that begins with a mysterious traveller, a suspected magician, entering the city of Fatehpur Sikri in Northern India, the golden city of the Mogul Emperor Akbar the Great. My first attempt to read this novel was in August of 2012 a few weeks before my daughter’s wedding. That was poor timing because this is a book that demands the reader’s devoted attention being filled with so many interrelated stories. Every one of the many characters, great and small has a story to tell and there are many little rivulets and digressions in the narration that are picked up and dropped at the whim of the writer. So reading this book while preparing for a wedding was not a good idea and thus I dropped it after about a hundred pages and left it on the shelf until this December past. This book is written in the style of Magical Realism, the preferred form of Salman Rushdie. He leans more towards the Magical side but the names of famous historic characters are peppered liberally throughout such as the Florentine Renaissance writer/philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, the Medici prince, Lorenzo the Magnificent, the Genoese admiral, Andrea Doria, the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the warrior pope, Leo X as well as Vlad the Impaler, England’s virgin queen, Elizabeth I and Akbar the Great. In an interview with Mr. Rushdie I read or listened to a long time ago he mentioned that of all the books he had written to date this had required the greatest amount of research, (there is an impressive bibliography added at the end of the book). I realize now that in my first attempt to read this book I was totally thrown off by all the name dropping in part because my academic background is in history and my inclination is to list all these characters on a timeline and validate the accuracy of the author’s effort in linking them together, no matter how loosely. It also  occurs to me that I was also out of patience with the writer as in my heart I was thinking he was showing off and flaunting his virtuosity rather than entertaining me his reader. Is that not interesting? I am a common reader, as defined by Samuel Johnson and beautifully illustrated by Virginia Woolf in her essays found in The Common Reader volumes I and II. The common reader, according to Dr. Johnson is, “ …not corrupted by literary prejudices…” and relies on his/her common sense when reading a book. According to Virginia Woolf that does not mean there are no obligations on the part of the reader. In volume II of The Common Reader there is an essay entitled. “How Should One Read A Book?” and very sensibly she maintains that the onus is on the reader to begin reading a book in sympathy with the author; that is to say, to be on the author’s side and  keep an open mind. So the first step to enjoying this book was to banish my prejudices smooth down my historian’s hackles and prepare myself to be a more receptive reader. (Although the second time around I could not resist listing the historic characters as I went along with their dates of birth and death just to satisfy the dregs of the historian that lingers from my undergrad days). So we have a traveller from out of western Europe who is conspicuously fair with golden hair. He enters the city and wrangles his way into an audience with the Emperor because he has a story to tell about a lost princess. Akbar is amazed at the boldness of the traveller who calls himself Mogor dell’Amore and claims that although he is much younger than Akbar by a curious twist of circumstance he is in fact Akbar’s uncle. The traveller wants to tell his story but the Emperor is not going to acquiesce to this request easily. Akbar knows the power of story telling whether truth or fiction or a mixture of both. The author explains that Akbar has invented out of his imagination a wife so real that she supplants all the queens and wives and concubines of his harem. Hilariously while he makes her exquisitely beautiful as one might expect he also makes her out to be something of a harpy with a very sharp tongue. At one point the traveller is imprisoned in a lightless dungeon and is there until he almost forgets his story and as this happens he comes close to loosing his identity because in a very real way he and everyone in this novel exists because of their story. The importance of one’s own story is illustrated dramatically somewhere near the middle of the novel by a French princess who had been captured and enslaved by the Turks and ended up in a brothel in Florence. She is described as a Memory Palace and has had her own story and memory replaced by that of someone else. When the story of this other is exorcised and replaced with her own story of loss of family, rape and enslavement she cannot bear the sad narrative and destroys herself having been sustained by one person’s heroic story but not able to live with her own. Part two of the novel is the beginning of the traveller’s story and is set in Renaissance Florence two generations earlier. Three young adolescents with too much time on their hands are wandering the streets and forests surrounding Florence trying to grow up too quickly and figure out the mysteries of sex. (Nothing new under the sun as far as that goes). There is an Enchantress enthroned in the hearts of Florentines at this time who is a woman of indescribable beauty. Mr. Rushdie, poor man, appears to have impossible hopes that such a woman existed. This Enchantress dies while still very young and Florence enters a period of political and religous turmoil. The three friends grow up to follow very different paths. Nicccolo Machiavelli becomes a career civil servant but falls from favor and is exiled to his family estate where he writes humorous plays for a living. Argalia is the friend who travels far away from Florence and becomes a soldier of fortune eventually working his way up to the position of right hand man to the Ottoman Emperor. The third friend is Ago who does not like travel or adventure and eventually becomes a wine merchant. They, all three, believe in the enchantment and magic of great beauty to the point that this enchantment shares a sisterhood with witchcraft (Mr. Rushdie, Mr. Rushdie … dear me where do you get such ideas?). It is Argalia who eventually captures and falls in love with the lost princess and Great aunt to the Emperor Akbar. She is called Qara Koz or Lady Dark Eyes and he brings her back to his boyhood home of Florence where she becomes the second Enchantress of Florence. She remains in that city much beloved by its people until her beauty begins to fade. By now the reader has been ushered well into the third part of the novel that returns to the traveller finishing his story with the Mogul Emperor Akbar whose ancestors were Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine. This is an ‘east meets west’ sort of tale at a time well before the European age of Imperialism when both the cities of Florence and Sikiri experienced a golden age of art and learning. It is amusing that Machiavelli outlines in his book, The Prince  some of the principles followed by Akbar in ruling his Empire. Machiavelli wrote “It is safer to be feared than to be loved” Akbar was certainly feared and did not hesitate to put down rebellion even of someone he admired to the point of personally hacking off the face of another prince, one he would have liked to have had as a personal friend. Machiavelli also wrote “It is necessary for a prince to learn how not to be good and to use it according to his necessity” Akbar abandoned his peasant population to starvation and deprivation when his golden city fell on hard times in order to save himself and his army.

I did not want to ramble so much, I am sure no one will get this far without thinking I’m a total bore  but I do want to go back to Virginia Woolf’s essay because in addition to keeping an open mind she also says that the common reader might ask him or herself at the end of the book whether the author has wasted the reader’s time. So I am going to try and answer that question for my own sake. First of all, this is the work of Salman Rushdie so the writing is exquisitely lush and for anyone who loves to write it is a treat. Secondly (and this is on the negative side) in its construction it is convoluted and why… perhaps it is not an easy story to tell? No, in the end it is rather a short story if it were told strictly in terms of the narrative. Does it have a shape or a feeling or an underlying architecture? No it is a many-colored coat with many pockets like the one the traveller is wearing as he arrives in the Mogul capital. I think that to explain why it is worth reading I have to go back to the idea that every character has a story and it is this and the artistry of Mr. Rushdie’s vast and endless imagination that makes this book worth reading. I found it challenging but that is not a bad thing. The common reader should not be a lazy reader and from time to time should rise to the challenge of a demanding read.

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