Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence is a
phantasmagoria of sights, sounds, characters, and long sentences set in 16th
century Italy and the Mughal Empire.
The plot centers on a series of stories told by a mysterious interloper to the Great Akbar. Akbar is a free thinker and a munificent ruler, so the interloper, Uccello, is able to stay and tell his stories after many of the court believe he should leave. The story is about the mysterious Enchantress of Florence, whose personal history greatly interests Akbar.
The telling of stories and the similarities between Akbar's court and the distant Italy are two of the central themes of the novel: Rushdie opines through metaphor, character, and plot that humanity is the same regardless of situation or fashion. The interweaving storylines, one set in Renaissance Italy, the other in the Mughal Empire, act as mirrors of each other. Akbar's ability to understand Uccello's stories further underscores the fact that he is a great ruler; he can imaginatively step outside his experience to sympathize with people who live far away from him. (The implication is that we must also learn how to do this; hence the reason Rushdie set this tale in the 16th century.) In contrast to his suspicious courtiers, he is able to transcend time and space to see the sameness between people.
Akbar has magnificent imaginative powers. He is able to conjure a wife from the ether of his mind, which causes the ladies of his harem no end of consternation. They find themselves challenged by the paradoxical situation of competing against another women's affection for Akbar, even though that woman does not exist. Thus begins the confusing, labyrinthine qualities of The Enchantress of Florence.
Rushdie's larger points that literature (storytelling) should be the agent for understanding and that people are essentially the same is well heard and, after 500 pages, well-explained, but the novel contemplates little else. The plot circulates around itself, and though some scenes (sections in Italy and Akbar's palace come to mind) are lucid and engaging, the nonlinear sections are so frequent and so confusing that they undermine any brilliance the clearer narrative sections possess. One finds oneself anxiously looking forwards and backwards in the narrative for a point of reference; and the slog is difficult. There are clear, beautiful moments to be found; and some of the characters, The Enchantress for one, jump off the page. Yet, the plot and the connection between the characters is unclear. By the end, it seems that the novels objective is simply to confuse, providing neither the benefit of a satisfying conclusion or the key to the central riddle.
Overall, there are some brilliant moments and those fond of Rushdie's earlier works might be interested in wading into this one.
Salman Rushdie was born
in Bombay (Mumbai) in 1947.
He studied in India and England,
reading History at King's
College, Cambridge. His first
novel, Grimus, was
published in 1975. His second
novel, the critically acclaimed
and award-winning Midnight's
Children, was published in
1991. Among its honors, it has
won the Booker Prize and the 'Booker of the
Bookers,' recognizing it as
the best example of that
illustrious prize. Malcolm
Bradley in The Modern British
Novel (1994) pronounced the
book "a new start for the
Rushdie's next novel, Shame,
also won critical acclaim
and international awards.
Famously, Rushdie's next book, The Satanic Verses, incurred an issuance of a fatwa a call for his death by the orthodox leadership in Iran. Rushdie went into hiding, together with his then-wife Marianne Wiggins, but continued writing. All of his subsequent work has garnered critical acclaim. He says that The Enchantress of Florence was written in the aftermath of his divorce from Padma Lakshimi and helped him to recover from the pain of separation.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the January 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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