The experience of reading Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence felt to me uniquely decadent and self-indulgent. This sensuous, intricate novel...moreThe experience of reading Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence felt to me uniquely decadent and self-indulgent. This sensuous, intricate novel, formulated of as many stories within stories as The Arabian Nights, follows Rushdie’s accustomed habit of writing within no yet defined genre (try calling such a deeply allegorical and yet profoundly honest novel as Midnight’s Children by the simplistic name of ‘magical realism’), but, in contrast to the tight control of his more critically acclaimed works, The Enchantress of Florence feels as though someone unlocked the door to Rushdie’s formidable powers as a prose stylist and creator of myth, gave him a time and place in history, and let the inexhaustible wealth of his writing abilities shape themselves by chance and fate into a dizzyingly sumptuous oriental carpet of a novel.
The result is a dreamlike book of flesh and thought, Italy and India, storytelling, honesty, and lies. It is an unequivocally delight to read, but, in reading it, one must submit to its Fellini-esque ambiguous definition of realism, and its idiosyncratic narrative structure. For the meticulous reader, to attempt to follow a single character or plotline is to condemn oneself to madness, for characters and plotlines appear, disappear, and reappear with remarkable fluidity, like single threads in the pattern of a carpet. But, in this novel, each character and gem of a plotline is more fascinating than the last, and Rushdie’s admirable magic as a storyteller means that submitting oneself unequivocally to his command of story is not a difficult task to accomplish.
The plot, which deftly weaves together history and fiction in a web that draws in such historical figures as Niccoló Machiavelli, Amerigo Vespucci, Vlad Tepes and Queen Elizabeth I, is ostensibly concerned with the arrival in the Mughal court of a mysterious Italian traveler who calls himself Mogor dell’Amore, but within the Mogor’s search for his own identity in the palace of Akbar the Great are the stories of a multitude of other characters. The question of how much of each of these stories has been fabricated by the teller is left to the imagination, but the answer could be anything in the world of the novel, where an emperor can bring a woman into being by dreaming her.
While unlike any other book I have ever read, even by Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence does owe a great deal to Italo Calvino’s slim and lyrical book Invisible Cities, which is about a series of imagined conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Both books are concerned with Rushdie’s favorite theme of interaction between the East and the West, but the rich humanity and shifting identities of the characters in The Enchantress of Florence blur the lines in that familiar scenario, leading to a richer and more nuanced book than, say, Rushdie’s Fury. By continuing to write about India but moving away from his habitual modern setting, Rushdie allows himself to find new ways to look at a subject that many would assume he has already talked to death. Throughout the book, one has a sense of an incredibly talented writer at once challenging himself and having an incredible amount of fun. It is utterly glorious to watch.
The Enchantress of Florence is a book that I expect would greatly irritate those not so enamored with Rushdie’s prose as I am. Being a book about storytelling, it has the same sense of self-indulgence that many complain of in plays about actors. But for me, the joyous ecstasy of the writing, the truth in the characters, and the intricacy of the themes were together impossible to resist. I would recommend it to anyone who reads Henry James’ travel essays and sighs at their descriptions, who marvels at Tom Stoppard’s ability to pick out cross sections in history, or who loves the chapter titles in Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. This book felt like a love letter to us. (less)