Salman Rushdie is an author I approached with some caution. I had this idea that he would be too difficult, too heavy, too ideologically encumbered for my taste. All that business about the fatwa I didn’t really understand; it existed for me in cartoon version only, Salman Rushdie, Lord Lucan and Elvis together in a room with the blinds drawn, playing cards. Then a friend read The Enchantress of Florence and described it to me in a way that made it sound interesting, intriguing even. I bought a copy and it sat on the shelf for several years, during which I never quite felt mentally energetic enough to tackle it. Salman Rushdie, you know? With all that intellectual baggage about religion and philosophy and history. I would look at it and pick up some crime fiction instead.
I’m not quite sure what made the difference this summer. I’m in a mood to experiment, I think, and I’ve got José Saramago and Maria Vargos Llosa lined up next. In any case, when I began The Enchantress of Florence I realised that, of course, I had been foolish to burden the name of Rushdie with such tedious expectations. Just about any writer who makes a real name for him or herself does so on the back of having entertained the majority of their readers. Rushdie is exuberantly verbose, he is a writer of infinite digressions and tangents, his stories are as rich as a black forest gateau and thick with ideas, but every step of the way in this long and complicated book, he kept me entertained.
The Enchantress of Florence is a novel in which East and West collide at the end of the 16th century. The catalyst for this is a ‘tall, yellow-haired young European traveller’, a man in a coat of many colours with an outrageous secret to tell to one man alone, the Grand Mughal, the Emperor Akbar ruling over his splendid and sumptuous court in Fatehpur Sikri. The claim he wishes to make is that he is the Emperor’s long-lost uncle. An unlikely-seeming tale, but how that relation of parentage came about is bound up in the long oral narrative he now embarks upon, revolving around a lost princess, Qara Koz, or ‘Lady Black Eyes’, a descendent of Genghis Khan and the Mughal’s great-aunt. Qara Koz is a woman with a taste for adventure and for conquering heroes; in an era of endless wars and invasions she has kept herself safe and cherished by ensnaring the greatest warriors, partly by her beauty, but partly also by her magic. She is one side of the ancestry the storyteller from Florence has to impart to the Emperor Akbar, whilst the other side concerns three young friends, Antonino Argalia, Niccolò ‘il Machia’ and Ago Vespucci, callous youths growing up in the Italy of the Medicis when the narrative begins, their disparate fates will all have an impact on both history at large and the personal history the European traveller has to recount.
There are distinct shades of the Hundred and One Arabian Nights here, which make a perfect context for Rushdie’s magic realism. In the era of this novel, superstition was as influential over people’s minds as religion, anything unexplained was experienced as numinous, and the distance from which the modern reader looks back inevitably imparts a joyous varnish of legend and myth. There are some exquisite concepts in this novel, for example, the living statue who appears in Italy, a slave girl from an Ottoman harem who has been turned into a ‘memory palace’. This is Rushdie’s sumptuous version of the singing telegram, a beautiful woman whose entire memory has been colonised by her master, and who recites, inhumanly, a vast and complicated story. Then, once it is finished and her own memory returns to her, the trauma she has endured is so overwhelming that she throws herself out of a window to her death. The person she tells the story to will, over the course of the narrative, reveal himself to be the author, Machiavelli, and in this way Rushdie links the fantastic with the historical, using each to enhance and magnify the impact of the other.
There is so much going on, so many interpolated stories bubbling up and sidetracking the narrative, that it’s hard to get a handle on Rushdie’s main aims. But I think this is primarily a novel about power in its different manifestations, the power of leadership, the power of love, the power of magic and the power of violence. Consuming all of them into its folds is the power of storytelling, the greatest power of them all in some ways as it transcends the boom and bust lifeline of all the other types. But it is also a novel about the spurious differences that drive history forward, and create a pageant of bloody, destructive events between enemies, between cultures, between historical superpowers for reasons that seem meaningless to subsequent generations: ‘This may be the curse of the human race,’ Rushdie’s storyteller declares to the Moghul. ‘Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.’ A fine message for our multi-cultural times and the various powers that threaten what fragile and fleeting harmony we achieve.
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and I certainly intend to read Rushdie again.