The Enchantress of Florence

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.

21 thoughts on “The Enchantress of Florence

  1. I agree that the novel is hard to get a handle on, and I agree with the comments about power, but in the final analysis, I found this book to be a bag of hot air. Though there are a variety of characters, situations, ideas in the book, I couldn’t find one cohesive, coherent theme or purpose. The sentences were beautiful – and I remember scenes vividly – but what did it all mean? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but it didn’t seem to add up to much. I haven’t read any other Rushdie, but plan to read Midnight’s Children. I’ve heard that one is fantastic.

  2. I have this too but didn’t get to it yet. I have read huge portions of 1001 nights, I have the whole collection which is quite substantial and the diversity always struck me. I’m sure he borrows from this tradition and some others. I always had a feeling that Rushdie explores different story telling traditions, more than different writing traditions which is fascinating and also a reason why I liked African literature. African books are often close to the oral tradition which is the source of all writing after all.
    I think I’m rather the opposite in my reading I started with reading basically all around the world and only recently I started reading more English and American novels. Also because a lot of what I read before and still have on the piles has not been translated into English.
    I quite like Vargas Llosa.

  3. Oh, this sounds wonderful! I am so glad you are no longer put off by Rushdie. I highly recommend Haroun and the Sea of Stories sometime. It is a most delightful and marvelous book. And I will add this one to my list🙂

  4. You make the “Enchantress of Florence” sound wonderful. I would like to someday read more Rushdie. I have read “Midnight’s Children” which I did ultimately enjoy. But I had to read it with a Reader’s Guide; otherwise, I don’t think I would have got as much out of it.

    What Mario Vargas Llosa are you going to read? I have only read “The Feast of the Goat”, which was a bit difficult to read at times, due to the brutality depicted. It was, however, a straightforward narrative; no magic realism. I coincidentally read “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” soon after, which made an interesting contrast in both style and in the depictions of Dominican Republican politics and history.

    I started “Seeing” by José Saramago maybe a year ago, but stopped after around 20 pages. It reminded me of Kafka’s “The Trial” or Camus’s “The Stranger”, books I had to read in high school/college and didn’t really appreciate at the time and am not sure I would appreciate now either. In both books, it seems to me, the story was there only to support the philosophy. Maybe I am a philistine, but I just like stories.
    .

  5. Lilian – I would love to know what you think of him!

    Sarah – oh I’m sorry it didn’t work for you. I felt quite content to follow the line of the narrative on its digressive way. I’m not always happy to do this, but on this occasion it was continually entertaining enough for me. I felt that the journey through the stories was the point in itself, but no novel works for everyone.

    Caroline – well I spent most of my best reading years on French and German novels, mixed up with contemporary British ones. It’s thanks to blogging that I’ve now become really fond of American literature and keen to branch out over the world. I think you’re right about Rushdie and the storytelling traditions – at least, that explanation works well for this novel. I’d love to know what you think of it, if you do get to read it.

    Stefanie – I was in fact partly inspired by your reading of Haroun to pick this up, and once I’d finished it, Haroun was the first book I ordered from amazon. I’m really looking forward to it!

    Ruthiella – well, I quite understand. I felt before I picked it up that The Enchantress of Florence was a lighter side of Rushdie, and I don’t know whether it is or not, but it was fine to read, not really difficult. I am going to read Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Vargos Llosa, again because it looks like an easy option, with laughs, and for Saramago, I’m going to read The Double, which is a sort of thriller. So you see, I always like to begin with the book that looks as if it might be the most accessible. I don’t think that’s philistine, just a reasonable practice!😉

  6. I was wary of Rushdie too, but your review has made me really want to read him. I have Haroun and the Sea of Stories unread on my shelves, but The Enchantress of Florence sounds great as well.

  7. The Enchantress of Florence was also my first Rushdie book and I had similar expectations, although I seem not to have enjoyed it as much as you did. It was a mixed success for me, entertaining certainly, but too convoluted for me.

  8. I had the same impression of Rushdie, so reading him for the first time (in my case, Shalimar the Clown) was a pleasant surprise. I liked this one too, but I wasn’t crazy about Midnight’s Children (it was too all over the place for me). I do want to read more of his books … someday.

    And I’m so pleased that you’re giving Saramago a try. With only three of his books under my belt, I’m already a huge fan of his. The Double was the book I started with, and it was certainly a good choice for me.

  9. I had exactly the same idea about Rushdie before I read Midnight’s Children. I was sure he was going to be dreary as hell, but he’s so much in love with wordplay, I can’t not love him. Can I recommend The Ground Beneath Her Feet? It’s my favorite of the Rushdie books (Enchantress of Florence is my second favorite), as it’s the closest thing to tightly plotted as any Rushdie book. Lots of nice lines and allusions in The Ground Beneath Her Feet.

  10. I very highly recommend The Moor’s Last Sigh, which is my favorite Rushdie to date (although I haven’t yet read this one). Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children are both more famous, and neither, I don’t think, is as good. Your mileage may vary, of course. 🙂 He’s a great storyteller. One of the only writers who can do magical realism in a way I can appreciate.

  11. I have the exact feelings towards Rushdie and other writers that you had, but I think I overcame my fear for Rushdie after your review. The story seems good and lately I’ve been into stories written by writers from Asia.

  12. I’m glad you enjoyed Rushdie. Midnight’s children is one of my favourite novels. You should definitely read that: it’s a remarkable portrait of India and the narrator is one of the best tragi-comic characters ever created. You should also perhaps try some of his short stories, which don’t rely as much on magic realism as his novels, but is sharp, satiric voice remains unchanged.

  13. Okay, so I just commented on Ms. Musing’s blog that I will never read Rushdie. Then, I came over here, read this, and am realizing it’s so true: “Never say never.” Only YOU, Litlove, could make me think I maybe I should read some Rushdie afterall.

  14. I’ve enjoyed the Rushdie I’ve read (Midnight’s Children and Haroun and the Sea of Stories), but I think I prefer books without quite so much going on. I guess I get a little overwhelmed. And it’s hard not to think that Midnight’s Children is his best and most famous book, so do I really need to read the others? But you do do make a good case for reading him here, and perhaps I’ll be in the mood to read him again one day.

  15. Karen – I’ve heard that Haroun is Rushdie’s best novel, or at least the one that appears to be best-loved. My copy of it arrived yesterday and I’m looking forward to it very much!

    Jen – I have heard many good things about that novel and I very much hope to read it.

    Miriam – yes, I can see why if you weren’t in the mood for convoluted, it wouldn’t be a success! Still, at least you tried it – I don’t think the book’s been written that pleases everyone (well, apart from Winnie the Pooh, perhaps).

    Teresa – oh I am so pleased to hear that you read The Double and enjoyed it – that’s very encouraging. I am hoping to get to that very soon. And glad, too, that you have got on well with Rushdie. It’s always interesting how different books work (and don’t work) for other people. One day someone will figure out how much expectations influence our reading, and that would be research I’d be fascinated to read.

    jenny – you most certainly can recommend The Ground Beneath Her Feet. I had been trolling through the Rushdie catalogue on amazon and thought this one sounded very intriguing. I will move it onto my wish list now!

    emily – ‘your mileage may vary’ – lol! Love that. Definitely interested in The Moor’s Last Sigh now. In fact, I think the Amnesty bookshop has a copy of that in stock at the moment. Hmmm. I like magical realism a lot, and found Rushdie’s version of it very satisfying.

    carolinareads – isn’t it funny how places in the world can really soak up a reader’s attention. I’ve been through a huge love affair with American literature, having read hardly any up until the age of 36 or so. I think I may just be moving onto the third world now, too.

    p2c2u – I am appreciating all these different suggestions for Rushdie. Wasn’t Midnight’s Children the book that won the best of the Booker recently? That must be a huge endorsement.

    Bookboxed – it was your review of it that set me off! I’m so glad to have read him now.

    Emily – your comment made me laugh out loud! I love the idea of power but don’t like the reality – honestly, stick with what you know you will love. Life is short and there are many books out there.🙂

    Dorothy – as I just said to Emily, I’m all for satisfying one’s most obvious desires in reading. There are so many books! Given you’ve read two of his, I think you may justifiably call yourself done with Rushdie and move onto what ever else takes your fancy.🙂

  16. I’ve avoided Rushdie for all of the same reasons that you have. It sounds like he is just a wonderful storyteller and that I shouldn’t be put off by all of the “drama” swirling around him. I’ve heard that the book that provoked the fatwa against him is not even nearly his best.

  17. This post made me so happy Litlove! I’ve loved Rushdie since I was 17 (freshman year of college), and I saw lots of negative posts on Enchantress when it was first published, but I really enjoyed it anyway. So I was a bit nervous you’d pan him and am delighted you want to read more! (That being said, I just read Luka and the Fire of Life and was sadly disappointed…I’m going to read The Ground Beneath Her Feet next I think. After that, I’ll only have Fury and Grimus left!)

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