The Moor's Next-to-Last Sigh
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie / Jennifer McKeown
Book Reviews | July 9, 2008 | Comments ()
I have to admit: I wasn’t excited to read Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which has received some pretty horrible reviews. One critic has called it “the worst thing he has ever written” and USA Today argued that “the best thing about Salman Rushdie’s tiresome and confusing new novel The Enchantress of Florence is its lovely gold and orange cover.” (For what it’s worth, I thought the cover was unimpressive.)
I therefore vowed to get through this one as quickly as possible, speed-reading my way through the first 200 pages in a few hours. Perhaps it was due to the speed of my read that I found Enchantress…OK. I didn’t want to call everyone I knew and exhort them to read this amazing new book, but I certainly wasn’t about to knock the tale in favor of the cover. And, unlike The Satanic Verses, which I remember toiling through, I found The Enchantress of Florence to be a pretty light and easy read.
Enchantress, set in the sixteenth century, begins as a European traveler arrives at the court of Akbar, emperor of the Mughal Empire. This traveler, who calls himself “Mogor dell’Amore” (his real name is revealed later in the novel), has a secret which can be told to only one person: Akbar himself.
For his part, Akbar is an enigmatic character. A modern ruler, Akbar doubts the existence of God, is interested in the clash of ideas, and refuses to eat meat; in short, he is “a contradiction in terms.” He is open to hearing the tale that Mogor dell’Amore tells, a tale that will blend the world of Akbar with the world of the Italian Renaissance.
The Enchantress of Florence is divided into three parts: the first third concerns Mogor dell’Amore and his travels to reach Akbar; the second relates the story of three friends in Florence, Italy; and the third tells the tale of Qara Koz, a forgotten Mughal princess whose beauty enchants all who see her.
As the story progresses, the fictive meets the factual, and real-life personages such as Amerigo Vespucci, Niccolo Machiavelli, and Botticelli appear beside their literary counterparts. Vlad the Impaler even makes a cameo. This technique is at the heart of Rushdie’s novel: that the real can become art, that art can become real.
The Enchantress of Florence becomes a glorification of the storyteller, of the creative act. Several characters merge art with the real. Akbar has imagined his favorite wife, Jodha, into being, and is so captured by this imaginary wife that his other wives resent her. An artist disappears into his painting, to forever join the beauty for which he pines. Even Mogor dell’Amore, a “teller of tales” who can “dream in seven languages,” finds that “as soon as he fell asleep half the world started babbling in his brain.” Rushdie proves that “the creation of a real life from a dream [is] a superhuman act,” and I couldn’t ignore a sneaking suspicion that the author was secretly applauding his own talents during these scenes.
Just as the act of creation is lauded, so too is the act of enchanting. The Enchantress of Florence glorifies the power of women, but the only power women have lies in their ability to enchant, a limited power at best. Men and even women are enchanted by Qara Koz, whose beauty secures her survival. Skeleton, an extremely skinny whore, is so versed in “the unguents necessary for the heightening of sexual desire and the prolongation of sexual congress” that she is able to secure Mogor dell’Amore’s entry into the city. Men die for the beauty of Simonetta Vespucci. As powerful as their beauty makes them, however, all women are powerless before men, who wield the ultimate power. Jodha only lives while Akbar imagines her. Skeleton will forever be a whore. Angelique, a beautiful girl sold into slavery, is reduced to little more than a repository for the memories of a man.
These characters and their various situations are the backdrop against which Rushdie formulates his ideas regarding beauty, power, art, and even the nature of humanity. At times, the novel seems little more than a mish-mash of these ideas, but the intensity of Rushdie’s prose saves the novel from becoming too philosophic. Rushdie powerfully brings both India and Italy to life, and the sumptuousness of his prose is the best aspect of the work. The city of Florence becomes “a pair of women’s lips puckering for a kiss” and the lake next to Akbar’s city appears like “a sea of molten gold.”
Prose aside, The Enchantress of Florence is far from perfect: the insinuation that women have only enchantment at their disposal is a little annoying. Furthermore, the end was under-whelming and did not provide the impact that one was led to expect. I refuse to agree that the best thing about The Enchantress of Florence is its cover, but I don’t feel moved to read more Rushdie any time soon.
Jennifer McKeown reads way too much and blogs about her experiences over at Bibliolatry.