A mysterious young Italian styling himself “Mogor dell’ Amore” shows up at the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great, claiming to be Akbar’s uncle. But Akbar, a descendant of Genghis Khan, has never heard of this man’s mother, who the foreigner claims is Akbar’s grandfather’s sister and a beautiful and powerful sorceress.
Could this fascinating and charming young man really be related to the Emperor? Akbar invites him to tell his tale, so Nicola Vespucci settles in to life in the Mughal court where he spends months slowly revealing the history of his mother Angelica (inspired by Orlando Innamorato). Angelica’s adventure is interwoven with the life stories of three Florentine friends — Niccolò Machiavelli, Argo Vespucci, and Nino Argalia (another reference to Orlando Innamorato) — and the current happenings in Akbar’s court. Throughout the tale, Salman Rushdie uses several themes (e.g., a mirror, traveling, the power of women) to tie things together.
It would be best to describe The Enchantress of Florence as a historical fantasy set during the time of the Italian Renaissance and the Mughal rule in India. I won’t mention many of the real people and events that appear in Rushdie’s history so that you can have the fun of discovering them for yourself, but we meet a diverse cast of characters who seem unlikely to belong in the same story (e.g., Elizabeth I and Vlad Dracula).
My favorite parts, of course, were the fantastical elements. For example, some of the tale is told from the perspective of Akbar’s favorite wife, Jodha, who is only a figment of his imagination. Jodha resents the real queens who hate her and refuse to acknowledge her when Akbar is off to war. When he’s gone, the imaginary Jodha is lonely and spends her time wondering if she has free will.
I also enjoyed the philosophizing. In Florence we learn the events which led Machiavelli to write The Prince. In India we encounter the real Akbar’s liberal political and religious views and some entertaining musings thrown in by Rushdie. For example, Akbar solemnly considers the purpose of the royal “We” and wonders about the potential effects of referring to himself in the first person. When he hypothesizes that it will melt his imaginary wife’s heart, he decides to do an experiment. When she doesn’t even notice (because she’s wrapped up in her own imaginary self-doubt) he decides to remain plural.
I find this kind of stuff pretty entertaining, so there were many laugh-out-loud moments. Among those were some shocking occasions that reminded me of the infrequent times when one of my kids says something so obscene that I should be horrified but, at the same time, it’s so cleverly funny that I burst out laughing. There were lots of these typically Rushdiean moments in The Enchantress of Florence.
And, as usual, Rushdie’s artistry is evident and enjoyable:
“…witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”
“He would die without telling his story. He found this thought intolerable and so it refused to leave him, it crawled in and out of his ears, slid into the corner of his eyes and stuck to the roof of his mouth and to the soft tissue under his tongue. All men needed to hear their stories told.”
“The absolute ruler of the city is a Medici. The Pope is a Medici. People round here say that God is a Medici and as for the Devil, he’s definitely one, beyond any doubt.”
I listened to this on audio, which took some getting used to because there was no discernible indication of when a scene suddenly shifted from past Florence to present India (in the book there is a font change). Also, the narrator’s choppy style was not well-suited to Rushdie’s famous run-ons:
“And in Kandahar he was taught about survival, about fighting and killing and hunting, and he learned much else without being taught, such as looking out for himself and watching his tongue and not saying the wrong thing, the thing that might get him killed. About the dignity of the lost, about losing, and how it cleansed the soul to accept defeat, and about letting go, avoiding the trap of holding on too tightly to what you wanted, and about abandonment in general, and in particular fatherlessness, the lessness of fathers, the lessness of the fatherless, and the best defenses of those who are less against those who are more: inwardness, forethought, cunning, humility, and good peripheral vision.”
The narrator almost made me give up in the first couple of chapters, but I stuck with it and it smoothed out enough that I mostly enjoyed the story. Or perhaps I should say that I enjoyed the story telling. As for the plot itself, it was loose and unfocused and often gave the impression that its goal was to encompass multiple obscure historical events and personages — and to incorporate them into Rushdie’s themes — rather than to tell a tightly crafted tale.
But I liked Rushdie’s style, so I pressed on. And then the end came… and I absolutely hated the ending. It was rushed, bizarre, and unsatisfying — like the story got away and required more than Herculean efforts to bring it back in line, so Rushdie just slit its throat and let it die quickly, gurgling and wheezing as it went.
Overall I suppose I enjoyed 80% of Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence so, to misrepresent the philosophy of one our main characters, I’ll say that perhaps the means justifies the end. This novel contains much insight, humor, and artistry, and this alone — not the plot or its conclusion — made the journey worthwhile.