Perhaps no one blends history and imagination into captivating fiction better than Salman Rushdie. In his past works he has set stories in relatively recent settings such as the partition of India and political turmoil in Pakistan, and he has often attempted to illustrate the underlying ties between eastern and western cultures. In The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie goes back further in history, to the turn of the 16th century, to present a tale that binds those two worlds into a single narrative and reveals just how connected those civilizations were—perhaps something of a surprise for many in the 21st century.
Historical characters abound. From Asia, we have the emperor Akbar the Great of India, Shah Ismail of Persia, and connections to the line emanating from Genghis Kahn. Italy provides the story with Niccolo Machiavelli, Ago Vespucci (cousin of the more famous Amerigo), and allusions to everyone from Boticelli to Savonarola to Vlad the Impaler. He creates a life for each of these people, and many others, within a fantastical framework of events and intrigues, yet the novel has a overriding sense of realism that urges one to think, yes, it could have all happened that way.
Such is Rushdie. He is well known to have an encyclopedic knowledge of history (in fact, there is a five-page bibliography following the story that reports only part of his research for the book). With all he has learned, Rushdie then connects the dots of history, turning what may seem to be unrelated occurrences thousands of miles apart into a single universe in which forces and outcomes are thoroughly interrelated. This allows him to represent the past with such clarity that even the most mystical events seem perfectly logical. Without Rushdie’s knowledge, however, it is impossible to know what’s really real and what isn’t. In an interview with National Public Radio, Rushdie admitted that much of what readers might assume is fabricated magic realism is actual history, and some of what might seem real he imagined.
Ultimately, whatever parts of The Enchantress of Florence are historical or not, it’s the writing that makes this book sing. Rushdie’s prose is still inventive, challenging, inspiring, and often humorous. An early passage describes emperor Akbar, whose name seems to be a redundancy. “The emperor Abdul-Fath Jaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning ‘the great,’ and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory . . .”
The story itself is, at times, also challenging. It alternates between the cities of Sikri and Florence, with stops throughout the vastness separating them, as well as the New World, and investigates the lives of royals, nobles, advisers, servants and prostitutes, some of whom lived, some who were merely imagined by those who lived, and, in the case of the enchantress herself, who managed to do both. Rushdie keeps every aspect in its proper place and masterfully weaves the many storylines, tying them together with the thin and silky thread of the princess Qara Köz, whose matchless beauty enthralls the men and women of every culture she visits, but subordinating it all to considerations of the roles of individuals and religions, represented through Akbar’s deep struggles with his own life and values. The novel culminates in an ending that is nearly irresistible—defying readers to stop during the last fifty pages or so.
For those who crave a commanding, challenging text that transports the reader to not only other places and times, but also to alternate philosophies, The Enchantress of Florence is an awesome and delightful excursion. Rushdie, readers will be happy to discover, is still at his best.