The Enchantress of Florence concludes with a six page non-fiction bibliography, a roll call of books and websites about 15th century Florence and Mughal India consulted during its writing. What, I ask myself, is such a bibliography trying or hoping to achieve? How are we supposed to 'read' it? Do we take Salman Rushdie at his word and believe that he is simply covering his back against objections of plagiarism? Or is there more to it than that? Is it, for example, an act of braggery? - Look at everything I have read and how clever I have been in fictionalising it! Or a series of signposts? - If you want answers to any riddles, look here, here and here. Is it asking for our respect, or our patience? Or is it there to say: Don't think this has just been a story. It is an act of synthesis, a display of juggling history or fact and fiction. I think, probably, it is a little bit of all of these things and, as such, stands as the perfect end to a book that riddles, brags and juggles from the offset.
We begin with an elaborate, fairytale illusion: a traveller, approaching a great Eastern city at sunset, is confronted by a lake of molten gold. The sight trips the omnipotent (and frequently smug) narrator into a whimsical paragraph that typifies the book to follow:
And as big as the lake of gold was, it must be only a drop drawn from the sea of a larger fortune - the traveller's imagination could not begin to grasp the size of that mother-ocean! Nor were there guards at the golden water's edge; was the King so generous, then,that he allowed all his subjects, and perhaps even strangers and visitors like the traveller himself, without hindrance to draw up liquid bounty from the lake? That would indeed be a prince amongst men, a veritable Prester John, whose lost kingdom of song and fable contained impossible wonders. Perhaps (the traveller surmised) the fountain of eternal youth lay within the city walls - perhaps even some legendary doorway to Paradise on Earth was somewhere close at hand?
If such portentous and baroque phrasings are not for you, read no further - The Enchantress of Florence will surely disappoint. If you like the sound of it and, I must admit, I'm not adverse, then... The traveller, we soon learn, is a young Florentine by the name Niccolo Vespucci, and a man on a mission. He has carried a secret across land and sea, through frankly bizarre peril (if you've read the book: e.g., Lord Hauksbank?), to the court of the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great at Sikri. His aim? To claim his place at Akbar's side as a descendant of Babur and, through him, of Genghis Khan.
Having first gained the emperor's trust - by an act of supernatural persuasion involving an elephant - and inveigling his way into the inner circle, Niccolo embarks on the story of his unusual heritage. At which juncture we, the reader, realises that Akbar the Great, the city of Sikri and Niccolo Vespucci aren't the real point of the novel in hand. On page 133 of a 300 page book Rushdie pulls the carpet out from under us: a new cast of characters is introduced, a fresh story turned out. What follows has the flavour and timbre of what has gone before but, somehow, disappoints. Because, despite the confection that Niccolo spins - about his mother, Qara Koz, erstwhile daughter of Babur and the so-called Enchantress of Florence, and her lover, Argalia the Turk, a janissary of Florentine origin - it comes too late to match the lure of its frame narrative.
The frame narrative enchants by reason of its simplicity: A traveller comes to a city; an emperor must decide whether he is a liar, a madman or his relative. The novel creates a sumptuous vision out of these simple threads. The shimmering otherness of the Mughal Empire, combined with the aura of power that surrounds the characters of Akbar and Niccolo, makes for a heady ambiance. Speaking with the voice of a conjurer, and engaging the tropes of legend that surround the period, Rushdie produces an exhilarating prose, full of pomp and majesty, tempered by the occasional eccentricity. I found myself enjoying immensely:
And here again with bright silks flying like banners from red palace windows was Sikri, shimmering in the heat like an opium vision. Here at last with its strutting peacocks and dancing girls was home. If the war-torn world was a harsh truth then Sikri was a beautiful lie. The emperor came home like a smoker returning to his pipe. He was the Enchanter. In this place he would conjure a new world, a world beyond religion, region, rank and tribe. The most beautiful women in the world were here and they were his wives.
He convincingly teases out Akbar's conflicted personality, so that he is at once a monstrous authoritarian, chopping off the heads of his enemies, and a human man caught between his desire to be loved for himself and his expectation of unquestioning worship. If, at times, he does it rather too bluntly then he has the excuse of an omnipotent narrator:
...the emperor was possessed by his familiar demon of loneliness. Whenever a man spoke to him as an equal it drove him crazy, and this was his fault, he understood that, a king's anger was always his fault, an angry king was like a god who made mistakes. And here was another contradiction in him. He was not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but also an egotist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy who nevertheless longed for a different world, a world in which he could find exactly that man who was his equal, whom he could meet as his brother...
Having invested in an initial setting and story, the sudden switchback to the Florence of Niccolo's parents is jarring. It takes a while for the charm of the narrative to smooth over the rift, and it never seems to completely heal. It is not that Rushdie's Florence is less vivid than his Sikri - the novel has descriptive verve by the bucketful - or that his new characters are uncompelling. For example, Nino Argalia and his boyhood friends Ago Vespucci and Niccolo il Machia (that would be Machiavelli to me and you) have wit, and their dirty Florentine patois is amusing. I could have definitely read more of them. The problem (and other bloggers seem to concur) is that there is too much of everything - too much action, too much detail, too much love and hate and betrayal - packed too late into the frame narrative.
However, before I give the impression that The Enchantress of Florence would have struck a winning formula had it been either simpler or longer, I should enumerate my other problems with it. First, the detail. It strikes me that Rushdie has made the mistake that all historical novelists make at some point in their careers - he has been determined to regurgitate all the tidbits of information he has learnt from his research, whether they are necessary or not, and shoehorn them into his narrative. Reviewers in the sf community call these ungainly passages 'info-dumps', and I'm afraid that Salman Rushdie can be an info-dumper extroadinaire. (This may explain both the long bibliography and the fear of plagiarism.) He can also be a complete bore of a moralist. After the furore of The Satanic Verses it will come as no surprise that he is critical of religion or that he is cynical about the possibility of peace between faith communities. What is surprising is the clumsy way that he expresses these beliefs in the novel. The conceit of the omniscient narrator gives him free rein to bash them out all too plainly and crudely (philosophically speaking at least; the writing is as vivacious as ever):
Maybe there was no true religion. Yes, he allowed himself to think this. He wanted to be able to tell someone of his suspicion that men had made their gods and not the other way around. He wanted to be able to say, it is man at the centre of things, not God. It is man at the heart and the bottom and the top, man at the front and the back and the side, man the angel and the devil, the miracle and the sin, man and always man, and let us henceforth have no other temples but those dedicated to mankind. This was his most unspeakable ambition: to found the religion of man.
The thinker of this thought is Akbar, a Muslim and, by all the accounts I read on-line, a rather devout one. It seems almost perverse of Rushdie to use him as a mouthpiece for humanism in this way (one wonders if it might be an attempt to court controversy?); certainly it is disingenuous.
Finally there is the question of the portrayal of women, not least the Enchantress of the title whom I have barely mentioned. I have innumerable objections but the first and foremost, and the base of all the others, is that there are no female characters in The Enchantress of Florence. Which is to say this: there are wives and daughters, witches and saints and whores in the novel. Some of them even have names. But there are no women who are also characters. They are nothing but stereotypes and fantasies. You may argue that Rushdie has written a book about stereotype and fantasy and that is why his women are such flimsy waifs, but that doesn't hold true when you make comparisons with the male characters, who show their potential for multi-faceted humanity. Why is it then that the women can only dance to one tune - if they are not a reflection or a manifestation of male desire, then they are perversion of it.
Qara Koz is the sister of one of the most powerful men in the world and has been the lover of Kings and legendary warriors. The book presents her as a creature of extraordinary powers, a woman who can enchant whole cities. All well and good. The blurb tells us the novel is ' the story of a woman attempting to command her own destiny in a man's world', which is cliched but I don't mind. What I do mind is that Qara Koz, also known as Lady Black Eyes and Angelica, is nothing but the sum of her physicality. She is powerful because she is beautiful; she commands men because she is the mirror of their desires; she inspires a cult of worshippers not because of who she is or what she does but because of what she looks like. Her beauty subsumes her and so the enchantress is nothing but a shell. She even loses her power as she ages and fades. By the end of the novel she has become nothing more than the conjured ghost of Akbar's lust. And, to top it all off, she is fickle as well. Now, I know that Rushdie's novel has a theme of mirroring - Sikri reflects Florence, and so on - and I recognise that women have always brokered their sexuality for power, but if an emperor can be more than a tyrant and a warrior can be more than a killer, why can a woman not be more than an enchantress? Why must women always be the conjured?
It is this last difficulty, the problem of the women, that I couldn't surmount while reading - it struck me immediately - and, subsequently, the book's other faults have popped up like mushrooms. So, although The Enchantress of Florence is a highly readable book, and enjoyable too, I can't wholeheartedly recommend it.