The Enchantress of Florence, despite being a bravura entertainment, amounts to not much more than itself
Sailors on a ship heading for India discover a stowaway dressed in a strange lozenge-decorated coat, and drag him before their captain, who is on a secret embassy for England’s Eliza, and who threatens the evident spy with death. But the foreigner is a handsome, storytelling charmer, the coat is a magician’s coat, and soon the motley-clad stranger’s entertainment becomes the captain’s necessity. Stories can be dangerous to their audience as well as their tellers: so beguiled is the captain that he does not see the drug introduced into his drink, which lowers him into a lingering coma. The stupor allows the murderous magician to search the cabin and find not only its obvious hidden treasures, but also the Queen’s letter of introduction to the great Mughal emperor, Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar (1542–1605). When the ship docks, and the Queen’s ambassador is no longer useful, the stowaway kills him and disappears with the letter, his passport to riches at the side of India’s greatest ruler.
The magician-murderer-charlatan bears many names in the course of The Enchantress of Florence, but his most important attribute is his power over words: “language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough”. For a while, the stranger, as Uccello, as Mogor dell’Amore, as Niccolò Vespucci, succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, by persuading Akbar that his dream of Mughal descent – from a woman, Qara Köz, also known as Angelica, who might have been Akbar’s aunt – could be true, or at least worth a thousand and one nights, or more. The romance – for the most important ambition of this book is to exploit that baggy genre – divides its attention between Akbar’s ambitions and anxieties for his India and Vespucci’s tales of his putative ancestress, whose reverse journey took her from India to the Florence of another Niccolò, Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli (1469–1527), the exiled author of The Prince.
Because this is a romance, Salman Rushdie can exploit many sources (indeed, he gives a bibliography at the end); because this is a Rushdie romance, it combines aspects of the Italian romantic epics of both Boiardo’s and Ariosto’s Orlando with Persian and South Asian story collections and legendary history. Because good storytelling also knows what not to tell, Rushdie leaves many loose ends, from the unresolved questions of the stranger’s name and parentage and his fate, to Florentine and Mughal history, to the similarly unresolved endings of many of the dozens of characters he conjures up along the way. In the rush, many stories are sketched rather than told; no character is more than a suggestion, and no speech is individual to its speaker. Some of this is possible because we know these stories already, but all of it is at the cost of any exploration of individual or situation. They are, or seek to be, their own justification – but the price is high. Rushdie’s narrator is explicit about this: most audiences can leave, or close a book; when the king is the audience, the risks are higher. Long and boring narrators will be cut.
Salman Rushdie has used his gifts to explore large themes – such as mortality, nationality, religion and love – and his bitter disappointment in their failed promises. This ninth long fiction is a pendant to the previous one, Shalimar the Clown, published in 2005. And that book reprised aspects of Fury, published in 2001. All three books use breathtakingly paced sets of plots, interlinked with back stories, delightedly offending the boundaries of verisimilitude. All repeat elements which combine stereotypes with the writer’s own obsessions: Kashmir, revenge, the longing for peaceful religious and ethnic coexistence, and a savage anger about the perpetual dying of love. Rushdie has never been afraid to use popular media such as film or thriller plots, or traditional story collections, which he pillages in order to fascinate readers with his complex inventiveness and pyrotechnic style. The introduction of Sun Tzu’s Art of War in Shalimar the Clown is more explicit here, emphasized by the contrasts between Italian oligarchy and Mughal monarchy. In Shalimar the Clown, Akbar appeared as the murderer of Anarkali, the dancing girl who enchanted his son, Prince Salim; Salim, better known as the Emperor Jehangir, built the Taj Mahal to memorialize another real, dead, love. In The Enchantress of Florence he is an opium-soaked, conspiring degenerate, a faute-de- mieux crown prince, pushed to rebel by another lover, who in turn recalls Lady Macbeth. Even the pale-eyed, long-coated stranger reappears from an earlier avatar.
Evidently, the author’s designs have designs on his readers, and his fictions are intended as entertainments to think with. As Shalimar was far from a clown, so the enchanters and enchantresses here are nothing like magicians; but all ring changes on the combination of Eros and Ares, and resound with an angry ground bass which hints at the danger of telling tales. Stories often speak through unsuspecting characters; stories tell more than the character or their author altogether know; and some of what these characters and tales tell gives cause for hesitation, rather than celebration.
In the course of Scheherazade’s thousand and one nights, during which she bore her royal husband three sons, her stories offered him an ethical education. His graduation from her academy acknowledged his abuse of power, renounced his vengeful slaughter, and they lived, so the story goes, happily ever after. Reversing Scheherazade’s role, Rushdie has wrestled with his own demons; his stories have also been satirical diatribes about God, country, death and desire. Like Scheherazade’s legendary absolutist king, Rushdie takes repeated revenge on brides who cannot hold their erotic charge. The Enchantress of Florence may be named for one imaginary princess, but she is paralleled by a second, the Rajput Princess Jodha-bai, here purely an invention of Akbar, perfect in her non-existence. An imaginary Jodha is Akbar’s houri on earth, as he meditates the possibility of an earthly heaven in which men are tolerant and forbearing, and the only safe woman is a fantasy woman.
Women have always been favourite characters in satire: shallow, silly, scheming, oversexed, undersexed, irresistible, impossible, expensive and dangerous. Rushdie’s satires have found them a magnet; no author of serious fiction chops and changes them with more alacrity. Even in Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990), set in what we used to call the Latency Period, the only way of beating the boy was for the girl to be better at being a boy than the boy was. In The Enchantress of Florence there are familiar patterns: the wise women are post-menopausal (and therefore out of erotic action); the young women are dangerously beautiful, and cast the spell of desire. In Florence, good wives such as Marietta Corsini Machiavelli value home, family and loyalty, while their husbands stray after youth and beauty. Loyalty to her husband requires her to shelter his childhood friend, once Antonino Argalia, now the foreign condotierre, Argalia the Turk. If she, too, falls under Angelica/Qara Köz’s most benign sorcery, she recognizes that it is – as the narrator repeats – a short journey from enchantress to witch.
Although the wise women of Fatehpur Sikri anticipate a world in which women will have many options, most of the book recounts their scheming and egotism; and their use of male desire to get what they want, which seems to be influence since they cannot have power. Listening to preposterous predictions of proto-liberation, another of the elder ladies of the Zenana reacts, in the narrator’s words:
It was a scandal, obviously, but the emperor loved it, any novelty was a delight to him, it was as if he had never stopped being a child and so fell in love with any shiny new notion as if it was a silver rattle in a nursery and not the serious stuff of a proper adult life.
The heaped prose is a shiny rattle, too, and it rattles on, denying that the narrator underwrites anything that his characters say. This patronizing judgement on the emperor comes from his mother, but the way the characters repeat what they say and do from book to book, amounts to an assault, which goes beyond the fictional women who are its target. In Rushdie’s novels, women have a brief power inspired by men’s desire, but they stand on the edge of a precipice, and he regularly sees them off it. His sentimentality, here, manifests itself in the climax of a Liebestod, in which the condottiere Nino Argalia knows that Angelica will be his death, and the two lovers communicate their passion in a song almost without words.
Rushdie has always hidden behind his narrators, giving them the not entirely contradictory views he repeats from story to story, book to book. Here, his Akbar reflects on the possibility of a world of peace and tolerance, brought about by respect for story-tellers, the enchanter as poet aiding the emperor as legislator. Akbar comprehends the world’s romances and their characters, including not only his own imaginary consort, but his putative aunt, the enchantress of Florence, as well, in a vision which somehow equates women, storytelling, desire and love. The book ends with him turning towards an imaginary homeland mapped by a more famous Vespucci, in a new world in the west, into which the enchantress simply vanishes; it ends with the disappearance of the murderous stranger, himself perhaps deceived; it ends, above all, with Akbar’s sense that he cannot defeat the quarrel over God, and, above all, with the emperor’s insistence on love’s fragility. The Enchantress of Florence is a bravura entertainment, but one which is finally disappointing. In its attempt to encompass everything, it develops very little. Clichés are what they are because we come back to them without end, and it is – perhaps – brave and beautiful to immolate one’s legendary lovers. But it amounts to not much more than itself, to evocations of feelings one can conjure up again in time for the next night’s performance.
THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE
357pp. Cape. £16.99.
978 0 224 06163 6