Niccolo Vespucci, aka Mogor dell’Amore and sundry other aliases, arrives at the court of the Akbar the Great, ‘the Great Great One’, descendant of Genghis Khan and Tamerlane and emperor of the Mughal empire that encompasses vast swathes of 15th century India. Vespucci, a Florentine, has a story to tell that only the emperor can hear, as it concerns the fate of his relative, the Princess Angelica of legendary beauty, and the adventures that befell her when she abandoned the subcontinent for the western world of the Near East and Europe, all for the love of the indomitable warrior Argalia. And so begins a series of inter-linked narratives that trace the histories of the Mughal court, the political and religious intrigues of the Italian – and particularly the Florentine – renaissance, and all historical, geographical and quasi-mythical points in between.
Rushdie includes a six-page bibliography, citing a host of historical references he consulted in creating his story, but this novel is the antithesis of the conventional historical tome. It is, first and foremost, an exercise in imagination, an artful and irrepressibly playful cornucopia of tales, myths, digressions and narrative non sequiturs. The sheer delight Rushdie takes in spinning yarns provides the subtext to every page:
“In this half-discovered world every day brought news of fresh enchantments. The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered, prosy fact. Himself a teller of tales, he had been driven out of his door by stories of wonder, and by one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life.”Rushdie has always been fascinated by the notion of migration and cross-cultural pollination, and here he blends the tales of the Arabian Nights (a sultan’s palace has 1,001 gardeners), Marco Polo’s travels, the fabulous constructions of Italo Calvino’s INVISIBLE CITIES and Machiavelli’s THE PRINCE (Machiavelli being one of the historical figures who makes a fleeting appearance). Even the peripheries of the story teem with vibrant, larger-than-life characters straight from myth: Venetian buccaneer-princes; perfidious Turks; Jodha, the imaginary queen dreamed into life by the Emperor Akbar; a quartet of warriors akin to the Three Musketeers; artists who paint themselves into their canvases and disappear. The prose, as befits a post-modern fairytale, is simple and direct: “His hair was long and black as evil and his lips were full and red as blood …” […] “When life got too complicated for the men of the Mughal court they turned to the old women for answers.”
It’s a sumptuous read, fabulous in both senses of the word, with Rushdie tossing off mini-biographies that most other writers would be happy to write an entire novel around. Embracing mythology and history, legend and fact, fictional characters and historical figures, magic, illusion and self-delusion, the novel fully deserves the accolade of tapestry, so finely woven and dazzling are its constituent parts. The prose, of course, is beautifully detailed, but Rushdie leavens the erudition with coarse dialogue that is at times hilariously profane and blasphemous.
“Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough,” declares Niccolo Vespucci early in the tale, and while that is certainly true of poetry, it is not enough to fully satisfy in a novel. THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE is a page-turner, a deliciously light and flowing read, but it lacks the profundity of MIDNIGHT’S CHILDREN (the ‘Booker’s Booker) or SHALIMAR THE CLOWN, instead substituting playful craft for heft and depth. Perhaps the issue is preconceived notions, or that Rushdie’s every novel arrives with increasingly weighty expectations. Either way, by the time the final page turns, there is a faint sense of disappointment, of dissipation and evaporation, although that might simply be an echo of the feeling that comes with awakening from a dream into the reality of day.
Nonetheless, Salman Rushdie has long ago earned the privilege of writing the novel he wishes to write. The deceptively simple art of storytelling may have fallen out of favour among self-consciously literary writers, but Rushdie is determined that we should not forget its pure joys entirely. As the Great Great One, Akbar the Great, declares, whilst riding through his city amidst his cowed and subservient subjects: “Make as much racket as you like, people! Noise is life, and an excess of noise is a sign that life is good. There will be a time for us all to be quiet when we are safely dead.” – Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post