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The Enchantress of Florenceby Salman Rushdie
I'm not much of a Rushdie fan: I've always found him to be far too long-winded for my taste. So it was quite a pleasant surprise for me to find myself enjoying his latest novel so very much. Enchanting, beguiling, and written with exquisite prose, this was definitely the best book I read in 2008. A very seductive read.
"Salman Rushdie is so much identified with seriousness — his choice of subjects, from Kashmir to Andalusia; his position as a literary negotiator of East and West; his decade and more of internal exile in hiding from the edict of a fanatical theocrat — that it can be easy to forget how humorous he is. In much the same way, his extraordinary knowledge of classical literature sometimes causes people to overlook his command of the vernacular." Christopher Hitchens, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
A tall, yellow-haired, young European traveler calling himself "Mogor dell'Amore" the Mughal of Love, arrives at the court of the Emperor Akbar, lord of the great Mughal empire, with a tale to tell that begins to obsess the imperial capital, a tale about a mysterious woman, a great beauty believed to possess powers of enchantment and sorcery, and her impossible journey to the far-off city of Florence.
The Enchantress of Florence is the story of a woman attempting to command her own destiny in a man's world. It is the story of two cities, unknown to each other, at the height of their powers — the hedonistic Mughal capital, in which the brilliant Akbar the Great wrestles daily with questions of belief, desire, and the treachery of his sons, and the equally sensual city of Florence during the High Renaissance, where Niccolò Machiavelli takes a starring role as he learns, the hard way, about the true brutality of power.
Vivid, gripping, irreverent, bawdy, profoundly moving, and completely absorbing, The Enchantress of Florence is a dazzling book full of wonders by one of the world's most important living writers.
Despite his liking for fairy tale and fantasy, Salman Rushdie is usually, and rightly, perceived as a Serious Nobel Prize-Worthy Writer. So it may come as a surprise that he has produced a book that is the equivalent of a summer fling. Set during the 16th century, "The Enchantress of Florence" is altogether ramshackle as a novel — oddly structured, blithely mixing history and legend and distinctly... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) minor compared to such masterworks as "The Moor's Last Sigh" and "Midnight's Children" — and it is really not a novel at all. It is a romance, and only a dry-hearted critic would dwell on the flaws in so delightful an homage to Renaissance magic and wonder. In these languid, languorous pages, the Emperor Akbar the Great dreams his ideal mistress into existence, a Florentine orphan rises to become the military champion of Islam, and a black-eyed beauty casts a spell on every man who sees her. Other characters include Machiavelli and Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, Adm. Andrea Doria and Vlad the Impaler (aka Dracula), not to discount various Medicis and the principal members of the Mughal court of Sikri, India. The action itself covers half the known world: the seacoast of Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the battlefields of the Middle East, Renaissance Italy and the newly discovered New World. Yet whatever the locale, "The Enchantress of Florence" is bathed throughout in Mediterranean sunlight and Oriental sensuousness. Its atmosphere derives from the Italian Renaissance epic, especially Ariosto's magic-filled "Orlando Furioso," and from such latter-day reveries of Eastern splendor as Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" (which features Marco Polo and Akbar's grandfather Kublai Khan). Here, then, is a gorgeous 16th century that never quite was, except in operas, masques and ballets. In such a world, a spying eunuch named Umar the Ayyar can move invisibly through crowds and "see everything, including some things that hadn't happened yet." For "The Enchantress of Florence" celebrates a vanished world "before the real and unreal were segregated forever and doomed to live apart under different monarchs and separate legal systems." The first third of Rushdie's romance focuses on an enigmatic rogue of many names as he makes his way to the court of Akbar the Great in India. Much earlier, this "Uccello," this "Mogor dell'Amore," set forth "to see the world, taking ship hither and yon, sometimes as a member of the crew, on other occasions as a carefree stowaway, learned many languages, acquired a wide variety of skills, not all of them within the boundaries of the law, and accumulated his own tales to tell, tales of escapes from cannibalism in Sumatra and of the egg-sized pearls of Brunei and of fleeing from the Great Turk up the Volga to Moscow in winter and of crossing the Red Sea in a dhow held together with string." But about himself this mysterious voyager "would only say to the men and women he met on his voyages that his story was stranger by far than any of these tales." After he reaches Sikri, the capital city by the golden lake, Mogor dell'Amore risks his life to ingratiate himself with the Emperor — but for what purpose? In due course, he does unfold a fantastic tale about his ancestry and about a secret Mughal princess named Qara Koz. The latter two-thirds of the novel take up this wondrous beauty's adventures in the Middle East and Florence, as Qara Koz — eventually renamed Angelica — conquers the heart of one bloody conqueror after another. She is every man's lubricious dream, at once princess, slave and witch, and willing to do whatever it takes to please her current lord and to survive. Her sole companion is a servant girl called the Mirror, only a tad less beautiful than her mistress, and the sharer of her bed. In many ways "The Enchantress of Florence" is a dream of fair women, a portrait gallery of heartbreaking beauty. In Italy, for instance, there is Simonetta Vespucci (the model for Botticelli's "Birth of Venus") as well as the courtesan Alessandra Fiorentina: "He caught a glimpse through an idly open door of La Fiorentina in her private sanctum, reclining on a gilded chaise in the midst of a small group of the city's very finest men, and idly permitting her patron Francesco del Nero to kiss her left breast while a little hairy white lapdog licked at her right nipple, and in that instant he was done for, and knew that she was the only woman for him." But the Italians are rivaled, even surpassed, by the Indian sirens. Khanzada Begum is universally acknowledged — at least by all her servants and courtiers — as the most beautiful woman in the world, until Qara Koz, i.e. Black Eyes, is born. "From that day forward, Khanzada noticed a change in the timbre of her daily adoration, which began to contain a higher level of insincerity than was acceptable." And then there's Jodha, the Emperor's fantasy come to life. Among her myriad erotic skills, she is consummately adept at "the seven types of unguiculation, which is to say the art of using the nails to enhance the act of love." (Rushdie cites examples of the seven types, all clearly derived from the "Kama Sutra" — book two, chapter four, if you're interested.) As Jodha says, "When a boy dreams up a woman he gives her big breasts and a small brain. ... When a king imagines a wife he dreams of me." While "The Enchantress of Florence" mainly lingers in the memory as a paean to the power of beauty, it is also a meditation on power, tout court. The world can turn against beauty, just as it can turn against intelligence or spiritual conviction or noble ideals. Machiavelli — soon to write "The Prince" — warns the Mughal princess: "This is Florence, my lady, and you will live well here, for Florentines know how to live well. But if you are sensible, you will always know where the back door is. You will plan your escape route and keep it in good working order. For when the Arno floods all those without boats are drowned." But what should one do with power? Akbar the Great begins to wonder about the nature of his sovereignty and about the self, the universe, religion and the growing interaction between East and West: "Was foreignness itself a thing to be embraced as a revitalizing force bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and the society as a whole, did it initiate a process of decay which would end in an alienated, inauthentic death?" Akbar, in fact, daydreams of universal harmony on Earth but sadly recognizes that all his power can never make it happen: "Once he was gone, all he had thought, all he had worked to make, his philosophy and way of being, all that would evaporate like water. The future would not be what he hoped for, but a dry hostile antagonistic place where people would survive as best they could and hate their neighbors and smash their places of worship and kill one another once again in the renewed heat of the great quarrel he had sought to end forever, the quarrel over God. In the future it was harshness, not civilization, that would rule." Such sentiments point at the 21st century, and may jar as a result, but they are just one aspect of this dreamlike pageant of a book, with its cloud-capped towers and gorgeous palaces. Rushdie risks bathos, for instance, when he refers to "The Great Uzbeg Anti-Shiite Potato and Sturgeon Curse." He calls four albino giants Otho, Botho, Clotho and D'Artagnan, recalling by turns a Roman Emperor, a German family name, the Fate who cuts the thread of life and a would-be Musketeer. In this case, you feel that he's just being silly. No matter. At least for the summer ahead, "The Enchantress of Florence" will certainly live up to the romantic promise of its title. As Akbar himself reflects, "Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough." Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda(at symbol)gmail.com. Reviewed by Michael Dirda, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Entertainment of the highest literary order." Booklist (starred review)
"For Rushdie, the pen is a magician's wand... If The Enchantress of Florence doesn’t win this year's Man Booker I'll curry my proof copy and eat it." John Sutherland, Financial Times (London)
"This brilliant, fascinating, generous novel swarms with gorgeous young women both historical and imagined, beautiful queens and irresistible enchantresses...[a] sumptuous, impetuous mixture of history with fable. But in the end, of course, it is the hand of the master artist, past all explanation, that gives this book its glamour and power, its humour and shock, its verve, its glory. It is a wonderful tale, full of follies and enchantments." Ursula K Le Guin, The Guardian (London)
"[A] prodigious fever dream of a book... A beguiling, incandescent tale of travel, treachery, and transformation set in the Renaissance Florence of Machiavelli and the Medicis and in India's Mughal Empire." Elle
"The Enchantress of Florence reminds us, in case we may have forgotten, that [Rushdie] can tell a story across East and West better than anyone else in the language." John Brotton, The Telegraph (London)
"Readers who succumb to the spell of Rushdie's convoluted, cross-continental fable may find it enchanting....Rapturously poetic in places, very funny in others, yet the novel ultimately challenges both patience and comprehension." Kirkus Reviews
"Rushdie has given us a fable, a fairy tale for adults if you will, wrapped in history. It can be read for the pure enjoyment of the story, and as literature of the highest order. I was totally enchanted by one of the most talented and important contemporary authors." Charlotte Observer
"In a world in which many readers seem to crave fact after fact after fact...the novelist, the last alchemist, miraculously turns fact into something greater, and as if transforming clay bricks into gold, gives facts life." The Chicago Tribune
About the Author
Salman Rushdie is the author of nine previous novels: Grimus; Midnight's Children (which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1981 and, in 1993, was judged to be the "Booker of Bookers," the best novel to have won that prize in its first twenty-five years); Shame (winner of the French Prix de Meilleur Livre Etranger); The Satanic Verses (winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel); Haroun and the Sea of Stories (winner of the Writers Guild Award); The Moor's Last Sigh (winner of the Whitbread Prize for Best Novel); The Ground Beneath Her Feet (winner of the Eurasian section of the Commonwealth Prize); Fury (a New York Times Notable Book); and Shalimar the Clown (a Time Book of the Year). He is also the author of a book of stories, East, West, and three works of nonfiction: Imaginary Homelands, The Jaguar Smile, and The Wizard of Oz. He is co-editor of Mirrorwork, an anthology of contemporary Indian writing.
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