The Enchantress of Florence

Salman Rushdie

A new book from Rushdie always promises to be a treat. This is one, albeit with a slightly confusing aftertaste.

The book has all the requisite elements to make it a Rushdie block buster – fabulous storytellers and their stories within stories, unbelievably beautiful princesses and kings who are all too human, history and magic, the Arabian Nights feel. There is the sensory overload of the colour and enchantment of places that have come to signify the magic of the East – Tabriz and Samarkand, Ferghana and Herat, Sikri and Stamboul. And of course the constant attempt to make connections between the East and the West.

Renaissance Florence and Akbar’s court in Sikri are the West and the East. And in the travels between the two, we make excursions into the Ottoman empire and the Safavid, encountering figures that we know through history books and most of who in Rushdie’s skilled hands come alive as real people.

A stranger comes to Akbar’s court in Sikri to tell him a tale of a lost princess’ a woman extraordinarily beautiful and enchanting. She is Qara Koz, Babar’s little sister, a princess of such unearthly beauty, kings and conquerors would kill and die for her. Yet she is someone ‘history forgot’. She is passed on as bounty in the battles between Babar, the Saffavid ruler Shah Ismail and the Ottoman Sultan Selim. Each of the battles is historical fact, Babar was indeed driven out of Samarkand by Shah Ismail, who in turn was beaten at the battle of Chaldiran by Sultan Selim. And when Sultan Selim’s mercenary Florentine commander Argalia claims Qara Koz, her path to Renaissance Florence is paved. The Mughal princess becomes Angelica, the enchantress of Florence.

At the heart of the stranger’s tale is the story of 3 friends in Italy, Machiavelli (yes, the same one), Ago Vespucci (a cousin of Amerigo) and Antonino Argalia; each of whom has a special role to play in the Enchantress’s life. It is Argalia who brings her to Florence and Vespucci and Machiavelli who help her escape it once her enchantment fades.

The stranger claims to be Qara Koz’s son, yet Akbar knows it can’t be true - a son of his great aunt cannot be young enough to be his. Yet he hears him out, and in the hearing, is enchanted by his great-aunt himself. This enchantment is worse than his infatuation with Jodha, his imaginary perfect queen (Rushdie makes Jodha a figment of Akbar’s imagination) and when the spell breaks, as it did in Florence too a generation ago, there is disaster. Sikri has to be abandoned when the lake runs dry as the river in Florence did when the enchantress was forced to flee the city.

Akbar’s court and Florence during the Renaissance are filled with intrigue and betrayal, yet are inexorably colourful and talented and rambunctious and magical. There is a lot of Akbar in the book, yet for me, he does not come alive in the way Argalia and Machiavelli do. Akbar is the philosopher-king and he does seem way ahead of his time in his doubts about religion and kingship. Yet his portrait reeks of the text book, as if the sterile words in Class 5 history have just been superficially garbed in the rich clothes of the miniature moghul paintings we are so familiar with. Maybe Akbar is just too well-known to us and it is difficult to see him as an ordinary mortal.

The book is a good read; how can anything Rushdie writes not be one. Yet not all is well. There is better historical fiction I have read (Nagarkar’s Cuckold with Babar in the distance bearing down towards India, comes to mind) and there are times when the magic grates. One of the great things about Rushdie’s writing has to be the joie de vivre that infects it; that is an integral part of it. Is that missing in this particular piece and has tedium crept in? Has the fabulist somehow lost his own enjoyment of the fable? I wonder.


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