Michael Dirda
A romance of beauty and power from Italy to India.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 25, 2008


By Salman Rushdie

Random House. 355 pp. $26

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 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 (a.k.a. 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 Köz. The latter two-thirds of the novel take up this wondrous beauty's adventures in the Middle East and Florence, as Qara Köz -- 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 Köz, 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 dream-like 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@gmail.com

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