Review of The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie
As a neophyte of Salman Rushdie's work, I was not fully prepared for The Enchantress of Florence, although I should have been. Rushdie possesses an uncanny ability to manipulate perspective. In his stories, the flow of time is always questionable, and subject to change--if it flows at all. And his characters are larger-than-life, capricious archetypes that embody the virtues and flaws of humanity.
In this novel, Rushdie runs two stories parallel to each other: that of Emperor Akbar's court, the emperor's life and philosophy; and the story of a man's heritage, of a lost Mughal princess who travels from Asia to Florence to the New World, then beyond. The boundaries between these two stories--the latter of which takes place in the first one's past--are flimsy, permeable. If you were expecting a linear narrative that reads like a movie novelization, then you a) have not read Salman Rushdie before and b) will not get that.
I might even characterize this story as a fable, for it carries that particular brand of enchantment about it. Romance, yes, that too: the main characters all mediate on the nature of love at one point or another. Cloaked in sixteenth-century philosophical ideas, these ruminations may seem pompous or boring, but I found them intriguing. Akbar struggles with the existence of God, the divine right to rule, whether might truly is the only arbiter of power. We also see a fictionalized Machiavelli, disenchanted with his wife, and like so many men in this story, drawn into the web of enchantment that the eponymous princess weaves.
Descend deeper through these layers, and Rushdie focuses on the nature of power for women in a world dominated by men. How do women exert their influence? Is their beauty, their sexuality, the only way they can ever gain power? In this book, two female characters are essentially imaginary, constructed from the mind of Akbar. What does this say about the nature of gender, a man creating his feminine opposites because he cannot find them in life?
Rushdie uses this story as a vehicle to explore a woman's life--told largely through the perspectives of men, ironically--in this period of history. However, I wouldn't necessarily call this a work of historical fiction, in the sense that it does not concern itself too much with the details of history except when they serve a purpose. The story is not about the Mughal empire so much as it is set, for a part, in that empire.
While "epic" or "sword and sorcery" fantasy has its place, its success of late has typecasted the genre. In those stories, magic is almost a science, subjected to laws the way we have restricted gravity. We often forget that the definition of fantasy is broader. In this respect, The Enchantress of Florence reminds me of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell. It is truly a fantastic adventure and romance just steeped in unrestrained magic, a world in which anything is possible--but not everything is permitted.