My first Salman Rushdie novel. The fabulous writing has left me in awe. The Enchantress of Florence is a book about storytelling and adventure and magic of the crude, unrestrained, undiluted kind; unlike the magic you encounter in modern fantasy, this is wholly inexplicable.
A yellow-haired traveller shows up in Emperor Akbar's court in Fatehpur Sikri claiming to be the child of Akbar's grandfather, Babar's exiled sister, Princess Qara Köz, Lady Black Eyes; known in Italy as the Enchantress of Florence. As the traveller, who calls himself The Mughal of Love, relates his mother's tale, the narrative switches back and forth between Akbar's court in Hindustan and Renaissance Florence.
Rushdie takes characters out of history and blends them almost perfectly with the fiction he has created; Tansen in Sikri and Niccolo Machiavelli in Italy, among others; giving even the greats only as much attention as the story allows.
Despite being a bit rushed at times and slightly dull at others; despite bordering, sometimes, on pretentious; many stories in this book have left a huge impression on me. The tale of Jodha, the aloof Queen that Akbar brought into existence through sheer passion; that of the painter who, quite literally, lost himself in his artwork; the story of the Memory Palace, a woman, a vessel, whose mind was erased to make room for someone else's story. I have always been fascinated by the Mughal history of India and having grown up on tales of Birbal and his antics in Akbar's court, the book has brought back the fondest memories of my childhood. Akbar is just as I would have imagined him. Rushdie brings Sikri to life, right from the first scene, from the splendid descriptions of the shimmering golden waters of the palace lake. Florence, though, I am not so sure about. It may be because I have never been there, but the city isn't quite as vivid. The journeys of Argalia, the story of the three friends from Florence, and of the lives of Qara Köz and her servant, however, are intriguing.
Here are some of my favourite quotes (no spoilers) from the book:
~ 'Imagine a pair of woman's lips,' Mogor whispered, 'puckering for a kiss. That is the city of Florence, narrow at the edges, swelling at the centre, with the Arno flowing through between, parting the two lips, the upper and the lower. The city is an enchantress. When it kisses you, you are lost, whether you be commoner or king.'
~ 'We find that we enjoy him and do not care, for the present, to unravel his mysteries. Maybe he has been a criminal, maybe even a murderer, we cannot say. What we know is that he has crossed the world to leave one story behind and to tell another, that the story he has brought us is his only baggage, and that his deepest desire is the same as poor vanished Dashwanth's - that is, he wants to step into the tale he's telling and begin a new life inside it. In short, he is a creator of fables, and a good afsanah never did anybody any real damage.'
~ Is it not a kind of infantilization of the self to give up one's power of agency and believe that such power resided outside oneself rather than within? This was also his objection to God, that his existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves. But magic was all around and would not be denied, and it would be a rash ruler who pooh-poohed it. Religion could be re-thought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.
~ Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wand. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.