Friday, 6 May 2016

Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie
2016 review of a book written
by an author whose family name starts with the letter

For westerners like me India is a country of marvels very similar to the fairy-tale world of Arabian Nights – ancient India of the Taj Mahal that is because globalisation is gradually levelling all cultural differences of everyday life. The world of the Indian Moguls or Mughals, the descendants of the great Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan in India, is particularly fascinating and together with Renaissance Florence, which prospered under Medici rule, it serves as setting for the historical novel The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie. The story surrounds the Mughal Princess Qara Köz who has such powerful black eyes that everybody falls under her spell. She becomes the mistress of Persian Shah Ismail and then Lord Argalia, commander of the Ottoman Janissaries, who takes her with him on his flight from the Sultan’s executioners in Stamboul to his home town of Florence. But the sixteenth century is a time of superstition and of witch-hunts…

Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay (today: Mumbai), Bombay Presidency, British India (today: India), in June 1947, but received higher education in England. After university studies of history, he worked as a copywriter and began to write fiction. In 1975 he made his unsuccessful literary debut with the novel titled Grimus. It was followed by award-winning Midnight's Children (1981), which allowed him to become a full-time writer, and Shame (1983). His novel The Satanic Verses (1988) brought the author worldwide attention and death threats from fundamental Muslim circles that forced him to go into hiding for several years. Nonetheless, he continued to write and publish short stories, poetry, children’s books, essays, and other non-fiction including Joseph Anton: A Memoir (2012) along with his novels The Moor's Last Sigh (1995), The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999), Fury (2001), Shalimar the Clown (2005), The Enchantress of Florence (2008), and Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (2015). Since 2000 Salman Rushdie is living predominantly in New York City, New York, USA.

In the late sixteenth-century a yellow-haired young man in a ridiculous coat of coloured leather lozenges arrives in Fatehpur Sikri, the legendary capital of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great. The European calls himself Mogor dell’Amore, i.e. Mughal of Love, and he has come to tell the Emperor the story of his mother who is known as The Enchantress of Florence and who
“… was a princess of the true Chaghatai blood, a direct descendant of Genghis Khan, a member of the house of Timur, and the sister of the First Mughal Emperor of India, whom she called ‘the Beaver’. …”
It turns out that at least this part of the story could be true because the emperor’s elderly mother and aunt remember that there once was a princess Qara Köz or Lady Black Eyes who was erased from family history. She fell in love with her liberator from captivity, the Persian Shah Ismail, and preferred staying with him to returning to the Mughal court. Only the fact that many decades have passed since that time speaks against the young man who swears that he is her son. However, Akbar likes the Mogor dell’Amore and wants to hear also the rest of his tale. In the next “instalment” Princess Qara Köz moves to Stamboul and becomes mistress of Argalia who once was a poor Florentine boy and then rose to be commander of the Ottoman Janissaries as well as right hand of the Sultan. But his fate is sealed when the new Sultan begins to perceive him as a threat. With Qara Köz he flees across the sea to Italy and then to his native Florence where they settle down with the help of his childhood friends Niccolò Machiavelli called “il Machia” and Agostino Vespucci, the nephew of Amerigo. Before long the entire city is under the spell of the beautiful young woman.
“In short, Qara Köz unveiled – as ‘Angelica’ – had come into the fullness of her womanly powers and was exerting the full force of those capacities upon the city, misting the air with a benevolent haze which filled the thoughts of Florentines with images of parental, filial, carnal, and divine love. …”
People adore her like a saint until her power begins to fade and rumours of her being a witch spread putting her life at risk. It’s up to Argalia and his two friends to save her life…

As indicates the author’s choice of title, at the heart of The Enchantress of Florence is the tale of fictional Princess Qara Köz and the three Florentine friends that the not particularly trustworthy, likewise fictional foreigner tells within the necessarily fictionalised portrait of life at the court of real Emperor Akbar the Great. It’s a characteristic of the novel that from beginning to end proven historical information blends seamlessly with the fantastical and legendary thus making it a rather complex work of magical realism. The power of imagination is also an important one among the many themes of the novel. This becomes most obvious in the scenes surrounding the Emperor’s imaginary wife Jodha and in his dreams about beautiful Qara Köz whose presence becomes increasingly real for him. Eroticism in general and male sex fantasies run through the novel like a red thread with the Princess as focus for what we might commonly call “sex appeal” and “sexual self-determination” in a men’s world that tends to confine women to certain roles and (physical) places. It’s to the author’s credit that the enormous number of historical references and facts that he not just interwove but downright interlocked with the novel’s fictional elements doesn’t disturb the pleasure of the read nor the flow of the poetical language.

All things considered, I enjoyed reading The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie because it brings together two places that in the time of the novel were nothing less than worlds apart and that aren’t usually talked of in one breath. I must admit that I would have preferred a historical novel without fantastical and magical elements, but even as it is, I learnt a few new things about Renaissance Florence and really a lot about sixteenth-century India. Together with the engaging plot this is reason enough to recommend the novel.

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  1. I enjoyed your review! The Enchantress of Florence is on my to be read pile.
    I think Salman Rushdie is a fantastic writer. I have read some of his short stories as well as Midnight's Children and loved them.

    I like the fantastical element in his writing and enjoy his style of writing.
    The Enchantress of Florence seems a bit of heavy reading. What did you think?

    1. Hello Dinh! I'm happy to find that you liked my review. Thanks for your comment!

      And yes, "The Enchantress of Florence" is a wonderful book... and a bit heavy because of the many historical facts that the author included. The bibliography at the end is several pages long! Nonetheless, it's entertaining and not too difficult to read.


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