The Enchantress of Florence is all about a Florentine stranger who comes to the court of Mughal emperor Akbar the Great (heehee, get it?) with a story to tell. He claims that he is Akbar’s uncle (ish), the son of a great-aunt Akbar never knew existed. It’s a bold claim, but the stranger is a bold man; and in the days that follow, he entrances Akbar with the story of three Italian friends (including Machiavelli because, you know, it’s Salman Rushdie, and why not?), and the parts they played in the tale of the stranger’s purported mother, the “hidden princess” Qara Koz.
There are so many reasons that I loved this book. One is that I love Salman Rushdie. I read Midnight’s Children out of a sense of obligation, and I was surprised at how fun and playful it was, even when it was dark. Salman Rushdie and his love affair with words make me smile, because although I am not brilliant with them like he is, I too have great love for The Words. Like this, talking about the Florentine stranger:
Indeed, he turned out to be quite the conjurer. He transformed gold coins into smoke and yellow smoke back into gold. A jug of resh water flipped upside down released a flood of silken scarves. He multiplied fishes and loaves with a couple of passes of his elegant hand, which was blasphemous, of course, but the hungry sailors easily forgave him. Crossing themselves hastily, to insure themselves against the possible wrath of Christ Jesus regarding the the usurpation of his position by this latter-day miracle worker, they gobbled up their unexpectedly lavish, if theologically unsound, lunch.
Then also, I love that what the book is really about is the power of stories. The people in Florence and Sikri can be taken over by words, not just the mob but the rulers, taken over by the stories they tell each other about the main characters in the book. She’s a patron saint, she’s a witch; he’s a great emperor, he’s incestuous – the stories make all the difference. I like that. I expect that if you were Salman Rushdie, and you had spent loads of years in hiding because of a story you had written, that would be a fairly inescapable theme for your books. Actually, this stories thing, what story you believe and why, also gives rise to the only complaint I had with the book. Spoilers ahead.
Akbar’s problem throughout the story is that the stranger’s timing is all wrong. He couldn’t be Akbar’s uncle and be the age that he is, and at the end of the tale the stranger tells him that his mother, the beautiful Qara Koz, found a way to stop time in herself, so that she didn’t age the way others did. Akbar’s trust in the stranger is broken. He tells him no, that isn’t what happened, that’s impossible, he can’t believe it. He tells him that Qara Koz had a daughter, and died, and the daughter then slept with her own father to produce the stranger, and that’s what happened, and he makes him leave the kingdom, for lying and being the product of incest. And the stranger keeps saying, no, she stopped time; and I liked it all vague. I wanted it to stay vague. But then at the end Qara Koz shows up, brought into being by the telling of the story and the belief in the story, and tells the emperor what really happened. Boo. I liked it vague. The book’s about the power of believing in the story you believe in! It would have been more better if we had gotten to decide ourselves, like Life of Pi.
However, I am not the boss of Salman Rushdie, and apart from that, which all happened in the last ten pages or so, The Enchantress of Florence was lovely and fun and gorgeously written, my favorite of his since The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
(Oh, yes, and also, can I just say, and this has bugged me for a while even though I do like Salman Rushdie a lot – what is with the women in his books? Salman Rushdie’s women are always there sort of for men in a way that the men aren’t for women, and I’m tired of it. Write a more interesting woman once in a while! We are very interesting!)