Friday, January 30, 2009

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie
2008, 350 pp

A new Salman Rushdie book is always worth attention, but even the staunchest Rushdie fan must admit that The Enchantress of Florence is a comparatively minor affair. The framing device concerns a mysterious traveler and magician who appears at the court of Akbar the Great, the Mughal Emperor, and claims to be his uncle. The bulk of the book consists of the story this magician tells to Akbar, and at times stories within the story, or even stories within the stories within the stories. And that's pretty much the book: a lot of clever little stories tenuously linked together without much plot driving the whole production forward. It is impossible to resist Rushdie's enthusiasm for the subject, but in reading it, you get the distinct impression that Rushdie just really wants to tell you all the neat things he's read about the late fifteenth century.
And indeed there are a lot of neat things. As Rushdie stresses in interviews, most of the really ridiculous stuff in the book actually happened. The bit about Shah Ismail I making Shaybani Khan's skull into a jewelled goblet is true, as is the bit about Emperor Humayun dying from falling down the stairs in his library. Vlad Dracul makes a pretty accurate appearance. And so on. Rushdie's prose is, as ever, entertaining and lively, and he has a great deal of fun describing the outlandish people and places which populate the story. There's several excellent bits of fun with Akbar's name (Akbar means "the Great," so you can see how being called Akbar the Great and shouting Allahu Akbar can make for some good jokes) and some decent ruminations on history and love and suchlike.

However. There is no central character for the us to care about, and by its very nature the framing story dictates that we already know the outcome of the story being framed. By the end of the book we know who the mysterious traveler is, but not why he showed up, nor do we much care. His fate is never particularly resolved. This (and the habit of featuring characters who do not really exist or are really someone else, etc) also prevents Rushdie from developing any meaningful human relationships. The strongest part of the book is the section about two-thirds of the way in which involves philandering Niccolo Machiavelli's relationship with his beleaguered wife. Here Rushdie's talent for understanding the depths of unhappy relationships finally turns up, and the pages fly past.

The Enchantress of Florence is a good two hundred pages shorter than Midnight's Children and it shows. The lengthy digressions (which granted, got a bit too lengthy at times) are mainly absent, and in all the book feels much smaller than a sweeping epic about the Renaissance and the Mughals ought to feel. It is further padded out by startlingly incongruous and self-consciously modern dialogues which recycle rather familiar (and disappointingly unoriginal) ideas from Camus and Richard Dawkins.

A Rushdie Novel is a particular thing with particular conventions. He is almost a genre in himself, and while The Enchantress of Florence is a solid entry in the romance/adventure subdivision of the historical novel genre, it is a pretty minor work in the Rushdie corpus.

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