In the sixteenth century, a tall, blond foreigner rides into the heart of the Mughal Empire wearing a strange overcoat and bearing a letter from the Queen of England. The man, calling himself Magor dell’Amore, claims he has a story to tell—a tale he must deliver to the emperor, Akbar the Great, himself. If this traveler makes one wrong move, he will be killed. By meeting with this man, however, Akbar places his own life at risk. Perhaps this stranger brings not a tale, but a spell.
This fabulous scenario kicks off “The Enchantress of Florence,” Salman Rushdie’s magical and engrossing new novel, an East-meets-West tale about how humanistic ideas flourished, simultaneously, in India and sixteenth-century Florence. The bridge between these two worlds is the enchantress of the book’s title, an Indian princess so beautiful and beguiling, Rushdie keeps her from the reader for more than half of the book—as if we, too, could not bear the full power of charms.
First we learn of her through stories and legends, descriptions of paintings Akbar commissions of her after Magor dell’Amore begins telling her tale. This willingness to listen is a sign of Akbar’s general open-mindedness. Unlike his father and grandfather, Akbar has decided not to maraud and pillage, but spread tolerance and possibly even freedom in the country which would become India. “Was freedom indeed the road to unity,” he wonders warily, “or was chaos its inevitable result?”
Chaos has many sources in this novel—but love is among the most powerful of them, at least that is the lesson of Magor dell’Amore’s tale of the enchantress. Hilariously, the court artist hired to paint her likeness is so besotted with the image he creates of her that ultimately the man paints himself into canvas and disappears. “If the borderline between the worlds could be crossed in one direction,” Akbar thinks, “it could also be crossed in the other. A dreamer could become his dream.”
Packed with goblins, spells, magic, dragons, giants and all the creatures which people of the time believed in more readily than religion, “The Enchantress” carries a reader back to a world in which the imagination was constantly on call. Rushdie has drilled down and found the bedrock of storytelling powers that made “Haroun and the Sea of Stories,” his 1991 book, such a timeless, wonderful read. “The Enchantress of Florence” is the kind of novel that when you are apart from it, you feel interrupted, deprived, eager to return to it.
It’s also basically a sixteenth-century road novel. As the enchantress makes her way from India to Italy, where Niccolo Machiavelli becomes one of the novel’s major characters, she is chased by war. Rulers and warlords take her as a spoil, and then suffer greatly when they become enchanted with her. She is a tremendous, strong-willed, deeply imagined character. Finally, she becomes enchanted with another herself and learns a terrible but necessary lesson about the nature of love.
Rushdie builds to this moment with expert care, wending and circling around his themes and detouring in terrific set-pieces. Before Magor dell’Amore earns Akbar’s trust and can tell the enchantress’ story he is thrust before an angry elephant, renowned for its judgment of character. Akbar is besotted with an imaginary queen, named Jordha, with whom he makes imaginary love and against whom his other wives and concubines concoct very real schemes of revenge. Ideas and what we imagine have as much power over our lives as the tangible, it would seem. It is both the basis of the modern world, this fable gently reminds, and its terrible bane.
“The Enchantress of Florence”
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, $26, 355 pages