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Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Posted by anandrr on December 28, 2008

I first read an excerpt from The Enchantress of Florence in the New Yorker many months ago, it was the part of the book that describes Akbar, his capital at Fatehpur Sikri, his “invisible wife” Jodha, and Akbar’s battles with his self and his sprituality. The essay represented the Rushdie writing that I love best, his beautiful English describing with loving care an apparently faraway land and time, the characters surprisingly life-like (even Jodha), the writing was fluid and evocative, and most of all it held out a promise of much much more in the real book. Then the book came out and I heard someone (possibly Krasny) on KQED talk about it as East meeting West, and I dismissed it as the book I certainly didn’t want to read. There the matter would have lain, and I would have gone through the rest of my life describing the book as one of Rushdie’s minor works, until on one of my recent trips to the US, I spent a couple days at a friend’s place, and this friend had this book lying around the house. The time that we didn’t spend walking the streets, discussing alternative energy or reliving the Republic of Mysore, I spent reading the book.

Needless to say, Rushdie had me at the dedication. The pages turned quickly and I hated that I was having to leave before I got to finish the book.  Never mind, as soon as I was back in India (always respect the cost arbitrage on books) I got myself a copy and a week’s worth of night-time reading later, I was a happy and contented man.  Enchantress is perhaps not as great as Midnight’s Children but it marks a return to form from Ground Beneath Her Feet which had  rather disappointed me, even Bono couldn’t rescue it. Enchantress is of course very beautifully written, Rushdie has such a remarkable facility for English, he seems to write with such ease that reading his work is extremely pleasurable. His choice of subjects also lend themselves to such description, Akbar, his harem, his court, his city and medieval India; Italy, medieval Florence, great sea voyages, pirates, and more, all of these make for an enchanting backdrop against which to tell his tale.

And what a tale! At one level, it is of course about East meeting West, Machiavelli, master political strategist, meets Akbar, emperor, philosopher, spiritualist. And hovering behind them all, Qara Koz, the “Enchantress,” a lady in the west of incredible and unsurpassed beauty, but as it turns out a not-so-distant cousin of Akbar’s. But these are set in a time when it seems entirely unremarkable that the emperor has an invisible wife, an even more invisible distant cousin, herself constantly accompanied by her “Mirror,” a maid who mirrors her mistresses’ own feelings (and as it turns out plays a non-trivial part in the raison d’etre for the book). Back then, these were common we’re told, the fantastic always mixed with the real unlike our heretical lives now. This is of course a recurring theme in Rushdie’s books, the fantastic always play a part in our reality.

At another level, this is a story about women. The Enchantress is a woman who moves from man to man using her incredible beauty to exercise great power over men and history. Eventually she exercises her power over Akbar entirely remotely, from the great beyond as it happens, and his courtiers look on helplessly. Jodha also holds the emperor in her thrall until Qara Koz arrives in his life, at which point she finds herself relegated. This leads to one of the funnier scenes in the book, where Akbar’s real harem finally find that they can make peace with the imaginary Jodha now that
they are all part of the sisterhood of Akbar’s past affections.

But most of all, it is a book about religion and spirituality. Akbar is searching for an answer to religion’s ills. He believes that God far from providing us a moral anchor, has given us a reason not to create such structures for ourselves.  His quest for this human-created morality dominates his life. It finally fizzles out of course, as does Fatehpur Sikri, and as we’re all aware the Mughal Empire went downhill from then on.

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3 Responses to “Book Review: The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie”

  1. Samir said

    Rushdie said that he set out to write a simple book about Akbar (the story within the story, as he calls it). But that book “didn’t quite work”, so he wrote this outer story and wrapped the original story into it.

  2. samza said

    I got the same requests to add some info to Book Blogs. Do you think I should make a group about bookish charities, mention it in the discussion, or leave these kinds of things out of the site altogether? What do you think?

  3. Aneesha said

    The main problem in this book is the uneven quality of the writing – it begins on a vibrant note with a promise to “mirror” a secret, but it seems to lose much of its zest, beauty and linguistic freeflow halfway through. There is a desire to rush through and reach the parts of the novel where Akbar remerges in the tale. Infact, more than Qara Koz, who is supposed to me the central theme, or Enchantress, it is the wonderful characterization of Akbar that dominates and drives the story. Indeed, Akbar, who enchants the reader in this tale with all his human follies, and royal grandeur, is ultimately enchanted by the power of a woman, even if imaginary. Rushdie has spent a lot of time in musing over Akbar’s character and has done a good job of it.

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