“The story was completely untrue, but the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world,” Salman Rushdie pronounces in his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. It is as close to an aesthetic mission statement as he offers for this latest endeavor, a stab at historical fiction that proves high on bombast and low on coherence. Rushdie?s personal canon has held a longstanding fascination with the strange synchronicity between individual lives and the fates of the nations that house them, and The Enchantress of Florence is a prime example. The interactions of East and West long precede India?s colonial incarnation, and it seems fitting that the progenitor of the post-colonial novel should delve further into the past, mining history in his quest to unravel modern India?s identity. Rushdie?s ongoing survey of the often fraught intersections of these two worlds — perhaps less distinct than we tend to believe — here takes as its centerpiece the commingling of two separate Renaissances: the birth of Italian humanism and the rise of the Mughal empire.
The plot of Enchantress defies succinct explanation. It follows, broadly, a mysterious traveler named Niccol? Vespucci (fictional cousin of that other famed Vespucci, Amerigo) who arrives in the Mughal capital from Florence with the aim of earning the emperor Akbar?s favor. His entry ticket is a claim, of dubious authenticity, that he is a descendent of Qara K?z, Akbar?s long-lost great-aunt (and also the titular enchantress). Qara K?z, whose mythical beauty is quite literally bewitching, becomes the novel?s connective tissue; as she is passed around as “human booty” from warrior to warrior, she ultimately lands in Florence and falls in love with Antonino Argalia, an Italian Muslim convert who becomes her devoted protector. And these are only two strands among many. Vespucci, or, as he spuriously calls himself, the Mogor dell?Amore, is a master of self-fashioning. A true student of his namesake, Niccol? Machiavelli, he means to hold the court in his thrall, and it is through his elliptical account of his parentage that we are transported from Hindustan to Italy. The result is a rotating gloss of names and places that never quite solidifies into a fully formed novel.
Rushdie?s characters are all long-winded storytellers, not unlike the author himself, and as is often the case in his work, the mode in which these stories are relayed and layered upstages the contents of their telling. The narrative winds from occident to orient and from past to present with all of Rushdie?s habitual fabulism:
That was the night that Agostino Vespucci fell in love for the first time, and understood that adoration was a journey too, that however determined he might be not to leave his native city he was doomed like all his footloose friends to walk down roads he did not know, the heart?s pathways that would oblige him to enter places of danger, confront demons and dragons, and run the risk of losing not only his life but his soul as well.
Rushdie is an author who operates in the conditional tense — he often foregoes the delicacy of foreshadowing in favor of the prophet?s surety. Unlike in Midnight’s Children, where his tendency toward portentousness lent the novel its mystique, here Rushdie is too quick to fall back on the easy tropes of fables and fairy tales.
One of the challenges unique to practitioners of magic realism is that the genre often obscures the line between metaphor and the deliberately fantastical; in Enchantress, Rushdie at times becomes careless with this distinction. For instance, when he describes the emperor?s wrath he writes, “The gathering fell into a silent terror, for Akbar in a rage was capable of anything, he could tear down the sky with his bare hands or?he could suck out your soul and drown it in a bowl of your bubbling blood.” We are left to infer that this description is simply a hyperbolic flight of fancy, but in a world where we are asked to take all manner of surreal happenings at face value, it?s hard to be entirely certain. If a magical perfume is what paves Vespucci?s way to Akbar?s court, why not some drowned souls as well?
The problem isn?t the magic itself; it?s that too often, the fantasy is all we get, so much so that at moments it feels like a novel written for children (minus all the sex, which, this being a Rushdie novel, is plentiful). If Rushdie?s game here, given his penchant for all the meta-flourishes of the postmodern school, is to toy with the forms of historical fiction, he has succeeded in giving us the broad outlines. The depth of his research, however, is not enough to support his entire vision without any truly textured consciousness to share the burden. When Rushdie does probe the depths of his characters’ perspectives, Enchantress hits its best notes. In particular, Akbar comes through as more actual than the exoticized stock figures who populate his city. His presence seems to be the lynchpin of Rushdie?s vision — a ruler who, in his “unspeakable ambition?to found the religion of man,” unites the novel?s two disparate geographies, Florence and the Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri, under the philosophical awakening of the Renaissance.
The women in the novel are another matter. Rushdie has always had trouble breaking through to the interior lives of his female heroines — more often than not they are flimsy constructions assembled from their secondary sex characteristics — but here, he does away with the pretense altogether. Jodha, Akbar?s favorite wife, is a figment of his own creation: “No real woman was ever like that, so perfectly attentive, so undemanding, so endlessly available.” One may as well say the same for all the women in Enchantress . Like Jodha, Qara K?z and her identical handmaiden (called the Mirror) exist somewhere outside the bounds of the possible, and this illusory sheen absolves Rushdie of having to exert his powers of identification.
It?s too bad, because the novel?s setup is as rich as anything Rushdie has yet conjured. His thematics alone provide much to admire. Akbar?s foray into humanism provides a deliberate analogue to Italy?s own artistic flourishing, offering an expansive challenge to the way East and West compartmentalize their own histories. Machiavelli has a supporting role, Botticelli a cameo — the past moves in and out of the mythologies left in their wake. The aphorisms of Machiavelli, or Il Machia, as he is called, become an unlikely aesthetic mandate for the novel?s self-conscious fabrications: when Vespucci arrives in Fatehpur Sikri, he carries with him his Italian inheritance, the notion that the creation of a narrative is intimately bound up in the exigencies of power. To rewrite the history of classical humanism with all the craftiness of his postmodern arsenal would have been, for Rushdie, a renaissance of his own, a chance to craft his perennially self-reflexive stylings into something new.
With The Enchantress of Florence, Rushdie has finally settled back into more promising intellectual terrain after the problematic detours of Fury and Shalimar the Clown, making it especially frustrating that he continues to struggle with the marriage of concept and character. Were it populated by real people rather than caricatures, this new novel might have finally carried him from the bog of his more recent fictions. But filtered through the voices of the novel?s many storytellers, Rushdie?s glimmering saga fails to take responsibility for the ideas it has set in motion. Like Vespucci, he is too “dazzlingly confident of his powers of charm, persuasion, and enchantment” to push himself beyond the familiar ploys of fabulism.