“The Enchantress of Florence” (Random House. 368 pages. $26), by Salman Rushdie: In Salman Rushdie’s new book, “The Enchantress of Florence,” the modern novel meets the “Arabian Nights” with winks at “The Three Musketeers” and nods to “Pirates of the Caribbean” along the way.
It is a luxuriant epic that spans decades and three, maybe four, continents. It is the kind of book where mustaches are ripped off the faces of upstart princelings and a city’s entire male population must pass a day blindfolded so the women may go about naked. The book is set largely in Fatephur Sikri, a city that “would always look like a mirage” with a lake of gold and where palaces appear to made of “red smoke.” It is also a place where the “great bludgeon of the day’s heat” weakens “the border between sanity and delirium, between what is fanciful and what is real.” In other words, the perfect setting for Rushdie’s flights of fancy and meditations on the nature of power and reality itself.
The book comes with a bibliography and blends historical figures such as the Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar and Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli with imagined characters like a mysterious yellow-haired European traveler who goes variously by the names, Uccello di Firenze, Niccolo Vespuci and Mogor dell’Amore. It is this last, self-styled Mughal of Love who narrates the book’s main story — an elaborate yarn, spun Sherherazde-like over time — in an attempt to save his own head.
The traveler appears at the Mughal court mysteriously pursued by a band of pirates, who correctly suspect he has killed their captain and stolen a letter addressed to the Emperor from the English Queen. The traveler manages to extricate himself from murder charges only to complicate his situation claiming to be Akbar’s uncle and sets out to prove it with the tale he tells.
It is the story of three boyhood friends from Florence. One, Antonino Argalia, goes off to become a great warlord who conquers armies across the East as well as the heart of Mughal Princess Kara Koz — the enchantress of the book’s title. Antonino claims he is Koz’s son, and, despite the vast discrepancy in their ages, his knowledge of the forgotten princess, however, is enough to his save his head at a crucial juncture.
Court elders confirm the existence of the so-called “hidden princess” whose memory was banished after rejecting the Mughal court to live among foreigners. And the story of “hidden princess” creates a cult throughout Sikri with no one more smitten than Akbar himself.
While the traveler’s tale begins and basically ends in Florence, it meanders and covers a lot of ground along the way, following Argalia and later Koz across Europe and the East in the company of four giant albino mercenaries from Switzerland: Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan, in an odd bow to Alexandre Dumas. Argalia eventually returns to Florence with his princess, only to stir the envy and eventually enmity of the Medici rulers as the story draws to an end.
It is a tribute to Rushdie that he manages to cram this opulent, detail-laden story into some 350 pages. But as a result, many of the characters seem flat and one dimensional — even the Mughal of Love, one of the book’s main characters, remains a cipher. Nor is it much help to the reader, trying to keep track of the intricate plot, that most characters are referred to by at least two names and often more. The only fully imagined character is Akbar who muses on the nature of power, freedom of thought and religion while trying to access the truth of the traveler’s fantastic tale. And the most fully imagined female characters are figments of Akbar’s imagination, such as Queen Jodha — an imaginary lover granted enough reality through the sheer force of Akbar’s power to stir jealousy in the court and even develop a mind of her own.
If all this seems confusing, it is. But it is rich stuff and offers great rewards to the attentive reader. Not surprisingly, what Rushdie is getting at is not entirely clear. The book plays with the contrast between two cities, Florence and Sikri — between Eastern mysticism and Machiavellian realism.
The basic message seems to be something like: “might makes right even when might makes wrong.” Except, that when the fabric of reality is open to question, right and wrong become relative considerations. In this way, the book is a little like a Bollywood epic, with verbal pyrotechnics standing in for the song and dance: There is a lot of pomp and glory and plenty of good extravagant set pieces, but in the end, there may not be much to it. Or maybe that’s the point.