The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (2008) Random House (2008) 368 pp
Salman Rushdie’s books are always a bit intimidating for me. I’m not sure why since I sometimes enjoy them and don’t find them particularly difficult. It’s also not an effort to prolong the pleasure since I sometimes don’t enjoy them. For whatever reason, then, The Enchantress of Florence was no exception to this intimidation trend. I didn’t read it right when it was released, though I’d picked it up several times. And though I’ve had it for a while since, I didn’t read it first on the Booker longlist. In fact, I almost deliberately held off reading it until the end. But when choosing which longlist title to read next, I picked it up and read the first few lines:
In the day’s last light the glowing lake below the palace-city looked like a sea of molten gold. A traveler coming this way at sunset — this traveler, coming this way, now, along the lakeshore road — might believe himself to be approaching the throne of a monarch so fabulously wealthy that he could allow a portion of his treasure to be poured into a giant hollow in the earth to dazzle and awe his guests.
Maybe it’s because I’d just read Child 44, but I was thirsty for some magical, stylish prose, so I decided to buck up and read the book!
Now, did the book keep up with its first page? Yes and no. For the first 120 pages (Part I) I loved it, maybe as much as anything I’ve recently read. Here we meet “the traveler” mentioned above, coming first by ship and then by land to Sikri, in Hindustan. But even more intriguing, at Sikri we meet King Akbar, Emperor of India in the late sixteenth century:
The emperor Abul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad, king of kings, known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning “the great,” and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory . . .
Akbar, however, is a king with an identity and philosophical crisis. Having always referred to himself in the first person plural, he begins to wonder what it must feel like to refer to himself as an “I.” And this leads him to further questions:
Was there then no essential difference between the ruler and the ruled? And now his original question reasserted itself in a new and startling form: if his many-selved subjects managed to think of themselves in the singular rather than plural, could he, too, be and “I”? Could there be an “I” that was simply oneself? Were there such naked, solitary “I”s burried beneath the overcrowded “we”s of the earth?
Akbar is ashamed of his warrior past, which goes back to Ghengis Kahn. Though he has a brutal streak in him, when he kills a man he wonders if he’s just killed the man who might have been his equal, someone he could talk to, the only man he could ever love. In continuing the intrigue, Rushdie then introduces the King’s great love, Jodha. Their story, it is said by all, will go down as one of the greatest love stories in history. She is the favorite of all of the King’s wives, having excellent servants and the best room, and all of the subjects love her. It’s almost a side point that she’s just a figment of Akbar’s imagination — a great way for Rushdie to introduce one of the major themes of this book: the power of storytelling and art.
Thus, in reality, while it is true that she does not exist, it is also true to say that she is the one who lives. If she did not, then over there, behind the high window, there would be nobody waiting for her return.
And Rushdie makes her feel real, though we know it’s all just empty air. While Akbar is away, she feels herself diminish and contemplates her nonexistence. When Akbar approaches, her pulse quickens. Akbar’s other wives are jealous of her: “When he was gone, at least, she ought to absent herself as well; she had no business to hang around with the actually existing.” In the midst of Akbar’s identity crisis, just as he attempts to use “I” when speaking to Jodha, enters the traveler, a stranger who hails from Medici Florence. The traveler brings a fantastic tale, suitable only for a king, a tale about the enchantress of Florence, Qara Köz. Jodha starts getting jealous when Akbar is distracted by the story of the enchantress.
Honestly, up to this point, I was on board with Rushdie, thoroughly enjoying the evocation of this magical place and time with his magical realism (even thinking, perhaps with some blasphemy, that it was as magical and pleasant as some passages in One Hundred Years of Solitude). I couldn’t wait for the intriguing themes to be played with in the last parts of the book — I was trusting Rushdie to follow through! Furthermore, up to this point, I also enjoyed the playful descriptions of the type of time period we’re looking at:
. . . during which time her brother and protector Babar galloped back and forth, winning battles, losing battles, gaining territory, losing it again, being attacked by his uncles, attacking his cousins, being rounded upon by his cousins, and attacking his uncles again . . .
But soon after Part I, about a paragraph is all, the magic stopped for me. Here, the traveler begins to tell the King his story, but this story didn’t work for me. Perhaps the magical realism doesn’t fit, in my mind, under the rule of the Medicis. Perhaps I also was half in love with Jodha and thought the Enchantress should just leave Sikri alone.
I think it’s something else though. My major gripe with Midnight’s Children (though I still voted for it to win the Best of the Bookers last month) was the frequent lapses from the main story which went into an overly detailed, though fleeting, description of some analogue to a historic event. At least in that book, though, much of this was substantiated since the whole book was about the history. Here I didn’t feel like the stories embedded in stories furthered anything, even though the book is written, in part, to show the magic of storytelling. In contrast to Part I, these stories didn’t do it for me. I could have done without that Enchantress entirely (though apparently, if we go by the title, Rushide thought she was a pretty important part of the book). Although Rushdie continued to slather these inner stories with magical details, the details didn’t seem substantiated by the stories themselves which felt strangely lifeless after the first part where even an imaginary Queen feels real and has a soul, where an artist falls so in love with his work that he enters it by painting himself into the frame.
The final chapter seemed at first to pick up the thread, and I hoped it would resolve some of the themes and help me get a better appreciation for the previous 180 pages. To an extent, it did, but not enough for me to finish the book happily. The inner stories just pulled the book too far into the deep for me. It was sad that, despite the quirky detail, in these inner stories all we get is a very brief survey of events in episodic speed to bolster something Rushdie thought would be clever.
Not that I usually mind Rushdie’s self-conscious cleverness, even when he shoves it in your face:
In those days Sikri was swarming with poets and artists, those preening egotists who claimed for themselves the power of language and image to conjure beautiful somethings from empty nothings . . .
I think he’s shown he’s got what it takes to be a remembered author, so I can take a bit of self-indulgence now and then. His style, though, showy, is still something to be reckoned with. And, after all, it’s loads better than all those authors trying to sound like Rushdie. But to me, after the first part, all this book was was self-indulgent. It was as if Rushdie had done a lot of research (which he admits to and shows in the long bibliography at the end) and just wanted to have some self-gratifying fun with what he’d learned. The story was promising, but for the last 200 pages I just wanted to get back to Sikri and forget the whole Enchantress of Florence bit.
I know that I’m not alone in my dislike of the book. Another reason I didn’t read the book right away was because most reviews I read were fairly negative, if not spitefully so. One positive one I remember, though, was from the London Financial Times in April. There John Sutherland, judge of the Man Booker Prize in 1999 and Chair in 2005, said, “If The Enchantress of Florence doesn’t win this year’s Man Booker I’ll curry my proof copy and eat it.” Well, I agreed with the committee’s 1999 decision with Disgrace and I completely disagreed in 2005 with The Sea. I’m glad Sutherland’s not on it this year or it would be several years in a row that I didn’t even like the winner, let alone think there was a better book on the longlist!