Fantasy and reality, history and myth, truth and lies–these are all central elements of Salman Rushdie’s Enchantress of Florence, the third Rushdie novel I’ve read and probably not the last. (I’ve also read Shalimar the Clown and Midnight’s Children.) The Enchantress of Florence presents the story of Qara Koz, the “hidden princess” of the Mughal empire who traveled the world, first as a captive and later as a lover of Antonino Argalia, a powerful warrior who takes her to Florence. We learn about Qara Koz from a yellow-haired man named Niccolo Vespucci who has come to the Mughal court claiming his kinship with Qara Koz, and therefore with Emperor Akbar. Akbar becomes enchanted by the tale and must decide what it means for the future of his empire.
Of course, this bare bones description of the plot does not even scratch the surface of this rich novel. Reality and unreality, the natural and the supernatural exist side by side in this book, making it an appealing multilayered concoction that pushes us past our usual understanding of what is real. Akbar’s wives compete for attention with Jodha, his imaginary wife who has her own quarters–and her own opinions. Jodha, in turn, must compete with Qara Koz, or at least with Akbar’s version of who she must have been. History and myth also coexist, as when Qara Koz meets up with Niccolo Machiavelli, and when Argalia battles Vlad the Impaler, aka Dracula. (I must admit that I wished several times when I was reading that I had a better grasp of European history.)
There’s a lot going on in this book, and it requires careful attention, but it’s worth the effort. Some parts of the story are absolutely captivating. I, for one, loved the descriptions of Florence and the city’s reaction to Qara Koz. Other parts were less riveting. After the initial excitement of Niccolo Vespucci’s arrival at the Mughal court, the story lost steam for a while until Qara Koz’s story took center stage. In fact, most of the transitions from one time period to another were a bit rocky. The book is at its best when the reader can really settle in to one time and place. (I found this to be true of Rushdie’s other novels as well.)
I think this book would benefit from a being read in a few long bursts rather than snatches here and there. Rushdie’s prose works best when you can immerse yourself in it. Every time I picked the book up again after putting it down, I had a hard time getting into it. However, after several pages, I was fully engaged in the story and almost always regretted having to put it down.