Machiavelli is only one of the characters in history which Rushdie brings to new life in the novel, weaving real men and women with those of his imagination, real life with the unexplainable fictitious, drawing us into a world born of his own brand of magic realism. The story starts in a sweltering, sensual India where the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great finds himself with a Florentine stranger in his court, a man with a story that only Akbar may hear, a man who goes by many names and leaves us guessing at the reality of his identity until the last pages of the novel. As we hear the stranger's story we experience the tumult of emotions in the great Mughal emperor, his fear and love, while at the same time being transported to Florence during the High Renaissance, to Machiavelli and his childhood friends Ago Vespucci and Antonino Argalia, and to the stories of their lives. The stranger's tale is one of tragic romance, sorcery, war, treachery and friendship – a delirium of sumptuous scenes and settings – and as he tells his story he pieces together parts of Akbar's history that even the emperor himself didn't know were missing. That's where the enchantress herself comes in, but I'll let you read the novel for yourself to find out just who she is.
As contradictory as it sounds, I think The Enchantress of Florence requires a certain amount of detachment in the reading process in order for the reader - at least, the reader heretofore unfamiliar with Rushdie's writing, as I was - to be drawn into the story to the fullest extent. It's a thinker's book, and yet there's such a thing as over-thinking it. Rushdie in his genius shows us the extent of his research, years of which went into the writing of this novel, by including a plethora of names, places and words we may not recognize. He adds to the opulence of the novel's detail - in a way almost exaggerating it - by giving even minor characters very important (and very full) names. It's easy to think you have to study each one to avoid forgetting, but I found that every character who was recalled later in the book came back to me easily, no doubt a testament to the way Rushdie uses the art of writing as a tool alongside his immense ability as a storyteller. Likewise, magic and the power of imagination play a crucial part in the story and explanation is never given, so it requires a certain amount of letting-go of the natural improbabilities of reason.
In all, while I know a lot of people see this season as a time for novels of a much lighter fare The Enchantress of Florence was, to me, a fantastic escapist novel for summer. I loved Rushdie's writing, his wit and wisdom, and was captivated by the intensity of the novel and the detail of its story. It was at times challenging and there were days when I knew I didn't really have it in me to read it, but Rushdie has a way of goading you to understand, guiding you through his created world with such expertise and confidence that you find yourself beguiled by his talent. He's something of an enchanter himself.
I'll close out my thoughts with this interview Bere shared with me, in which Salman Rushdie talks a bit about the writing process and New York Times' Roger Cohen reads one of my favorite excerpts from the novel. Enjoy!
Title: The Enchantress of Florence Author: Salman Rushdie Genre: Fantasy, historical, romance Publisher: Random House Format: Paperback Release date: January 6, 2009 Source: Personal library Buy the book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | BetterWorldBooks Connect with the author: Twitter
Note: I originally published this content on The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower. It has been reproduced here for continuity of review-writing history.