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Reviewed by:
  • The Enchantress of Florence
  • JoAnn Conrad (bio)
The Enchantress of Florence. By Salman Rushdie. New York: Random House, 2008. 358 pp.

In his latest novel, The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie weaves a multilayered, multicentered, and multivocal story in which historical events and adventures of wonder promiscuously intermingle, defying any clear-cut boundary between reality and fantasy. Set in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, this is a "historical novel" that mirrors contemporary sensibilities and apprehensions "before the real and unreal were segregated forever and doomed to live apart under different monarchs and separate legal systems" (324). And yet, in his nonlinear and horizontal approach to history, Rushdie draws us into his story as it unfolds during the global moments that anticipate and prefigure the modern era. In Florence the Renaissance is in full swing; in India the Mughal empire is at its height under Akbar the great; Elizabeth I is Akbar's contemporary; the Ottoman Empire is at its most expansive; the Safavi empire is established under Shah Ismail; and the New World is "discovered," mapped, and named by an Italian mapmaker named Vespucci. In the ethnocentrism of the West, it is rare to make connections between these contemporary moments, and yet Rushdie links them. In this, however, he is not so much fictionalizing this interconnected world, but bringing it to light. Most of the larger events in the novel, as marvelous as they may read, are quite close to [End Page 433] historical record. There was an inescapable hybridity and productivity to all these worlds-great movements of people, ideas, art, and knowledge brought about through violent conflict and conquest, but also by trade, alliances, and pilgrimage. This was a moment of great beauty, art, philosophical advancement, and wonder facilitated and made possible by movement/migration. Rushdie seamlessly and sensuously connects tale and historical worlds by personalizing moments of exchange and encounter, situating interpersonal relationships against the historical backdrop, and inventing fictional characters or fictional relationships between historical characters as intermediating devices-personalized agents of diffusion, discussion, hybridity-migrants across time and space. Despite the complicated multicultural and multilingual dramas that are behind the stories, we follow easily, drawn deeper into the lives and passions of the characters by the magic of the storyteller, who reminds us that "witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough" (73).

Since Midnight's Children (1981) Salman Rushdie has often visited the Arabian Nights as a source for inspiration, and the trace of the Nights remains a potent generative force behind the Enchantress as well: the outer frame introduces us to the "Mogor dell'Amore," also known as Uccello di Firenze, or Niccolo Vespucci, the blond-haired, counterfeit "English ambassador" who arrives at Akbar's court by virtue of his tales of wonder, and also compelled by his determination to deliver to Akbar "one in particular, a story which could make his fortune or else cost him his life" (10). His story is the central puzzle of the book; his conjured, complex tales, which are delivered in Sikir, Akbar's conjured city of shimmering light, enchant Akbar, suspending the eventual verdict on the veracity and possibility of his claim that he, the Mogor dell'Amore, is Akbar the Great's uncle. Like Scheherazade, the Mogor's ability to draw his audience into his tale world is a life-and-death matter. As in the Nights, this outside frame encloses the stories of countless other interrelated characters, each with their own stories, which unfold throughout. In addition to Akbar and the Mogor dell'Amore, the most important of these include the Enchantress of Florence herself-Angelica, or Qara Köz-and Argalia/Arcalia, "the handsomest man in the world," head of the Ottoman Janissaries. These four central characters are themselves related, and relate all the events and stories in the novel to one another in a dynamic matrix in which narration is made equivalent to and dependent on movement. Angelica, the hidden Princess Qara Köz, is the lost great-aunt of Akbar, lover of Argalia, the Florentine orphan turned Ottoman Janissary commander; and the Morgor dell'Amore is, years after both their...


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pp. 433-436
Launched on MUSE
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