Monday, February 02, 2009

Salman Rushdie, "The Enchantress of Florence"

Salman Rushdie's latest novel opens with a foreign stranger--appropriately modeled after the classic tricksters of fables and fantasies--approaching a golden lake that "looked like a sea of molten gold." Wealthy as the Mughal capital, Fatehpur Sikri, is, this is of course an illusion, the sun making the water appear otherworldly. The Enchantress of Florence has a similar effect: written in the embellished prose of a many-sleeved storyteller, it stretches a wanderer's journey into a golden epic. However, although there is an underlying "reality" of the novel, which walks between Arabian Nights-like fantasy and a grittier Florentine drama (the cadences sound Umberto Eco-ish there), let the strength of water itself not be forgotten. Much as Rushdie rambles, he also flows; for all that he gushes, he also channels.

If there are complaints with Rushdie's novel it is that, unlike his most remembered work (Midnight's Children and The Satanic Verses, or even The Ground Beneath Her Feet), this is magical realism without the realism. This is not to dismiss the five-page bibliography, but the exotic romances here--of blind elephant judges, voluminous prostitutes, poisons and princesses--keep the novel untethered. (Not to the degree of Moorcockian pulp that Michael Chabon dabbled in with the recent Gentlemen of the Road.) And yet, "the untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world." These "improvised versions of the endless stream of stories he had learned" will get both the golden-haired foreigner, Mogor dell'Amore, and his spiritual ancestor, Antonino Argalia out of many a predicament.

Enjoyable as the novel is to read, it's hard to identify a central theme--mainly because that theme deals with the physicalization of illusion. The stories within The Enchantress of Florence bring adventures to life for the reader, but they do so even more literally within the novel, for Emperor Akbar has willed his perfect queen, Jodha, into existence--through mass belief and rumor, treading the line between "delirium and sanity." When dell'Amore arrives with a secret for Akbar's ears only, he conjures up a new woman, Qara Kos, the "hidden" princess. Along these lines, there is much to be said for the secret ways in which women once had to wield their power in a world of men, though the novel is more engrossed in literary romance than physical romance.

Of course, The Enchantress of Florence doesn't always know what it is, and while that exotic patchwork of diaphanous stories works for the first half of the novel, some of the latter sections drag, as consequences often do. In some ways, however, it is necessary for Rushdie to have weak sections to his tale: if his illusion were perfect, it would be impossible to write of illusions; if love were truly indomitable, it would simply be enslavement.

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