The Enchantress of Florence is Salman Rushdie’s ninth novel and was published in 2008. Rushdie is a literary fiction big-wig and this was my first foray into Rushdie territory. This book is a combination of historical fiction and magical realism and does a splendid job of weaving together fact and fancy.
The Enchantress of Florence is the tale of a woman and two nations at the apex of their power, the Medici and Machiavellian Florence, and India under the Mughal emperor, Akbar the Great. The story opens with a Florentine traveler, Niccolo Vespucci, trying to make his way to the court of Emperor Akbar. He has a story to tell, a story that only the emperor may hear. The traveler understands the importance of tales, truths and lies and he uses each masterfully, almost as if he himself is a sorcerer.
To begin his tale, Niccolo, who calls himself Mogor Dell’Amore, or the Mughal of Love (which is slightly blasphemous but the emperor is interested so he lets it slide), makes a shocking statement; he tells the emperor that he is his uncle. Which makes no sense seeing as how the traveler is very clearly Western European, not Indian, and is also like, 20 years the emperor’s junior. Niccolo understands that if an emperor thinks you are lying to him, its a bad situation, and rushes to explain that he is the son of Qara Koz, the lost Mughal princess. The emperor is unimpressed – there is no one in his family tree with that name. It is impossible but keeping with tradition, Akbar calls on his mother and another great lady of the court. Women are the keepers of stories and history you see, if ever there was a Princess Qara Koz, they will know. When the women arrive at court, Niccolo repeats his story and upon hearing the name Qara Koz, the Queen Mother and her companion call the emperor over because well, actually, yes, there was a young woman by that name. The emperor would never have heard it though because it was erased from their family history. Which makes it interesting that this Florentine tale-teller would know her name.
The story of Qara Koz is a sweeping tale that moves across continents and times. The emperor’s grandfather was Babar and he had two sisters, Khanzada, the most beautiful woman in all the land, and Qara Koz, their younger sister, plus Qara Koz’s servant whom they call the Mirror. She is Qara Koz’s most trusted friend and is an almost exact match to her physically (we don’t know how this is possible, but I suspect some sort of magic). As Qara Koz grows older her beauty begins to eclipse that of her older sister, and Khanzada isn’t happy about it. After some battle or another, Khanzada is taken as a spoil of war and takes Qara Koz with her. While held as hostages, Qara Koz falls in love and when she is given the chance to return to her family with Khanzada, she refuses. Kara Qoz winds up in Florence and for choosing to stay in a land, and with a people not her own, she is cast out from her family and erased from history for her betrayal. Kara Qoz is a strong woman and one of unsurpassed, mystical beauty; wherever she goes, the people she meets seem to fall under a spell. They are enchanted by her beauty and she brings a certain power to any man that she loves. But the road from beloved and benevolent enchantress to witch, is a short one, and the love of a city is fickle. Kara Qoz is cast out of Florence, a princess and enchantress with nowhere to call home. Her home becomes the story Niccolo tells – eventually it is the only place she lives, the only dimension in which she exists.
The Enchantress of Florence is a richly detailed novel. Salman Rushdie’s descriptive powers are on full display and they are giant. There were times in the novel where I felt like the history of the story weighed it down and I just wanted to get back to Rushdie’s glittering writing. The writing and descriptions are so great that the fact that I didn’t really get the story was secondary. I finished this book, looked at my roommate and said “I just finished this book and it was really good buuuut I didn’t really get it”. The whole time I was reading, I kept thinking, oh I’ll understand the importance of this tale after he reveals the ending…but I also had the feeling that maybe I was just missing something. Like, maybe I’m not smart enough for this book; I get that home is what shapes us, what gives us our power, but is that really it? I enjoyed the novel and I would definitely be interested in reading more Rushdie, if only for his writing style, but I think I might have to go into any other Rushdie novel knowing I may not fully “get” it. If you’re someone who needs to know 100% the meaning of any story, Rushdie may not be for you. But if you like a beautifully detailed story that is still fun to read, The Enchantress of Florence is a pretty solid bet.