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The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie: (A Book Review)
Today we're looking at a novel by Salman Rushdie: "The Enchantress of Florence." The edition I have in my hand is hardcover, three-hundred-forty-nine pages in length. It was published by Random House, in New York, in 2008.
Some of you may remember that Salman Rushdie was the writer, who found himself in the midst of some, potentially, violent controversy with respect to some Middle Eastern Islamic authorities, after he penned the novel, "The Satanic Verses," many years ago.
Let me get something out of the way at the outset. This is a beautifully written, intricately woven book, which you will want and be glad to read through more than once. That is certainly the effect it had on me. Incidentally, this is the first time I have ever read anything penned by Salman Rushdie; and, at the risk of sounding shameless, it was long overdue.
The pitfalls of the 'historical fantasy' categorization
I was initially tempted to use the term historical fantasy as a descriptive term applicable to "The Enchantress of Florence." But that is not quite right.
It is "historical" in the sense that the story is placed hundreds of years ago in time, ranging between the Italian city of Florence and then Muslim-ruled India under the Mughals.
But the story is not "historical" in the sense of trying to retell any specific historical event. Rather, the novel sets out to give the reader a general sense of the times, the social, economic, political, and cultural texture of the time.
The novel is a work of "fantasy" in an internal socio-psychological and cultural sense. There are, internal to the novel and from the internal perspective of the characters, references to the amazing and uncanny. I'll come back to this.
The novel is not a work of "fantasy" in the sense that we usually fantasy as a genre of literature. That is to say, we the readers are never directly confronted by the amazing and uncanny. In that sense, nothing actually happens in the novel that could not have happened in real life; nothing "fantastic" is ever actually exhibited, which breaks real life laws of biology and physics---as opposed to the amazing and uncanny offerings of actual, genre fantasy literature, to which we the readers are directly exposed to.
You will see what I mean more fully later, but just know that any "magic" that happens in the novel is related to we the readers by internal reference. That is to say, this novel is a series of stories within a story. Characters tell other characters about magical events which happened in their distant past.
Does that make sense?
I suppose you might say we're dealing with Eastern Islamic mythology with a touch of Western European folklore. This novel has an East-meets-West texture, which is, in fact, central to the story.
Consider this: Take any, average, devout Christian. She believes that God visited select human beings, long ago, and told them things out of which the religion of Christianity emerged. However, if you told her that her that you were receiving specific instructions from Jesus Christ, she would look around for the men in the white jackets.
This is because the "magic" or "mysticism" that went into the creation of the religion is safely tucked away, back thousands of years ago. Usually, not even the most devout religionist wants to hear anything about any present-day "mysticism" or "magic," concerning her religion.
Throughout history, no theocratic state, be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other, has ever had any time for "mysticism" or "magic" concerning the tradition; and the reason for this is not hard to discern, if you think about it.
In America we have a saying: "Don't reinvent the wheel!" Once the wheel has been brought into existence and has survived for some time, the interest becomes geared toward stability, that is, preserving the wheel.
"Mysticism" or "magic," or "prophecy" went into creating the "wheel" of x religion in the first place. Now the focus is on stability. Therefore, word of present-day "mysticism" concerning the tradition is not greeted as good news by the particular organizational structure.
That is to say, "mysticism" or "magic" or "prophecy" within the present-day tradition of the "wheel," is a force that threatens "reinvention" of that wheel, which means, necessarily, the destruction of that wheel.
Of course, the point of all of that was simply to give you an idea of what kind of book you will be in for, when you check it out of the library or purchase it from the bookstore. If this was a historical novel in the traditional sense, then I would call it a genre novel, because the goal would be to retell the story of specific historical events, which, necessarily, must come out a certain way.
But it is not a historical novel in the traditional sense, as I have already suggested.
If this was a fantasy novel in the traditional sense that we, the readers, are directly exposed to the amazing and uncanny, I would say that this book belongs in the "genre" of fantasy.
But it is not a fantasy novel in that sense, as I have already suggested.
This is what I would call a literary novel because the drama of the plot imposes no specific imperatives upon anybody concerned. In other words, there is no specific mission, task, or series of tasks that anybody is called upon to carry out.
The basic story
The basic story is set in the sixteenth century, between the Italian city-state of Florence and Muslim-ruled India, of the reign of the Mughal emperor, Abu'l Fath Jalal ud-din Muhammad Akbar, who was commonly known as Akbar I, later Akbar the Great. There is a tall, blond-haired stranger who journeys from Florence all the way to India, to tell the great emperor a great secret.
I don't want to give the plot away, but the journey is quite the adventure for the young Florentine, as you can imagine. But as he tells the great emperor this secret, the secret never imposes any imperative upon the Muslim ruler to necessarily do anything about it. However, you will find that the young man has something of an "enchanting" effect upon the emperor, for a time.
Think: Joseph from the Bible initially held captive, then risen to the post of vizier in the land of the Egyptians.
I will say one other thing, at the risk of over-divulging. The young man, who calls himself the "Mughal of Love," turns out to be an unreliable narrator. But it is not because he deliberately deceives; it is because he has been deceived. The whole thing turns on family relations.
But when you think about it, since we are dealing with religion, the whole novel, in a sense, turns upon a unreliable narrative. That is because we are not just dealing with the doctrine of religion, the administration of the edifice of religion and the state which it lends itself to; we are not just dealing with practical consequences of what people believe about their religious tradition.
There is an insistence made to us, the readers---albeit by reference---of a live stream of "mysticism" moving throughout the tradition; and where tales of "magic" are concerned, marking out the boundaries of truth from falsehood is a tricky business, is it not?
Thank you for reading!