Shameless, fearless

The Enchantress of Florence

Brenden Rhead
September 4, 2008

Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence inspires a fury of various and contradictory adjectives while simultaneously defying description-the true mark of a great work of literature.

 

Make no mistake, the controversial author's latest work has lofty literary ambitions; the prose is gorgeous and flowery and fantastical, oftentimes too much so-as if Rushdie constantly seeks to remind the reader of his formidable prowess with the written word. Despite the transparent self-flattery that almost obnoxiously extols the storyteller and his art, Rushdie's writing succeeds in a remarkable way, indeed in every way. Thematically and stylistically, this book is one for the ages; it touches intelligently and tenderly on the most diverse aspects of the human condition- the highest and lowest passions of the senses, the deepest loneliness and the most meaningful companionship, the problem of religion and the identity of the man displaced from his own country.

 

The Enchantress of Florence is a daring work, a skeptical work, and above all a multicultural work that seamlessly weaves together Eastern and Western culture in a time of new discoveries, new philosophies, new temptations. Raw humanity screams out from every page of the book-from the bloody, crowded battle scenes in the streets of Florence to the poignant portrayal of the plight of a court prostitute in medieval Hindustan. ‘This may be the curse of the human race,' a character suggests at one point, ‘Not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.'

 

In a similarly powerful way, the sensuously described landscapes come to life ferociously. By no means is Renaissance Florence the only environs enchanted by the author's golden touch; the expansive and exotic Indian court of Akbar the Great plays an even greater role and enthralls with perhaps a greater force. Some episodes take place in the faraway, recently discovered New World; others transpire in little Tuscan hamlets in the countryside. The author's vehicle is thus not a single story from a single point of view but myriad stories described by a kaleidoscope of human personalities. The primary storyteller is a mysterious yellow-haired Florentine traveler, but the other perspectives offered are no less ambitious: the illustrious political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, the all-powerful but enlightened Emperor Akbar, and even the Emperor's imaginary-yes, imaginary- but tangibly beautiful wife Queen Jodha become joint narrators of a story woven together richly and shamelessly.

 

‘Shameless,' in fact, is the best way to describe Rushdie's work. He unscrupulously borrows characters from history and literature and weaves them into the plot, wasting the potential of some and brilliantly profiting from others. His prose tirelessly shifts between raw vulgarity and refined elegance in a way that is altogether appropriate for his characters and environments-daring men and women who shape their own destiny and question traditional roles. These figures inhabit a harsh world where men are burned alive on the steps of religious monuments and powerful warlords take concubines by force. Nevertheless, magic and imagination are omnipresent-more durable than religion or governments or beliefs. Above all is the magic found in the gaze of a woman, the Enchantress of Florence herself-Qara Koz, the most beautiful woman in the world-one of the most enthralling characters in recent literature.

 

Some of the book's best moments are simply too tragic and disturbing to be described here, but the sadder moments always reveal a deeper sense of beauty. The author fears no subject and surrounds all his musings with an undying faith in the power of the written word. In the hedonistic and contradictory environments of Renaissance Florence and the court of the Grand Mughal of Hindustan, Rushdie confronts Machiavelli and Mohammed, Allah and amore-and spares no one and nothing at the altar of imagination and storytelling.

 

 

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