Rushdie, The Enchanter
By John Murphy
Posted 10/6/08 at 11:45 PM
In 1988, Sir Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses earned the Indian-British author a rare honor: a fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination, issued by a faction of Muslim extremists. The fatwa granted Rushdie the social distinction of martyrdom without its one significant disadvantage, as the author continued to collect awards and accolades. His latest, The Enchantress of Florence, is a spellbinding tale of two empires, of true love and cutthroat ambition, set in palaces of the East and West during the Italian High Renaissance
Emperor Akbar the Great, of Mughal India, is a king of contradictions, “A muslim vegetarian, a warrior who wanted only peace, a philosopher-king,” in search of of love. A fair-haired foreigner calling himself “Mogor dell’Amore” arrives at the Eastern court claiming to own a secret only the emperor can hear. His secret is a story, the story of a woman who binds the two men by blood: a famous beauty, the “Enchantress of Florence.” As the silver-tongued foreigner unfolds the epic tale, Rushdie also enchants with his exotic (or exoticizing) pageant, full of historical details and magical flourishes. His two cities, Florence and Sikir, the Mughal capital, are dens of debauchery, counterpoints in sensuality, mired in the hedonism that fueled the hellfire of the monk Savonarola’s brimstone preaching.
As the narrative unwraps like the Gordian knot, Rushdie develops his theme of the fluidity between fantasy and reality, time and space, even life and death, revealing the true enchantment to be the story itself. Rushdie is a fine snake charmer: his melody hypnotizes as he evokes an Orientalist vision of the East: a place of harems, opium dens, curses, and concubines, as well as a vision of Florence as decadently religious, populated with devious princes and Medici popes. But the true magic remains storytelling itself. In the main, Rushdie wants to recover some of the romance that makes novel-writing such a reward: the thrill of escapism, the transcendence of subcreated myths.
Rushdie’s point of transcendence is not God (either Christian or Muslim), but a woman, an enchantress, “The Dark Lady of Florence” who bewitches artists and poets and emperors. Yet even she is subject to the laws of her creator, Rushdie, which is perhaps why he has the Emperor Akbar serve as his “mirror”: also imagining into being a figure from his imagination: his ideal lover, Jhoda. Does Rushdie, after the fashion of Picasso’s “I lie to tell the truth,” believe in the power of stories to ultimately reveal the truth? The answer is in a nondescript note attached to the page before the dedication: “This is a work of fiction. A few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interests of the truth.” Whether or not The Enchantress of Florence succeeds as revelation, it is worth remembering that “witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”
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