April 27, 2008 8:37 AM
THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE
Random House, $26
Vladislav III, aka Vlad the Impaler, the real Romanian voivode who became the inspiration for Count Dracula, met his end sometime around 1476. Some say he died on the battlefield against the Turks, some have him assassinated by his own men. But the most fantastic and Gothic demise for Vlad has him decapitated and his head sent back to the Sultan in Istanbul, preserved in a jar of honey.
The honey jar episode makes its way into one page of Salman Rushdie’s new novel, “The Enchantress of Florence,” with Vlad just a footnote. But it’s emblematic of this sprawling, fantastic work, the culmination of 10 years of research by the author.
Set during the Renaissance and taking in both its title location and the Mughal Empire (roughly present day India and lands to the north), “The Enchantress of Florence” spins a tale of imaginary and real women, of barbarism and civilization, and of storytelling itself. If it feels like an encyclopedia of knowledge crammed into its 350 pages, don’t worry — Mr. Rushdie includes an extensive bibliography at the end. For those who find his blend of fairy tale, history, and the so-fantastic-it-probably-actually-happened too overwhelming to sift through, there’s always, ahem, Google.
But what of the story, which proceeds less like a straight line and more a series of concentric loops with a zigzag through them? A mysterious traveler from the West arrives at the palace of Akbar the Great bearing a letter from Queen Elizabeth I, but, more importantly, a story that only the Emperor can hear. Akbar, as we have been shown, would rather behead a man than listen to anything a know-it-all foreigner could say, but a wave of enlightenment and a surging feeling of self-doubt have taken a recent hold of him. The man from Florence claims lineage from the complicated family tree of the Mughal Empire and now reaches back to spin a yarn to prove — and also save — himself.
From the start, Mr. Rushdie lets us in on the probable fiction of this man’s tale. But as we are already within a novel that is sewn together from both history and imagination, and where the Emperor’s top wife is a woman that has been created out of the imagination (much to the consternation of his other hundred wives), the waters, while golden around the Emperor’s palace in Fatehpur Sikri, have a considerable muddiness to them.
The storyteller goes by the name of Mogor Dell’Amore (“the Mughal of Love”) but that is not his real or his only name. But as readers follow Mr. Rushdie into the story, they will find that names, like identities, have a way of changing to suit the situation. Everything becomes fluid in “The Enchantress of Florence,” as every character seems to have several names — the main criticism to levy against the book is its potential for confusion for the reader who cannot make it through large chunks of the novel in one sitting. Niccol0x98 Machiavelli takes a starring role, as do the brothers of a certain Amerigo Vespucci (who disappears from the novel in order to have a continent named after him). Literary allusions pop up among the historical ones, and the Three — no, strike that, four — Musketeers turn up in the second half as well.
Mr. Rushdie writes with enjoyable aplomb, spinning on the fantastic and flowery to drop in a street-level bit of realism and humor to mix things up a bit. “The Enchantress of Florence” feels like an old children’s book written for adults, a reminder that the image of far-off lands or of perfect lovers can possess us at any age, and that imagination can change history in the weirdest of ways.
Salman Rushdie will discuss his work with author Pico Iyer at 4 p.m. May 4 at UCSB Campbell Hall as part of UCSB Arts & Lectures. Tickets are $25 general, $15 UCSB students. For tickets, call 893-3535 or go to www.artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.
©2008 Santa Barbara News-Press