The female figure in the cover of Salman Rushdie’s eighth novel, the “Enchantress of Florence” hints on the action that will unfold in the text. But before any of the action occurs, Rushdie loses himself in meandering narrative streams and meticulous details.
The story begins at the end of the fifteenth century where we meet a young blond Italian who succeeds in reaching the legendary Mughal kingdom of Emperor Akbar and his golden city Fatehpur Sikri after after some adventures at sea. The blonde stranger quickly catapults herself into the inner circle of the Emperor and enjoys his favor in exchange for stories about the legendary city of Florence. The contrasting cities stand for two different relationships to reality. In the emperor’s oriental city, the boundaries between reality and desire are fluid and there is no absolute guarantor of reality. Rushdie illustrates this in great detail through a sequence in which Akbar’s mother and his sister visit Akbar’s imaginary other wife, Jodha. They are plunged into a paradoxi wherein they begin to feel their existence more in the vast emptiness.
Rushdie, however, does not succumb to the stereotype of rationality and mysticism between the Occident and the Orient. The reports of the stranger from Florence tells of a city torn by civil war, a city that had just been released from the clutches of the Church and the Medicis. The novel moves us to ponder on the nature of authoritarianism through the discussion of Italy under Niccolo Machiavelli during a short-lived period when it became a republic. It is precisely this Florence that is a place of religious fanaticism and church-led irrationality, that is being painted as opposed to the city of Akbar, the doubter, whose own authority as well as firmness in faith seem to quiver.
Fascinated by the story of a young woman who speaks of legends and her companion, and tales of their adventurous journey to the West, how they finally found royal hospitality, and the attractions of Florence, the legendary ruler lets his imaginations run wild while fantasizing about the enchantress in his palace ,
What Salman Rushdie wants to tell us, though, remains unanswered. He certainly presents a good story of an encounter between agnostics both in the East and in the West; he also touches on the male fascination for femininity as well as of female strength and how they are objectified but in the end, there is remains something perplexing about this splendid and sprawling story that seems to have a peculiar way of getting lost in its own narrative streams.
The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushied, Cape ___ Php, 349 pages, Available in Manila Bookstores