The Enchantress of Florence
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". . . brilliant, entertaining and amusing . . ."
Salman Rushdie’s new fairy tale, The Enchantress of Florence, captivates us with magical realism during the late middle ages in Europe and Central Asia. It is a love story laced with intrigue, suspense and sensuality, based on a wealth of historical events and documented with an extensive bibliography.
In the fabled Asian city of Sikri lives Emperor Akbar the Great, so great and divine he is that he creates an imaginary wife who “could walk, talk, and make love in spite of not existing.” But this great warrior and philosopher not accustomed to surprises is challenged by a stranger, a silver-tongued storyteller who has traveled many oceans to reveal a secret for only the king’s ears.
Niccoló Vespucci claims he is the emperor’s uncle and that his mother is Princess Qara Köz, (also known as Angelica), a direct descendant of Genghis Khan and the sister of the First Mughal emperor of India. She came to Florence as a “spoil of war,” with magical powers so extraordinary that the Pope considered her for sainthood. The storyteller chronicles her life and her relationship with three friends from Florence—Antonino Argalia, the Turk wielder of the enchanted lance who was her lover; Niccolo “il Machia” who rescued her from a mob prepared to kill her, and Ago Vespucci, the storyteller’s father who followed her into the New World.
Although Akbar questions the man’s claim that his mother had been capable of stopping time, he is enthralled with the story that takes years in the telling. The emperor vicariously steps in and out of the story, at times falling in love with Angelica and other times comparing his city with Florence’s social order and politics. During this Renaissance period, Florence is rich with art and political discourse, a hedonist place and also a time when bishops were hung and priests burned. Sirki also accommodates famous artists and philosophers in the “Debating Chamber” where the “water drinkers” and the “wine lovers” hold discourse and even the King can be the subject of criticism.
As the story unfolds, the King becomes obsessed with the storyteller, but he has conflicting thoughts. On one hand, he wants to adopt Niccoló as a son. On the other, he fears the storyteller will bring misfortunate to his kingdom. The king says, “When the sword of the tongue is drawn it inflicts deeper cuts than the sharpest blade.”
Indian-born Rushdie is still best recognized for his 1988 book, The Satanic Verses, which prompted death threats from some in the Muslim community. He currently is a writer-in-residence at Emory University in Atlanta.
After the first few chapters, I felt enthralled by the story. Rushdie’s humor and satire, his seamless incorporation of parallel historical data—reality and fantasy—is brilliant, entertaining and amusing.
Reviewer: Kate Padilla