The Enchantress of Florence
By Salman Rushdie
Random House, 355 pp., $26
The novelist John Gardner claimed there are two basic plots in fiction: someone goes on a trip, or a stranger comes to town. Salman Rushdie's "Enchantress of Florence" opens with a stranger coming to town, and ends with the same fellow heading off on a trip.
This is not to suggest the book is painstakingly plotted. That's not how Rushdie tends to work. He's a maker of mischief, a spinner of yarns, and an unrepentant digresser. Whether or not you enjoy this new novel - his 10th - will very much depend on your tolerance for the author's distinct brand of narrative exuberance.
The stranger in question is a handsome young Florentine with flowing blond hair. The town is Fatehpur Sikri, the newly built capital of the Mogul empire. The Florentine has come to see the Mogul emperor Akbar the Great - to reveal a shocking secret, in fact: Despite his tender age and his city of origin he is the emperor's uncle.
It's quite a cliffhanger, and it takes nearly 350 pages before Rushdie unravels the mystery. Along the way, he gets happily waylaid by the intrigues and affairs of a dazzling cast. We get mercenaries and whores with hearts of gold and albino giants and heartsick despots and evil queens, not to mention Machiavelli and Vlad the Impaler. We get bloody battles and palace politics and plenty of sexual healing amid harems and brothels. That's to say nothing of the myriad curses and potions, the vanishing lakes and miraculous perfumes.
Rushdie did exhaustive research on the period in question (the book includes a daunting bibliography), and his descriptions of life in the 16th century are often wondrous, a riot of lavish and squalid details.
There's a lovely account of Dashwanth, the royal painter of the Mogul court, who falls in love with the legendary princess he has been commissioned to paint. He becomes so obsessed with his subject that he disappears into the border of one of his pictures of her. The emperor, an avowed romantic, shows mercy when the artist is discovered and the border separated from the canvas. " 'Put the border back,' Akbar commanded, 'and let the poor fellow have some peace.' " It's an enchanting fable that displays Rushdie's gift for magical realism.
His broad concern, as in previous works, seems to be the migration of people and ideas between Eastern and Western cultures. In this case, he's chosen to focus on Italy during the High Renaissance and the Mogul court at its hedonistic apex.
But Rushdie has crammed so much into these pages - so many details and subplots - that it's impossible to tell what he's actually writing about. More distressing, it's difficult to care much about the people he's writing about. Akbar is probably the only character who comes close to feeling three-dimensional, something other than a figment of the author's fulsome imagination. There's an absolutely stunning moment, for instance, after the emperor has beheaded one of his enemies, in which he muses on the nature of power. "In the hours after he killed the Rana," Rushdie writes, "the emperor was possessed by his familiar demon of loneliness. Whenever a man spoke to him as an equal it drove him crazy, and this was a fault, he understood that, a king's anger was always a fault, an angry king was like a god who made mistakes."
The passage is striking because this sort of introspection is so rare. Dramatic things happen to Rushdie's characters but very rarely happen inside them. When they do change, the transformation feels disingenuous, like an act of authorial fiat performed to keep the action from flagging.
And I'll admit, as well, that I found much of the book too clever by half. When Rushdie has one of his Mogul characters think, "The English had no future on this earth. . . . A race that rejected the idea of personal sacrifice would surely be erased from time's record before very long," we can see him smirking at his own irony.
Other flourishes appear frankly baffling, as when a Genoan pirate shares his personal credo with a companion: "Whatever it takes is the choice we makes." Notwithstanding the difficulties of translation, did Renaissance-era pirates really speak this way?
If "The Enchantress of Florence" can be said to have one indisputable mark of greatness, it resides in Rushdie's astonishing capacity for invention. I suspect readers in the mood for an erudite romp, and willing to forgo psychological complexity, will happily charge through his colorful thickets of prose.
But I couldn't help feeling that Rushdie himself was aware, at least subconsciously, of the book's overriding flaws. Early on, in describing the blond Florentine, he observes, "If he had a fault, it was that of ostentation, of seeking to be not only himself but a performance of himself as well." A hundred pages later, Rushdie writes of Akbar, "Any novelty was a delight to him, it was as if he had never stopped being a child and so fell in love with any shiny new notion as if it were a silver rattle in a nursery and not the serious stuff of a proper adult life."
I'm all for shiny new notions, but the essential business of literary novelists - particularly ones as audaciously talented as Rushdie - should be the revelation of those old verities that remind us what it means to be human.
Steve Almond's new essay collection, "(Not That You Asked)," will be out in paperback this summer.