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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Book Review: "The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie


This was my first Salman Rushdie book, and BOY, has it been difficult to neatly summarize for a review! I’ve sat down countless times over the past couple weeks and just frozen up. So, please forgive the eclectic nature of my review.

On one level, “The Enchantress of Florence” is a historical novel with wonderful information about 16th Century Hindustan (India) and Florence, Italy. On another level, there is the story itself, chock full of characters and their back-stories, and those characters’ respective adventures. This layered story interweaves, back and forth across time and place. On still another level, this a platform for a fictionalized Akbar the Great to ponder the deep questions of humanity: a politically powerful man portrayed as being on the cusp of intellectual greatness as well.

There are a great many themes and juxtapositions in this book. Here are a few:
The confluence of differing histories, philosophies and belief systems (e.g. between East and West);
Power: political power versus the power of belief;
The power of belief as a political/historical force: if you believe in something strongly enough, it has the force of reality; it is self-determining; especially in the realm of politics;
Force and prudence: one of the characters of this book is a fictional Niccolo Machiavelli, who in real history wrote philosophical treatises on political power, particularly espousing the idea of a balance of force versus prudence to successfully rule. The upshot is the employment of this idea: “the ends justifying the means”;
Legend versus history: e.g. “magical realism”; also: what really happened way back when?; can we ever truly know?;
Women: what kind of power do women have in a patriarchal culture, or any culture, for that matter? Sexual? Intellectual? What do men really want from women? Loyal wife? Plaything? Intellectual equal?;
Who creates whom? Do we create ourselves, or are we created by others? What factors play into those things?

“The Enchantress of Florence” is very like a huge colorful tapestry: look in the upper right corner and there is a story of ancient Hindustan. Look: bottom left, a picture of 16th Century Florence. Look: there is Akbar the Great… And over there, Niccolo Machiavelli. That one female figure hiding behind a column, sometimes clearly seen, other times faded, seems to be saying something. The women in this tapestry, all of them at its center: so many of them are indescribably beautiful. All the male heads woven ito this picture, from the great of leaders, to the lowliest of servants, are all turned towards them. Looking at this tapestry, it’s hard at times to know what is real and what isn’t. There are strange workings just under the surface; unexplainable phenomena. In the end, is it just a story? My eyes wander all over this tapestry; there is a lot to see here.

Akbar’s complex characterization carries the story. He is characterized as a man who, in his kingdom, tries to reconcile all men, regardless of religion or status. He entertains the incredible idea that discord and difference might actually be a force for good, rather than ill; an idea that coming from a king is very unusual. In one scene he is slicing up a foe, in the next he is contemplating deep things. One moment he questions his identity as a god-like ruler; later in the book he wonders about women, imagining into being his “perfect” woman. This he does at the expense of interest in his “real” wives. Later he is awakened to an undeniable and disturbing allure of an unconventional, self-determinate woman. Akbar’s mind cannot be boxed; he is standing on an isthmus between ignorance and enlightenment. Ultimately, however, he realizes that his philosophy is as temporary as life itself: alive only as long as he is.

In its scale (though not in length) “The Enchantress of Florence” is reminiscent of “Don Quixote” or “The Brothers Karamazov”. It is unusual for me to read a modern novel that is irreverent with timeline and theme. But like those earlier masterworks, this is a welcome part of the journey. A book with so many layers is one that keeps its reader thinking about it long after the last word is processed.

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