A gifted storyteller

2008-06-25 00:00

The Enchantress of Florence

by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape

In this latest novel by Salman Rushdie, a strange “yellow-haired” European visitor to the Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri and the stories he tells provide a bridge between generations and cultures, wars and love affairs, and two cities: Sikri, the capital city of the Emperor Akbar, and Florence under the rule of the Medici family.

As the stories unfold, complex mirrorings and doublings serve to contrast these two great cities that reached their separate flowerings at the time of the European Renaissance. The six-page bibliography at the end of the book gives some indication of the extensive historical research that informs the novel. The similarities in the philosophical, cultural and even the hedonistic practices and preoccupations of these two centres of power — and their military aggressiveness — are surprising.

The visitor, who calls himself the “Mogor dell’Amore”, gradually reveals a further linking between Sikri and Florence in the form of the beautiful and mysterious Qara Kös, also a traveller from afar, who made Florence her home where she became known as the Enchantress of Florence.

The stories of the “Mogor dell’Amore” are multi-layered and subjected to much interrogation, interpretation and interruption. Rushdie has always been interested in story-telling: it is through stories that we shape our realities and understandings of ourselves and the world.

The palaces, streets, brothels, battlegrounds, kitchens, bed chambers, debating halls and market places conjured up in these stories inhabit the reader’s imagination with a multi-dimensional and sensual richness that is at times enthralling.

Occasionally I paused in my reading to reflect, sometimes to digest the rich diet of extravagant description and even to wonder why I was so caught up in convoluted tales of intrigue, love, betrayal, war, magic, devotion and deception. But when resuming reading I soon found myself to be engrossed by powerful stories superbly told.

Whatever one may have heard or read about Rushdie and his previous books, it is worth engaging with his latest novel with open-mindedness and curiosity — essential attributes of storyteller and reader alike. Within the pages of the book — enclosed in a beautifully designed cover — you may well find yourself to be enchanted.

As the “Mogor dell’Amore” observes to the Emperor Akbar: “The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.” It takes a gifted storyteller to lead the reader to appreciate this paradox.

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