The Enchantress of Florence is a potpourri of the magical and the adventurous – from pirates, to a strange yellow-haired traveler, to emperor and duke, warlords, women from pleasure houses and palaces, imagined women, and real women, painters, dreamers, commoners, statesmen, giants, young boys seeking mandrake roots, and the phantom of a secret that travels across the seas from Italy, and over 100 years, to reach the court of a Mughal Emperor. The Enchantress of Florence is a fairytale that blends history and fantasy.
The secret involves, Emperor Akbar’s great aunt, Qara Köz (“Black Eyes”), a “hidden princess” whose name was erased from Mughal history when she chose to marry the king of Persia. And the yellow-haired storyteller charismatically weaves an implausible story around Qara Köz and lays a claim of his own kinship to the Mughal Emperor. Magic and history are entwined to create a tapestry of love, lust, power, and “story that must be told.” The style is narrative, and Rushdie categorically talks about the power and enchantment of wordplay – “Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands,” Akbar learns. “Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough.”
“The Enchantress of Florence” is mostly set in the city of Fatehpur Sikri, built by the Mughal emperor Akbar in 1571. Akbar is the real protagonist of the book, a ruler who manifests human follies and inconsistencies and is prone to the contemplation of his life’s paradoxes: a classic example being, whether he should refer to himself, as I or We; or his quest to understand the underlying necessity of religious faith, or the way he is allured by the excesses and eroticism of Florentine way of life, and his insecurities with regard to the ambitious Prince Salim, and the contradictions of living in an imagined and in the real world.
Nearing the end of the novel, his contemplation on the concept of “incest” also reflects on his brooding temperament – his desire to discern right from wrong. He may be the king, but he is still a man, wondering if what he thinks is right, whether his thoughts can be converted into the right action. Rushdie has painstakingly created a larger than life protagonist, who is no less mesmerizing as the female protagonist. Infact, more than Qara Koz, who is supposed to be the central theme, or Enchantress, it is the wonderful characterization of Akbar that dominates and drives the story. Akbar, who enchants the reader in this tale with all his human follies, and royal grandeur, is ultimately enchanted by the power of a woman, even if imaginary.
This woman is the legendary, long-forgotten, Qara Köz as “a woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king,” but who still has to strive to “remain on the winning side” by attaching herself to the most powerful man in the power play of the medieval military world. And here lies the irony, for Qara Köz is a supreme commander of men’s fantasies, of their erotic frenzy and an enchantress of sorts. The ability to create fact from desire is the central theme in this novel, for instance, the royal painter, Dashwanath deliberately imagines his obliteration when he falls in love with Qara Köz, his subject.
Another interesting character in the novel is Princess Jodhabai – the “nonexistent beloved” who has been conjured by the Emperor’s imagination, as the perfect woman, the ideal queen, the lustful consort and the intelligent counterpart. But Jodhabai soon relegates into the background, as the enchantment of Qara Köz permeates the abode of the Emperor – “Jodhabai has gone, because the emperor no longer has need for her. I will be his companion from now on.” One phantom replaces the other as Akbar’s imagination clings onto the charismatic image of Qara Köz as described by the story-teller, Mogor dell’ Amore.
The book falters in the middle – it begins on a vibrant note with a promise to “mirror” a secret, but it seems to lose much of its zest, beauty and free flow halfway through. There is a desire to rush through and reach the parts of the novel where Akbar remerges in the tale. Nearing the middle, the book is inundated by too many characters and keeping track of all becomes an exasperating exercise. The plot becomes mystically confusing, but the narrative retains its lyrical quality. The main characters are nearly pulsating with life and the reader can almost feel the taut throb of the emperor’s heart as he indulges in the mysterious deep recesses of his personal thoughts, misgivings, confusions, and restlessness.
It is a fairytale for adults and can enrapture you only if have the penchant to revel in the power of the imagined and the imaginary. The moment you start taking the book on its face-value, analyzing it realistically, the great Mughal Monarch, Akbar, will appear insane and unstable to you. The book is not about the obvious, the apparent or the real, but about the hidden, the mind’s play, secret desires and hopes, dreams and magic, and of child-like love for adventure, mystery and romance. It is a tribute to the madness underlying our most subtle suggestions.
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