The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie is a book that gels history, legends, fairy-tales and magic to build a wonderful fiction of mesmerizing effect. It’s a fiction that embarks on erudite research into the materials scattered all through the literature that records the explorers’ version of the world and the historians legacy, and at one point compels the readers to think that despite the physical insularities of human races across the medieval world, there did exist, actually, a similarity in their thinking. Magic, fantasy, story, ambition, wanderlust, romance, belief—everything that happened deep inside the medieval psyche was the same whether it was a Mughal emperor fantasizing about a perfect consort for him or a Florentine duke hobnobbing with his commander’s wife, whether the harlots of Fatehpur Sikri thriving under the protection of nobility and with their magic power or the courtesans of Florentine dancing “naked for the dignitaries until they forgot their dignity”.
The story is complex. It starts with Babar. He had to give his sister Khanzada to the Uzbeg warlord Lord Warmwood (Shaibani Khan) as a price of his (Babar’s) safe-conduct out of the besieged city of Samarkand. The exquisitely beautiful youngest princess and her mirror also accompanied Khanzada. Then they were rescued by the Persian King Ismail after defeating Lord Warmwood. In deference to his friendship with the Mughal king Babar, Ismail liberated the captured princess Khanzada but the youngest princess (Qara Koz) and her mirror chose to stay back. That enraged Babur, so much so that he ensured the exclusion of her name from all royal records. Then the Persian king Ismail was himself defeated by the Sultan of Ottoman in the battle of Chaldiran and its Jenissary Argalia took possession of the beautiful Mughal princess and her mirror. She was now known as Angelica, the enchantress beyond compare.
The above represents the background only. The actual story opens for the readers after a long gap, at a time when the lost prince (Qara Koz alias Angelica) would be ninety-five years old and when the Mughal Emperor Akbar, the grandson of Babar, is ruling India. A foreign traveler in a coat of coloured leather lozenges braves the hassles of a bullock-cart journey and the sweltering heat of the northern India into Akbar’s capital Fatehpur Sikri with an audacious request: he desires that the emperor would accept him as the offspring of the hidden Mughal princess Angelica, a scion of the house of royal Chaghatai. So, he has a story to tell and an ancestry to vindicate. He wants to restore the rightful dignity of her mother in the eyes of her clan. His story depicts his series of adventures that ride piggyback on magic: how the Janissary lover Argalia takes Angelica to the Ottoman capital where he receives and forfeits the favour of Salim the Grim, the Ottoman Sultan; how Angelica escapes her misfortune when it is time for her consort to face the execution and how she magically manipulates the executioner to facilitate her consort’s escape; how they reach Florence by magically disarming Andrea Doria, the captain of the fleet of Genoa; how the entire populace of Florence come under the sweet spell of Angelica and do everything that helps peace and tranquility in the city; how Argalia the Turk is anointed with the post of condottiere of Florence; how the misfortune catches them up overnight to turn Angelica the beneficial enchantress into a dreadful witch; how Argalia the condottiere lays down his life with his Swiss warriors and the battle-hardened janissaries, fighting the riotous Florentines; how Angelica escapes with her Mirror to the new world Mundus Novus to nostalgically yearn for a reunion with her sibling.
Emperor Akbar is deeply impressed with the story and has no objection to accept it. In fact, he commissions the royal painter Daswant to paint the lost princess and her exploits as the enchantress, and the inspired artist does a commendable job. But in the process he falls in the love with the subject he creates and one day vanishes into the painting itself. Here, the emperor goes into mental turmoil involving the question whether to accept the storyteller Mogor dell’Amore into the royal fold granting him the royal pedigree. The story does not dovetail into a fine chronology; the possibility of incestuous copulation among the trio that escaped to the New World, Mundus Novous cannot be easily discarded. An emperor cannot be guilty of accepting the creation of such an unholy union. This finally leads to the solution of the riddle but in a magical way. Angelica alias Qara Koz appears in Akbar’s dream and discloses that the story teller is the grandson of her mirror, born to her husband from the womb of her daughter. The fact that he believes himself to be the royal progeny does not, however, go to make him a masquerader, for he has narrated what he believed and he believed what he heard.
Rushdie presents copious amount of sex here, almost every form of it. Their depiction is subtle and sensible even though the effort is well evident, for the scope of a historical fiction would not automatically allow it. The most spectacular is ménage à trios, in which the hidden prince Angelica moves with her mirror as she changes her lovers from Transoxiana to Safavid capital city of Tabriz to the Ottoman capital and then to Florence and finally to the New World. The courtesans and harlots crowd the scenes and their activities have both magical and comical touch in them. Beauty and sex are adored, coveted and revered but not transgressed unless, of course, with the express need of the plot.
For making his work gripping and incisive, Rushdie seems to leave the domain of historical accuracy and explores the characters with profound vigour. Emperor Akbar is one such example. He is depicted to possess an unfulfilled libido taking him to the realm of fantasy. He creates a Jodha, the paragon of beauty, an empathizer of first order and that plunges him into reverie and somniloquy. Despite talented people surrounding him, he suffers from forlornness and melancholia. He has sons but they are either highly misguided or worthless wastrels. He wants that there should be someone near him giving differing viewpoints, but what he finds all around him are sycophants. The ones who are capable of doing that are willy-nilly his enemies and meet the same fate on the battlefields as all enemies do. He is superstitious who likes to interpret the entry of a disoriented crow inside the palace. He interprets the appearance of green fungus in the lake Anup Talao as the foreboding of the existence of treason in the court. He acts funnily too, sending love letters to his contemporary Queen Elizabeth (Zelabat Giloriana) just to be ignored. His intention to see the others’ points of view leads to an intellectual wrestling match and from there he goes into religious ambivalence.
It is interesting to see how Rushdie makes up a quick denouement for this novel. He has two issues to resolve: one, what is the ultimate truth concerning the identity of the storyteller; second, how this fact is to be disclosed. The second one is rather important and Qara Koz comes in the dream of the Emperor Akbar to tell the truth. It is something like a mythological story disclosing an unknown fact by an aerial announcement or a dream. Quite a commonplace solution at that! And the truth is that the storyteller is not a Mughal, rather born out of an incestuous union between his mother and her father. This, however, does not show that the fellow has had the evil intention to defraud and impersonate. Unaware of the whole truth, he has only a story to tell, the version that was told to him since his childhood, the one that connects him to a royal line of descendants. Thus a great story is told but with an utterly banal yet inescapable denouement!
A. N. Nanda