Salman Rushdie asks a lot from readers in his dense new novel, The Enchantress of Florence. First, he presumes you have a working knowledge of both the Mughal Empire and the Italian city of Florence during the Renaissance. Second, he drastically rewrites that history by introducing a magical, long-lost Mughal princess and her alleged son, a blonde European who must tell the revelatory story of his mother’s life to the court of her great-nephew, Emperor Akbar. And third, he expects you to tell the difference between the facts and what he has invented. If you are willing to do all of this, there are more than a few pleasures to be had from the novel’s labyrinthine story. If you aren’t, well, I can’t say I blame you.
From the beginning, the European stranger has trouble getting his mother’s story heard and believed. For one thing, he’s a liar. His alleged name, Mogor dell’Amore, literally the “Mughal of Love”, is never taken seriously, and even after he tricks his way into the court with the help of two wily prostitutes nicknamed the Skeleton and the Mattress, Akbar’s advisors see through the story. For the tale to be true, his mother would have to have been over 60 when she gave birth to him.
Yet Mogor isn’t executed for his apparent lie, or even banished from court. In fact, Akbar asks him to tell the entire story again in more detail, and before long the entire city is ablaze with gossip. Fortunately for Mogor, Emperor Akbar is a man of contradictions, too: “not only a barbarian philosopher and a crybaby killer, but also an egoist addicted to obsequiousness and sycophancy”. Akbar begins to sense a kindred soul in this European, and Mogor’s story slowly grows longer, more elaborate, and so unbelievable that it just might be true after all.
It’s during this extended tale, which includes sweeping detours to Florence starring a teenage but already cynical Machiavelli, that The Enchantress of Florence becomes truly compelling. Elsewhere, the novel threatens to fizzle under the weight of Rushdie’s relentless attention to historical detail.
Knopf Canada, 368 pp, $32, hardcover
(review originally appeared in The Georgia Straight, May 8, 2008)