The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

A More Diverse Universe I’ve never read anything by Salman Rushdie before and have always felt slightly intimidated by him, but when I was looking for something to read for the A More Diverse Universe blog tour (hosted by Aarti of Booklust) I came across this title on Aarti’s list of suggestions and thought it sounded intriguing.

The Enchantress of Florence is a very imaginative mixture of history and fantasy, with a plot that is almost impossible to describe – though I’ll do my best! The story begins in 16th century India when a mysterious yellow-haired stranger calling himself the Mogor dell’Amore arrives by bullock-cart at the court of the Emperor Akbar in Sikri. Claiming to be related to Akbar, he begins to tell the Emperor the story of the lost Mughal princess, Qara Köz, or Lady Black Eyes, who is captured and after a series of adventures ends up in Florence where she falls in love with the soldier Antonino Argalia. Qara Köz is the enchantress of the title, believed to have powers of sorcery, as well as great beauty, and the entire city of Florence becomes captivated by her presence. In a separate, but connected, storyline we also learn of Argalia’s childhood, growing up in Florence with his friends Ago Vespucci and Il Machia (Niccolò Machiavelli). Will Akbar believe the stories he is told and what effect will they have on the Emperor and his court?

The Enchantress of Florence There are lots of themes and ideas in The Enchantress of Florence and I’m sure I didn’t fully understand all of them. However, one of the main themes, to me, seems to be the power and the magic of storytelling. The novel is made up of lots of separate interlocking stories, not just the three main ones I’ve mentioned above. One character will begin to tell a story and then a character within that story will begin to tell another story and so on, until you almost begin to forget who the original storyteller was and who the listeners are. These stories may or may not be true and all of them are rich in magical realism – we meet the emperor’s favourite wife Jodha, for example, who is imaginary but also seems to have a life of her own; a slave girl who has become a ‘Memory Palace’ (or a device to aid the memory); and an artist hiding inside one of his own paintings.

The fantasy elements and the abundance of princesses, emperors, giants and witches gives the book a fairy tale feel (I was reminded of The Arabian Nights) and there are beautiful, lavish descriptions of both Mughal India and Renaissance Florence, two settings which are very different but also surprisingly alike. I did enjoy this book, especially the sections set in India, and I thought it was beautifully written, but I did find it very complicated and difficult to follow and I think I would probably have needed to read it twice to be able to really appreciate it. People often talk about books having multiple layers, and that’s usually a good thing, but this one has so many layers I was a bit overwhelmed!

I won’t be immediately rushing out to buy the rest of Salman Rushdie’s books but I’m glad I chose to read this one – it was a challenge, but worth the effort, I think.

12 thoughts on “The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

  1. Alex says:

    The only Rushdie I’ve ever tried to read is ‘Midnight’s Children’ and I’ve stuck twice. Given that that is supposed to be the masterpiece I’ve assumed that if I can’t read that I’m probably not going to read anything. However, we have one of his other novels, ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, coming up at book group in December so I am going to have to tackle him. It’s a shame it isn’t this one as I would probably fair better with something about storytelling.

    • Helen says:

      I didn’t find this one particularly difficult to read – just very complex and detailed. I’m not sure if I feel brave enough to try another of his books just yet, though!

  2. piningforthewest says:

    I saw this one in the library yesterday but decided against borrowing it, maybe I will give it a go, I quite like the thought of multi layered stories, the reality might not be so great though. I enjoyed his earlier books but haven’t read any for ages.

  3. Laurie C says:

    I read Midnight’s Children when it came out, and maybe one more after that, but then I never got back to reading Salman Rushdie’s books. This one sounds interesting, so maybe I’ll try it.

  4. aartichapati says:

    Rushdie intimidates me a lot, too! This is the only book by him that I have finished. I really liked it, though I had some trouble with the role of women in the novel. I agree it’s one that has so many layers, I probably missed most of them!

  5. Lisa says:

    I’ve always been a bit intimidated as well. I recently read an excerpt from his book about his experiences while under the fatwa, and I thought that sounded very interesting (and challenging) – but also very different from what I’ve read about his fiction.

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