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.

The Florentine Emerald by Agustín Bernaldo Palatchi

The Florentine Emerald The Florentine Emerald is historical fiction set in Florence during the Renaissance. The story begins in 1478 at Cardona Castle in Spain, where Mauricio Coloma is visiting his father, Pedro, who has been chained in a dungeon after being falsely accused of treason. Knowing that he is facing execution, Pedro reveals to Mauricio the truth that until recently converting to Christianity, their ancestors had been Jews. Before he is put to death he also tells his son of a valuable emerald ring hidden under a tile in the floor of their home in Barcelona and advises him to take it to Florence to sell to the Medici, the powerful Florentine family of bankers.

Arriving in Florence with the priceless jewel, Mauricio finds himself in the right place at the right time to thwart an assassination attempt on Lorenzo de’ Medici, the man who rules the Florentine Republic. As a sign of his gratitude, Lorenzo helps Mauricio establish himself in Florence. But then he meets and falls in love with Lorena Ginori, a girl whose parents are planning a more ambitious marriage for her with a man she dislikes. As the years go by, both Lorena and Mauricio have to confront some secrets from their pasts, while around them Florence is thrown into turmoil by the prophecies of the priest Savonarola and the conspiracies of those who want to cause the downfall of both Mauricio and the Medici.

This is an English translation of a Spanish novel by Agustín Bernaldo Palatchi, published by Barcelona eBooks, who if I’ve understood correctly are a spin-off of the Spanish publisher Roca Editorial and partners of Open Road Media, specialising in digital versions of Spanish and English translations. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read the ebook via Netgalley, but as I know not everyone likes or is able to read ebooks I thought it was only fair to point out that I’m not sure if or when The Florentine Emerald might be available in English in any other format.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was learning more about Renaissance-era Florence. In the fifteenth century, Florence was one of the most important centres of European trade and culture, which makes it an ideal setting for historical fiction. There were so many things happening both within Florence itself and in Europe in general during this period that had an effect on Mauricio’s story: outbreaks of plague; the voyages of Christopher Colombus; and the Spanish Inquisition and the threat to the Jews of expulsion from Florence. The first part of the novel is set during roughly the same period as Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series which I read recently and so I was already familiar with some of the characters and events that were covered in the book (the papal alum monopoly, the Medici and Strozzi families, the Duke of Urbino and King Ferrante of Naples). This was useful as I would probably have found some of the historical details much more confusing otherwise!

I did find it a bit hard to believe that Mauricio would have been befriended by Lorenzo de’ Medici and given a position at the Medici bank almost as soon as he arrived in Florence and I had to suspend disbelief again as Mauricio immediately began to associate with Leonardo da Vinci, Christopher Columbus and so many other famous people of the period. However, this was only a small part of the story and overall I did enjoy the inclusion of so many real historical figures, especially as there were some I had previously known little or nothing about, including the philosopher Marcilio Ficino and the Dominican friar and preacher, Girolamo Savonarola who plans to reform Florentine society.

I thought the translation was generally good – the writing flowed well and I didn’t have any problems with it, except that it was maybe slightly lacking in emotion and passion. I enjoyed following the adventures of Mauricio and Lorena but something got in the way of me really being able to connect with them emotionally and whether that was due to the translation or not it’s difficult to say without having read the original. I liked the characterisation of Lorenzo de’ Medici, though, and it was interesting to read about the position of power and influence he held in Florence and the much less successful rule of his son and heir, Piero, who followed him. All of this left me wanting to read a good biography of the Medici family or even another fictional account, so any recommendations are welcome!