The Enchantress of Florence (Review)

Salman Rushdie (Random House)

Jul 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Things to keep in mind when starting a Salman Rushdie novel: It's difficult, if not impossible, to understand everything during a first reading; the bawdy language is as much a device as the plot itself; and, most importantly, Sir Rushdie is consistently lighthearted, despite the heaviness of his subjects. His newest book is no exception.

The Enchantress of Florence is a dreamlike novel that weaves fact and fiction so tightly together that it's hard to distinguish between them. Yes, Florence existed with all the Medici pomp and papal flames that Rushdie describes. Ancient India, too, flourished with gilt and concubines under the rule of Akbar in the 15th century.

In both India and Italy, this was a time for great achievements — from art to war and everything in between. It was also the era of exploration: Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci, whose cousin plays a major role in this book, had just crashed into the New World.

It makes sense, then, that Rushdie would start his novel with a voyage. A blond man in a ridiculous coat comes from afar (just quite how far you won't know until the novel's conclusion) to Akbar's India. This man assumes many names to hide his secret — that is, his lineage. The story that unfolds reveals much about violence, love, pain and the human imagination.

It also deals with history and, particularly brilliantly, with the predicament of women throughout history. One woman, the Enchantress of Florence, weaves her way from land to land, and Rushdie follows her like a lovesick boy. It allows him to connect worlds that never connected in history. And further, it allows him to explain the novel's thesis in what is destined to be the most quoted sentence from it: "The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike."

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