The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie (2008, 381 pages)
The Enchantress of Florence is set in the late 16th century. It takes place in part in the Florence of the Medici and in part in northern India in the court of Akbar, the greatest Mughal emperor. Both of these cultures are nearing their zenith. The tie to the two areas is a mysterious blond male visitor from Florence who claims to be related to Akbar the Great. The language of this work is very lush. The focus is on court life in both of the capitals. We get a feeling of what it was like to be the emperor (it had a lot of perks such as a huge harem). His oldest sons are already very corrupted by their power and Akbar feels they may well kill him one day and turn on each other.
This work is hard for me to describe. It was a lot of fun for me to read all the descriptions of fantastic events and people in the courts. There are elements of what is called "magic realism" through the work. By this I mean events that defy the laws of physics occur and are met without wonder as commonplace. It was very interesting to hear about all the secondary characters around both of the courts. We get a bit of a history lesson along the way about both places. I found the sections set in India to be more interesting than those set in Italy but maybe that is because I know very little about Indian history of the period so everything is new to me. We really do learn little about ordinary life in either place. As I said, it is not meant as a realistic work.
As I read this work, at times I marveled at the fireworks of the language. At times I was really quite amazed. It is hard to find something easily comparable. Yes at times I did find it almost too lush and rich. Imagine a 25 layer cake made by 25 of the best Parisian pastry chefs with each layer a different flavor made with no expense spared and you get some of the idea of it. Now imagine as you eat the cake you notice small round balls of something mixed in. Maybe it is opium maybe it is goat waste or even a poison that will produce a spectacular disease that everybody else in the court will marvel at as it overtakes you. Maybe even it is a magic potion that will transform you in ways beyond imagination. I think the pleasure of this book is in the language and the great imagination of Rushdie in some of the marvelous things he puts in the book. I was very intrigued when we saw Akbar's reaction on learning that the natives of the recently discovered Americas were called "Indians". He laughed and said Indian scholars had always known the world was round. (I have not checked to see if there is any historical information as to the reaction of Indians in the late 16th century to the use of the term "Indians" to refer to natives of North and South America.) This might all just be made up, of course.
If you like your prose spare and lean, then this book may not be for you. The amorous activities of the characters in both settings is also very diverse and described in some detail, not in a graphic fashion but in a hyperbolic way. I really enjoyed the prose and the details and I think that is what matters in this book not the plot line or the characters. For sure I will read more Rushdie books and am open to suggestions.