Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress of  Florence by Salman Rushdie (2008, 381 pages)

A Lush Account of Court Life in Mughal India  

I have been wanting to read a novel by Salman Rushdie for a long time.    He achieved fame in the non-literary world when he received death threats based on political reactions to his novel The Satanic Verses.    He is the most internationally known author from India, it seems to me.    (I still recall when Kramer mentioned him in a "Seinfeld" episode.   Nobody on the show had actually read his book but they had heard of him.)    Rushdie has received nearly every well known literary award short of the Nobel Prize.

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.

Mel u


claire said...

What a fantastic way to describe his prose. Other bloggers also felt the same way about this book. I will be getting to it this year, and will try not to expect too much, as I loved his others completely.

Midnight's Children is amazing. I also really liked The Moor's Last Sigh. And his collection of short stories East, West.. excellent. They round up my three favourites.

Suko said...

I enjoyed your expression, "I marveled at the fireworks of the language". From your descriptions, I can tell this book is very rich and layered, almost TOO rich and layered, too lush and abundant. I'm intrigued.

Danielle Zappavigna said...

i read this book last year, and was underwhelmed. i really loved the prose and the visual imagery was incredible. but about 3/4 of the way through i just lost interest and was ready to move on. i have midnight's children on my TBR list, hopefully i'll like that one a bit more.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Sounds like a good one. Rushdie will be one of my first time authors for 2010.

Aarti said...

I really liked this book. I know a lot of people don't, but I personally am all for lush language and description. I also thought the role of women in the story was interesting. I haven't really read any other Rushdie, but this one made me want to.

Mel u said...

Claire-thanks for your suggestions-I think I will read Midnight's Children next

Suko-it is very rich language-I like lush over grown landscapes-his prose is near addicting somehow

mummazappa-I understand your remarks-I did not really care about the characters or even the plot line that much and I am not sure that matters much in this work

Diane-I will be very interested to see your reaction to the book

Aarti-I also loved the lush language and the descriptions-I can see how some might find the lushness a bit much (it is kind of like a literary banana split with everything!) I was interested also in how women were portrayed in the book-I was too taken up by the beauty of the language to focus on the themes of the book but it could be read for sure for the Women Unbound Challenge with a bit of mental exercise

Mark David said...

Amazing! Lush, rich, and like fireworks? Sounds magnificent! I do LOVE cakes :)

Fantastic review Mel! I haven't yet read anything from India, and you make it sound like this should be my first. Thanks a lot!

ds said...

Oh, what a wonderful description of Rushdie's writing! I wasn't sure about this book, but you have sold me on it, Mel. I second claire on Midnight's Children. If you can only read one other of Rushdie's books, make it that one!
Thank you.

Booksnyc said...

I have also wanted to read a novel Rushdie - I sm doing SAAC too. Maybe I will work one into that challenge. Thanks for the review!

Kals said...

This book is on my TBR list for the challenge and I'm looking forward to it! Thanks for the excellent review :)