THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE, by Salman Rushdie; Random House; 349 pages. $26.
Salman Rushdie's 10th book, "The Enchantress of Florence," is a fairy tale for adults.
Rushdie beguiles the reader with a complex plot. He weaves together stories about princesses and wars, sultans, dukes and far-off lands. He writes of a time 500 years ago, in India and also Italy. He writes of leaders of two great civilizations, men who actually thought about the proper uses of all the power they'd gained.
The mix of characters is even more enticing because Rushdie's plot is based in historical fact. One of his protagonists is Akbar the Great (born Jalaluddin Mohammed), a descendant of Genghis Khan and ruler of the Mughal Empire. Another is a mysterious European, a man with ties to Amerigo Vespucci and Niccolo Machiavelli.
In one sense, reading "The Enchantress of Florence" is like reading the history chapter in a travel guide. So, OK, if you want to go to Florence, you'll need a history of the Medici in five paragraphs. So, OK, you are going to India, here is a brief overview of the building of the city at Fatehpur Sikri.
The stories are so condensed that they could feel sterile were it not for the gusto of Rushdie's writing. You can smell the spices on the food and the blood on the battlefields.
The plot echoes itself. For example, "The Enchantress of Florence" begins with a stowaway being discovered on board a ship. In the middle of the book a different stowaway is discovered on a different ship.
There are also recurring themes about the curse of memory and themes about the salvation and also the pitfalls of being a storyteller. There are recurring themes about what happens if you turn against your tribe.
At the center of the story is a princess with magical powers. Rushdie describes her like this, "Plainly Lady Black Eyes was becoming all things to all people, an exemplar, a lover, an antagonist, a muse; in her absence she was being used as one of those vessels into which human beings pour their own preferences, abhorrences, prejudices, idiosyncrasies, secrets, misgivings, and joys, their unrealized selves, their shadows, their innocence and guilt, their doubts and certainties, their most generous and also most grudging response to their passage through the world."
Erudite, romantic and amusing, "The Enchantress of Florence" proves Rushdie's clout. He's the winner of the Booker Prize, as well as a man who may still have a fatwa on his head for his "The Satanic Verses."In this novel, Rushdie bridges continents and religions. He seems to have found a kindred spirit in Akbar the Great, a leader who built a city using both Muslim and Hindu architecture because he wanted people of all faiths to feel at home within its walls.