The Enchantress of Florence begins and ends like a movie. It opens
with a golden-haired stranger arriving in the Mughal emperor Akbar’s
capital, Fatehpur Sikri, and ends with Akbar meeting a legendary
beauty. What happens in between has the fairytale quality of the
Arabian Nights and uses the same literary device.
The Enchantress of Florence is a tale within a tale – the tale of
the stranger’s growing friendship with Akbar as he tells the emperor
the story of the legendary beauty, the enchantress of the title,
leading up to the revelation of his own identity. Both he and Akbar are
related to the lady, claims the stranger who calls himself Mogor
dell’Amore, the Mughal of Love.
According to him, the Enchantress of Florence is really the Mughal
princess Qara Koz (Lady Black Eyes), Akbar’s grandfather Babur’s “lost”
sister . But if she is Babur’s sister, how is she still a ravishing
beauty when she appears before Akbar? And is the Mughal of Love really
who he claims to be? He is either telling the truth or he isn’t. But,
speaking to the enchantress, Akbar learns it’s not so simple as that.
There’s a third possibility unknown even to the Mughal of Love.
From Machiavelli to Akbar
Rushdie has written an intriguing novel that is part fairy tale,
part historical romance and has more than a dash of magic realism. The
Enchantress of Florence spans centuries and continents, sweeping from
Central Asia to India, Florence, Ottoman Turkey and the New World. The
story moves from Akbar the 16th century Mughal emperor to the
Florentine Machiavelli, who died a couple of decades before Akbar was
Machiavelli is part of the story within the story – the Mughal of
Love describes his relationship with the Enchantress of Florence.
No one, it seems, can escape the enchantress’ spell. Akbar falls in
love with her as the Mughal of Love tells her story. She supplants his
favourite wife, Jodha Bai, who exists only in his imagination. The
scenes portraying Akbar with his imaginary wife may be a little too
surreal for some tastes, but there are plenty of other attractions. The
story of the enchantress, the intrigues and drama in Akbar’s court and
the colourful history of Florence keep the reader engaged.
History and magic
Rushdie plays up the magical elements. The enchantress lays spells,
she and her maid look and behave like identical twins, there is a magic
mirror and giants as well. The lake of Fatehpur Sikri dries up when the
Mughal of Love leaves the city.
Rushdie mixes history and fantasy. Akbar was indeed forced to
abandon Fatehpur Sikri because of water shortage. Rushdie takes the
liberty to link it to the Mughal of Love’s departure. He also has the
enchantress sailing off to the New World with Ago, Amerigo Vespucci's
cousin. And then she appears before Akbar just as he is leaving
Fatehpur Sikri forever. A fantasy? Yes. But cinematic too.
When Rushdie wants to, he can be as true to life as the most
realistic writer. The scenes in Florence involving Machiavelli and his
friend, Ago, are full of colour and intrigue. Machiavelli is the most
realistically drawn character in the novel. He attracts sympathy in
this novel for the disappointments he has suffered. Thrown out of
power, he tries to curry favour by writing a book for the new ruler,
who rejects it. The book? The Prince, now considered a classic.
Rushdie breathes life into Machiavelli and Akbar. He shows Akbar
trying to think in terms of “I” instead of the royal “we”. Scenes like
this give insights into characters and bring them to life. Rushdie has
achieved more than that. He has brought figures from history into life
in a fairy tale!