The Enchantress of Florence is set in the sixteenth century in the court of Akbar the Great, ruler of the Mughal Empire. The plot, sinuous and interwoven, is the story of a story. A Florentine traveler comes to Akbar’s court armed with a powerful secret. As the novel progresses, this traveler slowly unfolds for the emperor a marvelous tale. He tells of an enchantress, a lost princess of the Mughal Empire, the most beautiful woman in all the world. Akbar and his people grow enamored of the mysterious and alluring lady of his tale, and her story gradually changes the shape of the kingdom itself.
Rushdie’s novel, like the traveler’s tale, is fantastical and captivating. It takes place in an exotic land and brims with astonishingly beautiful women, magical spectacles, and invincible warriors. The author’s language is whimsical, alternating between the melancholy and the comical. At times, the book seems pure romance. But Rushdie’s work is more than a simple adventure story. His conclusion alone is enough to destroy any semblance of a romance, laced as it is with hypocrisy, defeat, and incest.
Throughout the novel, too, an anti-religious theme repeatedly emerges to darken the otherwise lighthearted story. Emperor Akbar, the reader soon learns, is quite a free thinker. Nominally, of course, he is a Muslim ruler, and he should be busily engaging in jihad. But the emperor, as Rushdie portrays him, is deeply skeptical of his religion, and of religion in general. He wonders, for instance:
Why one should hold fast to a religion not because it was true but because it was the faith of one’s fathers. Was faith not faith but simply family habit? Maybe there was no true religion but only this eternal handing down. And error could be handed down as easily as virtue. Was faith no more than an error of our ancestors?
Akbar thinks such thoughts often, and he develops a secret longing, one that he knows is too shocking for even an emperor to reveal. He wants, as he puts it, “to found the religion of man.” Men have created the gods, for whatever reason, but in truth men alone are worthy of reverence.
Later, it becomes clear that Akbar does not merely distrust established religions, but the very concept of God. He feels that God’s “existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves.” Man, in Akbar’s opinion, should be his own measure. Rushdie’s Akbar is not merely a powerful emperor, but also a hero who would deliver his people from superstition. He is a champion of open-mindedness, an individual bold enough to disbelieve in religion. He longs to solve for the world the ancient “quarrel over God.”
Within these musings of the Mughal Emperor, Salman Rushdie’s own voice seems to echo very clearly. Akbar’s wish to free his people from the bondage of a close-minded religion is reminiscent of Rushdie’s own desire. Of course, it is not surprising that Rushdie should be intrigued by the historical figure of Akbar. The Mughal Emperor’s views on religion were certainly progressive. He established a forum where members of different religions could discuss freely, without fear of persecution. In a century where pious bloodshed was widespread, Akbar was tolerant enough to allow intelligent dialogue between faiths. Jesuit missionaries from Europe were even welcomed into his court and allowed to share their faith. Later in his life, Akbar distanced himself still further from the traditions of Islam. He founded a new religion, the “religion of God,” which he considered purer and more spiritual than the faith he had inherited. He did not feel bound to his religion as one who had received it from one's fathers; he was willing to modify it as seemed best.
The real Akbar, however, never attempted to forsake religion altogether. In this, Rushdie appears to be imposing his own ideas onto the ancient emperor. The Akbar he creates is not open-minded and eagerly seeking truth. Rather, he is an atheist seeking the overthrow of religion. His doubts and discoveries, for this reason, seem more compatible with the twenty-first century than the sixteenth. They are easily imagined coming from the lips of Salman Rushdie, but not so much from those of the Mughal emperor. Rushdie’s version of Akbar is a complex and vivid character; his struggles and ideas will likely be familiar to the reader, perhaps a little too familiar. It seems that Rushdie has happily assumed the emperor’s voice to make his own pronouncements about the value of religion.
Despite the presence of these reflections, The Enchantress of Florence is not primarily about religion. The majority of its pages are full, not of philosophy, but of magic. There is magic everywhere in the novel, but none of it has any connection with divine power. Rushdie is clear in asserting that all this magic is the product of an individual’s will. At one point, the enchantress in the traveler’s story begins to perform miracles in Florence. Everyone, including the pope, thinks that she is an agent of God, and they call her a saint or an angel. But Rushdie reveals that there is no supernatural grace working through the enchantress. She enchants the people through her own purposeful efforts, so much that she “overdo[es] it . . . no woman could sustain so immense an effort for so long. The enchantment of forty thousand individuals, month after month, year after year, was too much, even for her.” She is entirely human, and her magic comes from her own strength alone. When Rushdie does once use the word “supernatural” in describing a magical event, it is as a synonym for “unreal.”
The magic in The Enchantress of Florence serves not as evidence of the divine but as a symbol for the power of art. At one point in the novel, Emperor Akbar creates a wife for himself. He imagines in painstaking detail what an ideal wife would be like and then, by an extraordinary effort, he brings this vision from his own mind into the real world. It is the imagination, the artist’s most valuable possession, that allows him to perform this magical feat. Later in the story, a man sings so beautifully that he actually hurts himself: “In the ecstasy of the performance he hadn’t noticed his own body beginning to show scorch marks as it heated up under the fierce blaze of his genius.” His artistrythe tone, pitch, and melody of his voicespark this fantastic flame. The greatest magic of all, perhaps, is the work of the traveler himself. His story drives the emperor and all of his people to fall in love with a woman who died years before. Some even go mad in their passion for her. A painter paints a series of pictures of the enchantress, and he becomes so obsessed with her that he finally paints himself into one of the pictures and vanishes from the physical world. In The Enchantress of Florence, magic is never far from art, or art from magic.
Throughout the novel, Rushdie constantly asserts the necessity and importance of art for humankind. This, it seems, is the point of all the magic, and of the book itself. When the traveler finds himself interrupted in the middle of his story and thrown into prison, he becomes deeply afraid. “All men needed to hear their stories told. He was a man, but if he died without telling the story he would be something less than that, an albino cockroach, a louse,” he fears. Art is necessary for the individual’s fulfillment, just as it is vital for society as a whole. When the emperor befriends the storytelling traveler, when government allies with art, the Mughal Empire flourishes. Peace is prevalent, commerce thrives, and the emperor grows in the favor of his people. It is not until Akbar decides to disbelieve the traveler’s story and banishes him from the court, that matters begin to grow worse. Then, suddenly, his advisers and friends begin to die, and the lake that supplies the city’s water soon dries up. Akbar is forced to admit that his “most shattering defeat” has come, not from some rival ruler, but from a simple storyteller, a man armed with no weapon but his powerful tale.
The novel ultimately suggests that it is art, not religion, that wields the strongest power in the world. Akbar comes to realize that “magic was all around and would not be denied, and it would be a rash ruler who pooh-poohed it. Religion could be rethought, re-examined, remade, perhaps even discarded; magic was impervious to such assaults.” The effects of art are easily observed, but not easily stopped. It can enchant a nation, create being from non-being, inspire, destroy, chasten, or glorify. It can shake even, as The Enchantress of Florence shows, the strongest of kingdoms.
There can be no doubt that art has the potential to be a tremendous force for good or evil. Rushdie tells us this constantly, but his own novel fails to demonstrate it. Though The Enchantress of Florence is often beautiful and always entertaining, it does not manage to do much more than entertain. Even its arguments about religion are not developed enough to make any considerable impact on a reader. The Enchantress of Florence is full of marvelsmarvels with no source besides themselves and no end beyond themselves. The book itself is something of a marvel, and it too has no apparent end beyond its own marvelousness. It may enchant for a moment, but it can never change the world.
Nicholas Kauffman, a graduate of Hillsdale College, teaches English at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie