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Fabled past

The Enchantress of Florence; A Novel; Salman Rushdie; Random House: 358 pp., $26

June 01, 2008|Amy Wilentz | Amy Wilentz is the author of the novel "Martyrs' Crossing" and "I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger."

What doesn't kill you in the literary world makes you stronger. That's why one has to wonder how Salman Rushdie's literary fortunes would have fared without the infamous fatwa issued against him in 1989 by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran. Of course, it's not polite to consider his career in this way, because it implies that the repugnant and dangerous order against Rushdie's life was also a publicity coup for the novelist. In a single moment, Rushdie, who was best known until then as an award-winning writer of a dazzling and funny book about the creation of India, became a literary and political cause celebre.

The fatwa utterly changed the trajectory of his career. Not often are integrity and righteousness thrust upon a person, much less a novelist. The fatwa granted Rushdie every artistic permission. He could publish whatever he liked. On one hand, one murmurs yes, and wishes there were more writers who didn't have to abase themselves in the filthy marketplace. But of course, an artist has certain obligations to his art, if not to his readership. Purity of intention and perfection of execution are among them. It's not clear in "The Enchantress of Florence," his new novel, that Rushdie still cares to live up to those.

"The Enchantress of Florence" is in part a historical novel that takes place not only in Florence but also in the Mughal Empire, in Fatipur-Sikri and in Herat. Agostino Vespucci, a blond European traveler and cousin to the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, arrives suddenly at the court of the Mughal emperor, Akbar. To explain why he's come, Agostino tells Akbar a convoluted, exotic tale. He also tells the emperor that they are distant cousins. From this thick and admittedly improbable stew -- told in his habitual high style of magical realism -- Rushdie weaves a baroque fairy tale that takes us from Akbar's empire to Machiavelli's Florence.

In the Florentine and Mughal worlds that Rushdie creates, his magical invention, though unflagging, can feel shopworn and self-indulgent. There is the Mughal artist Dashwanth who disappears into a corner of his own painting; there are mandrake roots that cry out when they are picked (as in "Harry Potter"; this is an old myth about the root); there is an imaginary Pygmalion wife, Jodha, invented by the emperor. Jodha is preeminent among Akbar's harem, a perfect woman who is also his ideal sexual object -- like a grown man's imaginary friend. She is also one of many women in this book portrayed as a desirable object; the enchantress Qara Koz -- "Black Eyes" -- even has a double who is always with her and who is called "The Mirror." With expected inevitability, one of the book's heroes has a threesome with the twinlike girls.

Ago Vespucci, who assumes a role as chief adviser, turns out to be a magician: not just a prestidigitator but also a sorcerer of unimaginable abilities who can conjure up plot twists and resolve them with a wave of his hand. He moves the plot and inspires the characters to action and is figuratively the writer or inventor of the novel, the Prospero of the book, the stand-in for Rushdie. Literary conceits like this slosh around in "Enchantress." Ago, for example, insists -- in a plot twist that is ta-da'd with enormous fanfare -- that he is the son of Akbar's lost great-aunt, the same Qara Koz, a lost princess who historically was merely a beloved, black-eyed wife of Emperor Akbar's ancestor. She eventually becomes, improbably, Rushdie's "hidden princess" and -- carried off to Italy -- the foremost among his many enchantresses of Florence.

The magical realism in "Enchantress" is all artifice and diversion. Its decorative beauty disguises truth, or avoids it, and keeps the reader pointlessly mystified. No style should be a substitute for a story. Plot is the hard work of novel-writing. Rather than dealing with difficult reality, which is the writer's perhaps unpleasant but necessary duty, Rushdie forces Qara Koz from the Mughal Empire into Florence to make a few dubious points, distracting readers from the logistical plot problems in the book's flabby middle. In magical realism as it is practiced by Rushdie, timelines are as naught. Simultaneity is all. This can make the work seem less like great literature and, at moments, more like automatic scribbling.

THERE are fools and dungeons in "The Enchantress of Florence"; there is a beautiful princess who is eclipsed by a more beautiful princess (as in the Snow White fairy tale -- sometimes, reading along, one feels as if one were in an elaborate Disney world); there are secret vials of magical perfumes; two prostitutes nicknamed Mattress and Skeleton after their physiques; fearless generals and vampires; wicked wives and henpecked husbands; a tamed elephant; walled capitals and peasant fires; slaves, enchanted forests, giants; a tulip-tattooed, long-haired warrior who resembles a member of the rock band Queen more than he does someone from the Renaissance . . . what is there that is not in this book?

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