The Enchantress of Florence – a review

I am not a die-hard Salman Rushdie fan, but here is a brief review of his novel “The Enchantress of Florence” – Jonathan Cape 2008 – surely a book that could long be remembered for a number of reasons (and perhaps reinforce his place among the master-story-tellers of our time) – well-narrated, with a surfeit of heroism and excitement, tragedy and comedy, with characters – ordinary and extraordinary, against studied cultural and historical settings, and like typical post-modern stuff – can be read simply as a racy thriller, or as a text full of references to everything written before itself. And finally, there is the flourish of magical realism that he borrows from Marquez – the magical moments when you stand back and when … fantasy and reality, seem almost interchangeable.

The story is embedded in the historically interesting period of 1500 – 1600 AD. A new world has just been discovered, and a large part of the rest is spanned by the influences of the culturally rich (but politically unstable) Florence and the renaissance, the powerful Ottomans running an efficient empire astride Europe and Asia, the Safavid Persians beyond and finally the wandering Mughals – the last of the clan of Genghiz and Taimur, as they find home among the most unlikely of places and people – of the then Hindustan.

On this vast canvas, he is able to etch memorable characters, some real, but set in fictional circumstances – like Nicollo Machiavelli the political philisopher, the Vespucci family (of which Amerigo went on to chart what America was to be) and of course Antonio Argalia – the hero of the story – brought up as a Jannisari among the Turks. The Jannisaris were Christian war orphans, converted to Islam, and finally admitted to the Ottoman Emperor’s personal bodyguard – known to be among the fiercest fighters ever, who numbered 50-70,000 at times. After Taimur defeated the Ottoman Emperor Abasayid (but walked away to try and take China in the twilight years of his life) the weakened empire fell to the then Shah of Persia – Ismial Khan, only to be reclaimed by the Ottoman Osman Ali who entrusted this battle of a life-time to his bravest and most brilliant Jannissari, Antonio Argalia.

At the other end of the story there is Akbar in the desolate, but imperial settings of Fatehpur Sikri, shaping a new age of enlightenment, and figuring out the world as rationally as he could, in the company of his Navratnas – Birbal, Todar Mal, Man Singh, Tansen, Abul Fazl, and the lesser known – Fakir Aziauddin, Bawarchi Mullah Do Piaza and poets Faizi and Abdul Rahim … and a mythical Jodha bai, and Akbar outliving all of them, watching his sons: Salim, Dhaniyal and Murad grow dangerously decadent – and somewhere you have the irresistible flavour of Mughal-e-Azam. To those who know Agra, the whorehouses then were at Hathyapul.

But this story is about the mythical princess Qara Koz, a lost sister of Babar (and thus Akbar’s grand-aunt) whose lost legend is re-constructed, piece by piece into a reality stretching across all these characters and places.

The story itself has a simple line and follows known historical events closely – Babar loses his sister, Khanzada in the siege of his home-town Samarkand to war-lord Shaibani Khan, who later loses her to Shah Ismail of Persia at Marv, but the Shah returns her to Babar as an act of friendship. This is recorded. But then the twist … there were two sisters, not one – Khanzada and Qara, and Qara chose not to come back and thus her story is forever obliterated from Mughal family history.

As the story goes – Qara then passes on to Argalia who is then freed and allowed to “return” (as a reward for winning back the Ottoman Empire and perhaps for becoming a potential competition to the throne) to his native Florence, where he re-joins his childhood friends – il’ Machia and the Vespucci brothers – after a brief stopover at the island of Rodes.

This is the time il’ Machia has just been released from the notorious torture chambers of underground Florence for suspecting to conspire against the state, and the Medicis’ are just returning to what was to be the height of their power, that included a Medici Pope Leo X in the Vatican.

After a time, when the “Mogor” Princess held enchanting sway over the poets, painters and the people of Florence, come the bad times – Argalia is deceived by his own last Jannisari companion at the bidding of the devious Lorenzo di Medici using a page out of best friend Machia’s freshly written treatise on realpolitik – The Prince. Qara is forced to flee with Vespucci, where else but to the oblivion of the New World.

All very well, but for all this to have happened, as Akbar and Abul Fazl piece together the events, Qara should have lived over one hundred years, and thereby hangs the ending of the tale … which I leave it at that, should some of you like to read the Enchantress of Florence by yourselves.

This main tale is set against fascinating minor details and characters like Machia’s wife Marietta, Lorenzo’s uncle Duke Guiliano, Akbar’s mother and aunt – Hamida and Gulbadan, his master painter Dashawanth, and comparative accounts of Todar Mal’s Mansabdari system (where the most influential groups like the Tauranis, Rajputs and Indian Muslims never got more than 25% of the collective share) and similarly the feudal lords in Medici’s Florence … and interestingly the bunch that argued for and against the religions and sciences in Akbar’s Fatehpur Sikri – Badauni, Acquaviva and Monserrate,as well as Birbal and Abul Fazl themselves.

There is the tragic account of how the aging Birbal died – trying to lead for the first time in his life, a military campaign to quell the faraway uprising of the Afghan “Raushanai” cult – which more than militarily, were intellectually challenging the Mughal age of enlightenment, much to Birbal’s personal chagrin. His army was ambushed at the Malandrai pass, 8000 of his soldiers killed, and his body never found, largely believed to be a conspiracy backed by an increasingly impatient Salim, but this could never be proved.

Like all good stories, this one too is told simply and easily. He employs the very Indian technique of the “Sutradhar” – the narrator being both the story-teller and part of the story, only some times used in Western story-telling.

He seems to have selected Florence as the “other” setting for his story almost with deliberate irony, so as to possibly spite (or wink) at another substantial post-modern story-teller of our times – the Italian Umberto Eco. His allusion of an “imaginary” Jodha Bai is to yet another master of the art – Jorge Luis Borges.

But what does this story tell us about our predicament – in its important, eternal and more urgent, contemporary context?

That power is, as always – cold, ruthless calculation, that there is choice in the course of individual human action, even against overwhelming odds.

That the various “projections” of religion and culture become dangerous, not because of their differences, but because of their sameness. Both Rushdie’s Machiavelli and Akbar exclaim, in their different settings that – the problem with mankind is not their differences, but that they are all so much alike.

And all this set against the endless ebb and swell in the human heart – the yearning to wander, to settle down, find true love and enduring friendships.

This then is the story of Qara Koz as told by Salman Rushdie, as the Enchantress of Florence.

(c) Sanjay Dharwadker Johannesburg

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