THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE by Salman Rushdie (Knopf), 368 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Salman Rushdie’s prose is so compelling on its own, he need not bother raising the stakes until he’s well into his novel.
In the first 100 pages of The Enchantress Of Venice, a yellow-haired visitor promises the court of the 15th-century Mughal Emperor Akbar that he has a tale – an important tale – to tell.
Only after several instances of story interruptus does this tale finally get told. The stranger, despite his European appearance, is a long-lost relative of the emperor via the loins of a Mughal princess who’s been deliberately erased from history.
Akbar, being something of an enlightened fellow, sets about restoring the princess to her rightful place in history and thereby triggers numerous other stories, told by different characters tiny tales, entertaining tangents, travels and tragedies.
Although The Enchantress is thoroughly researched, it is not, strictly speaking, realistic historical fiction. Fantasy and reality infuse the narrative equally – but not in that annoying almost forced magic realist mode whose weird juxtapositions require way too much faith-leaping on the part of the reader.
Rushdie’s absolute mastery of tone enables him to move fluidly from whimsy to tragedy and back again, with the reader eagerly in tow.
If the quality of the prose is somewhat familiar, so, unfortunately, are some of Rushdie’s portraits of women. Whether whores, empresses or enchantresses, they remind me a little too much of women in his previous books. They chatter and flatter in silly ways and are uncentred or coldly powerful, enchanting and imaginary.
Bibi Fatima, for instance, who has the nasty habit of always repeating the ends of the queen’s sentences, is probably more annoying than Rushdie intended.
But that’s a small quibble. Rushdie continues to be a master storyteller whose themes resonate tellingly with one of the central conflicts of our time: reason and rationality versus religion and received wisdom.
Rushdie reads Monday (June 9) at the Music Hall. See Readings.