By Salman Rushdie
Random House. 355 pp. $26
nolead ends What does a thoroughly modern, Manhattan-based novelist - not commonly associated with historical novels set centuries ago - know about Mughal India and Renaissance Florence?
Why would he care about either?
If the novelist is Salman Rushdie, the answer to Question One is, "Plenty." Consult that 93-item bibliography at the back of his 10th novel, citing academic tomes such as Daily Life in Florence in the Time of the Medici by J. Dubreton-Lucas, and Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World by Ruby Lal.
Rushdie adds an understandably proud note: "This is not a complete list of the works I consulted." Without doubt, he's told an interviewer, The Enchantress of Florence is his "most researched" novel ever.
The reason Rushdie cares so much perhaps comes to this: "Globalization didn't start yesterday, and neither did tolerance." In making his chief protagonist here Akbar the Great (1542-1605), the Mughal emperor famed for openness to all religions, Rushdie plainly found a historical figure who challenged and inspired him.
Novels that rise above genre conventions, however, require the author's own legerdemain. Rushdie provides it here by embedding Akbar in complex crosscultural encounters between Europe and the East in the 16th century, a time when modern forms of power and empire occupied astute observers in both. The result is an enlightening arabesque that confirms why Rushdie is Rushdie, and his belittlers far littler.
Rushdie begins by introducing Enchantress' other main protagonist, a handsome, mysterious, golden-tressed European wearing "a coat of colored leather lozenges." The traveler, identified first as Uccello di Firenze, is making his way by bullock-cart toward the palace-city of Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal capital Akbar built from scratch.
To the visitor, the magnificent city looks larger than London. He's a magician and storyteller, the bearer, he claims, of a secret "with a curse," a man who can "dream in seven languages."
Rushdie soon backtracks to show us his conjurer stowed away on a Scottish pirate ship to India. Once discovered, Uccello charms its captain, then plucks him "as clean as any chicken," absconding with the captain's letter from Queen Elizabeth for the emperor himself.
Uccello slips offstage, and we next meet Akbar, whose name, you should know, already means "great":
"[T]he great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate, but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory - the Grand Mughal, the dusty, battle-weary, victorious, pensive, incipiently overweight, disenchanted, mustachioed, poetic, over-sexed, and absolute emperor, who seemed altogether too magnificent, too world-encompassing, and, in sum, too much to be a single human personage. . . ."
You may read this sentence and ask: "Was there an editor in the house?" Consider an alternate query: "Can you make time in your life to enjoy a nonpareil writer's reveries, his cascading engagement with worlds we've lost?"
Because even before Akbar meets Uccello, by that time identifying himself as Mogor dell'Amore, Rushdie's unbounded forays into Akbar's thoughts ("such matters as the mutability of the universe, the size of the stars, the breasts of his wives, and the nature of God") contribute no small part to the punch of Enchantress.
After Akbar meets the wily European, and confronts his claim to be the emperor's long-lost uncle, son of a Mughal princess and her Italian lover, the fun only grows.
In some ways, Enchantress launches a successor style to now-passe magic realism - call it sardonic exoticism. On top of Rushdie's customary wryness (one perk in Akbar's water-park capital is "the best of all possible pools"), Rushdie takes Rabelasian risks here that will please all serious readers: those who expect sentences, and not just plots, to surprise them.
Several wild passages involve Skeleton and Mattress, two tag-team whores who contribute, so to speak, a backstory to the plot. In one comparatively innocuous encounter between Skeleton and Mogor, "[S]he got to work, anointing him with civet and violet, magnolia and lily, narcissus and calembic, as well as drops of other occult fluids whose names he did not even like to ask, fluids extracted from the sap of Turkish, Cypriot and Chinese trees, as well as a wax from the intestines of a whale."
Riffs such as that apart, the serious core of Enchantress remains Akbar, to whom the plot returns even after we've been swept through Europe, shared time with Machiavelli and the Medicis, and met gorgeous Qara Koz, the apparent link between Mogor and his putative lost family.
Akbar, as both historic figure and Rushdie's fanciful actor, deserves his place as cynosure of the book. Who wouldn't be riveted by a "Muslim vegetarian" who boldly synthesized different religions, eliminated special taxes on non-Muslims, encouraged broad debate, banned child marriage, and - one suspects this occurred to Rushdie - makes a far better role model for Muslims (a few emperorlike brutalities aside) than some other candidates?
As if to honor Akbar, Rushdie festoons Enchantress with philosophical musings, many of which mirror favorite themes of the author. Akbar "wanted, for example, to investigate 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 simple family habit? . . . Maybe there was no true religion."
As so often in the past, Rushdie laces a message into a mesmerizing tale: Look at the reality of Islamic history, of Indian history, and don't fall for ignorant absolutisms.
Like many novelists of august stature, Rushdie faces great expectations with each new book. Fans who worship one or another of his masterworks, such as Midnight's Children, sometimes demand a book just like it. A few critics appear regularly invested in diminishing him, as if he, rather than the media, allowed his celebrity after the fatwa heard round the world to eclipse his proper image as a writer of bold books.
So let it be said straight out: Enchantress, delivered by an unknown, would be applauded as a feat of narrative wizardry: a playful, ruminative, vibrant meditation on subjects that never bore - power, sex, love, travel, doubt - and certainly don't here.
At one point long after meeting Mogor, Akbar recalls "what he should never have forgotten, that witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits, or magic wands. Language upon a silvered tongue affords enchantment enough."