Random House: 358 pp., $26
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 célèbre.
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 Köz -- "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 Köz, 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 Köz 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?
What is missing is more of what Rushdie does well. Above all the fog of creation, the emperor stands out like a beacon of sense and decency. A mature and beguiling character, Akbar is at once virile and kind, open and dominating, thoughtful and heroic. One cannot get enough of him. He is the archetype of the virtuous Prince, the benign dictator, and whenever he is present, the book moves along with grace and clarity. Unfortunately, he's not around all the time.
Trying to follow the twisted, discontinuous "plot," one grows irritated with the sprinkling of ostensibly clever sayings that litter the way. Here's one: "He wanted to be able to tell someone his suspicion that men have made their gods and not the other way around." Here's another: "Only when we accept the truths of death can we begin to learn the truths of being alive." One more: "The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike." Brill.
Yet sometimes one longs for the snappy saying. In Florence, Ago finds a woman he adores, but she is now a mute who has stored up the memories of Ago's long-lost orphaned friend. (She is known as the Memory Palace -- many women, including the Memory Palace, the Mattress, the Skeleton, the Mirror and Black Eyes, are known as objects, instead of by their proper names.) Finally, Ago gets her to speak. "[He] knew that his lost friend, the boy without a childhood, was growing up as she spoke, growing up in her telling of him, having whatever it is that children have instead of a childhood when they don't have a childhood, changing into a man, or into whatever a child without a childhood becomes when he grows up, maybe a man without a manhood." This prolixity is not singular. Here's another, even more inane, example: "Because, as the old saying had it, in the court of the Grand Mughal only the humble did not stumble. Nevertheless there was . . . some cause for concern, because underneath the low-level mumble, at an even lower level, he had heard a darker rumble. . . . "
What can one say? The writer bumbles and fumbles, and finally the reader crumbles.
Rushdie has done a lot of research for "Enchantress." Unfortunately, the story gets lost amid its own underpinnings. The reader is asked to do the work the writer usually does: to put the complicated, sporadic, diffuse and often irritating mass of information together and make of it a comprehensible whole. Yet the book is not postmodern, deconstructed or radical -- it's not challenging in a good way. There's an awful lot in its few pages (few for Rushdie, that is). Indeed, there is far too much, and "Enchantress" reads as if it's unedited and unfinished. It's more Rushdie's working notebook for a novel than it is a premeditated work of finished fiction.
Because of its use of mirror imagery, trans-cultural characters, twin settings that reflect our own supposedly clashing civilizations, vivid descriptions of painting and song, and the shadowy, recurring but silent figure of Dashwanth the artist, "Enchantress" also seems to be about how to make art; about the relationship between politics and art (always a subject close to Rushdie's heart); and about the back-and-forth reflections between cultures. About art, politics and culture, however, "Enchantress" mostly hints and insinuates, rather than bringing the reader to some kind of understanding.
Here and there, like tiny sparkling jewels peeking from the vast, fertile loam, are wonderful bits of Rushdie's funny, nervy writing. There are beautiful sections on landscape painting, on combat at sea and on imprisonment, as well as brief, penetrating looks at married life ("His wife waddled. He was married to a waddling wife. He could not imagine touching her private places ever again.") and at the public miracles created by the enchantress.
For some readers, these winks of brilliance unlike any other writer's may be enough to erase the tedium of the narrative. The rest of us will have to hope that Rushdie, who is clearly so amused by his own creation, will work more as a writer and less as a researcher next time, and bring us all under his spell. *
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."