The Enchantress of Florence

Written by Salman Rushdie
Review by Alana White

Wearing a multicolored leather coat, a Florentine traveler arrives at the emperor of India’s court armed with magic tricks, a secret, and a tale to tell. Set in Italy and India in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, The Enchantress of Florence explores the many levels of becoming, fantasy and reality, and how to bring dreams to life. Emperor Akbar the Great’s imaginary queen, who is his idea of perfection, becomes a point-of-view character by a pure act of will. Others disappear into paintings, while in Renaissance Florence, statues come alive and party in the streets.

As Rushdie plays with space and time, nothing is impossible. Stories are started, interrupted, retold, and folded inside out. His emperor is not content with being, but wants to become. Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s inspiration for Primavera and Birth of Venus, is the Florentine enchantress whose magical prowess is mirrored by Qara Köz, a princess before whom the beguiled universe falls to its feet.

We’re told Rushdie wrote Enchantress after many years of research, and he includes a comprehensive bibliography. Why then, does he cavalierly write that in Italy in 1478, during an attempt to overthrow the Florentine Republic, Lorenzo de’ Medici hanged his enemies from the windows of City Hall? In fact, government officials tossed the men to their deaths. Such broad strokes do not inspire rock-solid confidence in the author in those places where it’s obvious he doesn’t mean to play with history, but to get it right. This made me question the historical underpinnings of the entire novel.

Although provocative and clever and often laugh-out-loud funny, too frequently the humor descends into the sexual fantasies of a schoolboy. Worse, for a novel that is in large part about telling tall tales, yarns, and stories, this particular story is deeply disappointing, since ultimately it boils down to little more than thin air.