There is no doubt that Salman Rushdie has a way with words. He is capable of writing devastatingly gorgeous prose, but in this offering, despite the wordsmithing, he didn't twine his narratives together well enough to have the whole hang together quite like he's capable of doing. I first read Rushdie when I was in graduate school. Midnight's Children was a complete revelation. It was stunning and impressive and made me rush right out to buy everything else he'd written to that point. Not too long after that came the fatwa over The Satanic Verses and in my usual modus operandi ("if it's causing a kerfuffle or being banned, I must buy it and support the author"), I zipped out and purchased that too despite not being terribly intrigued by the premise. I finally read it last year. And it bored me silly. So Mr. Rushdie had hit both ends of the reading experience spectrum for me, high and low. Perhaps then, it makes sense that this read was middle of the road. He's just covering all his bases.
The novel opens with a yellow-haired traveler making his way towards the great city of Mughal Emperor Akbar. Calling himself the Mogor dell'Amore, this character is the thread that will ultimately weave the seemingly disparate story lines together. There is the storyline of Akbar and his imaginary wife, the story of three boys in Florence, and the story of the eponymous Enchantress of Florence, Qara Koz. In each of the story lines, especially as they come closer and closer to converging, Rushdie is clearly playing with apparent opposites: East and West, real and imagined, history and fiction. But he is also highlighting the similarities among things so seemingly different.
Our yellow-haired stranger in his patchwork coat of many colors tells a tale to Akbar, the tale of a forgotten Mughal princess who left the East for the West and was subsequently scrubbed from history. Is his tale true and if so, what impact will it have on the court of Akbar? There are multiple side narratives threading through the recounting of Qara Koz's life and Rushdie often interrupts his own narrative with asides to pull the reader out of the haze into which our storyteller has carefully led us. These textual interruptions, and indeed the many allusions (many of which I am certain I missed) scattered throughout, bring the reader up short, always pointing to the fictional and illusory nature of both this story and the story within the story.
Somehow, even with all the dazzling sleight of hand by Rushdie, ultimately the story was a little flat. Despite Qara Koz gaining in solidity throughout the telling of her story, she never came across as a fully realized character. She remained transparent, merely showing others through the lens of her actions rather than becoming the focus herself. Was this intentional and I've missed the point? Perhaps. I enjoyed the novel while in Akbar's city far more than I did once the setting changed to Florence and the maneuverings of the Medici family. The Mughal empire was more richly evoked than Florence, at least for me. It was clever to use real, historical people in this fictional investigation into the idea of the real versus the created but perhaps the novel wandered too far and wide to entirely and successfully pull off whatever ambitious intention Rushdie had for it. An interesting read, I was left feeling a bit let down despite recognizing Rushdie's undoubted brilliance.