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Worlds Without End Blog

Outside the Norm: Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence Posted at 7:13 AM by Rhonda Knight


Rhonda Knight is an Associate Professor of English at Coker College in Hartsville, SC. She teaches Medieval and Renaissance literature as well as composition courses. When she looked over last year’s reading list, she was shocked to see that only 17% of the authors she read were women. This blog will record her attempts to read authors that are generally considered out of the science fiction norm: women, persons of color, and non-U.S. and non-U.K. authors.

The Enchantress of FlorenceWhen I thought about authors whom I might read for this blog, Salman Rushdie never came to my mind. The Enchantress of Florence has been on my to-read stack for a while and I vowed to read it this year, but I never thought that I’d write about it here. A few things occurred in a wonderfully serendipitous way that led me to write this blog. First, my blog about Margaret Atwood’s novels produced an interesting discussion about the label “science fiction” and started me thinking about what that label means.

Second, I recently read an anecdote from Brian Aldiss in which he recounts that he, Arthur C. Clarke, and Kingsley Amis were on a panel to give an award for best science fiction novel. These prestigious panelists chose Salman Rushdie’s first novel Grimus as the winner, but the publisher pulled the book at the last minute because they did not want Rushdie to be pigeonholed as a science fiction writer. Aldiss discusses this in an article, “Why Don’t We Love Science Fiction,” by Bryan Appleyard in The London Sunday Times (Dec. 2, 2007). Aldiss supports the publisher’s actions, saying that if Rushdie had “been labeled a science-fiction writer… nobody would have heard of him again.” I’m not sure that I agree that Rushdie would have been doomed to obscurity, but I keep running across the fact that science fiction writing is not bad writing, but the label is a bad label. Aldiss goes on to discuss the fact that the British embrace fantasy novels as books written for children that it’s okay for adults to read (ex. Tolkien, Pullman, Pratchett, Rowling), while they see science fiction as “adolescent” in the pejorative sense.

This claim, finally, leads me back to The Enchantress of Florence: it is fantasy, but fantasy written for adults. So, what do we do with it? Call it magic realism to legitimize it? We could, but this novel is different from Rushdie’s other novels that I’ve read and do consider to be magic realism. My main argument against the magic realism category is The Enchantress of Florence contains no hint of a modern setting. From the beginning, it immerses the reader in a world that is a magical past and stays there. Do I think that it belongs on the F&SF shelves on my local bookstore? Maybe, maybe not, but I do think that it is the kind of book that many WWEnders would enjoy but might not immediately pick up. (Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, his only book in the WWE database, shows only eleven readers.)

Like many of Rushdie’s works, The Enchantress of Florence juxtaposes East and West. Its historical settings are the court of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great and the Renaissance Florence of the de Medicis and Machiavelli. These two settings are linked by the arrival of a blond stranger in Akbar’s city of Fatehpur Sikri. This stranger is a Florentine, pretending to be Queen Elizabeth’s ambassador. (How this comes about makes an interesting start to the novel.) Once that disguise is exposed the stranger begins calling himself by the alias the Mogor dell’Amore (the Mughal of Love). Through this persona, he gains access to Akbar. He says that he has come to tell Akbar a story: “All men needed to hear their stories told. He was a man, but if he died without telling the story he would be something less than that, an albino cockroach, a louse” (89). This story concerns Akbar’s great aunt, the sister of his grandfather. Her name was Qara Köz, and she had been erased from Mughal history. As a young girl, she was a pawn in her brother’s political chess game. She and her sister were given as hostages to the enemy. When she made the choice to remain with her captor, rather than returning to her brother’s court with her sister, her brother, Babar, begins a campaign to erase all traces of her from her native culture.

While unknown in her homeland because of this, she becomes famous in other parts of the world because of her beauty. That beauty evokes power over all men who come in contact with her. Her maid servant, known as the Mirror, is only slightly less beautiful than she is. Here is the experience of one admirer:

“the women coming down toward him were more beautiful than beauty itself, so beautiful that they redefined the term, and banished what men had previously thought beautiful into the ranks of dull ordinariness. A fragrance preceded them down the stairs and wrapped itself around his heart.” (258)

Her beauty is her magic, which she uses to make her way through the world from India to Persia to Anatolia to Florence to the New World, always under the protection of powerful men.

The Mogor dell Amore’s recounting of Qara Köz’s story resembles the tale of The Thousand and One Nights. He portions out his story with digressions and necessary back stories to Akbar, and as he does so, he becomes more and more valuable to the emperor. He is not Scheherazade, telling stories to save his life. Instead he tells the story to find his own place in the world; he is a wanderer looking for a home and implicit in the story he tells is the message that the Mughal empire is his home. However, Rushdie does not model the format of the novel on The Thousand and One Nights. It is not a frame story that focuses on each part of the story as a separate story. Instead, Mogor dell Amore’s story is woven into the narrative of Akbar’s world, which is peopled with trusted advisors, rebellious sons, and multiple wives.

Salman RushdeiOne of these wives, Jodha is particularly interesting, as she sets one of the novel’s themes, man’s search for the “perfect” woman. Jodha is Akbar’s “imaginary wife, dreamed up by Akbar in the way that lonely children dream up imaginary friends, and in spite of the presence of many living, if floating, consorts, the emperor was of the opinion that it was the real queens who were the phantoms and the nonexistent beloved who was real” (27). His other wives, of course, are jealous of Akbar’s phantom favorite, especially since they claim that he built her “by stealing bits of them all” (45). The only woman he wants is a woman who is not. In her well-considered review of the book, Ursula K. Le Guin points out that all the women in the book are “all stock figures, females perceived solely in relation to the male.” While Le Guin is absolutely correct, women’s power in the book comes through the stereotyped arenas of sex or magic; the men are not any better developed and fall into typical roles of mercenary, trickster, king, despot, etc. I believe that this is because Rushdie is trying to tell a fairy story about history and fable and the fine line between them. The Florentine mercenary, Antonino Argalia, is one of my favorite characters. He becomes a Janissary, fighting for Islam’s most powerful leaders and gains so much power that he can command his own mobile community. Among his loyal followers are gigantic Swiss albino brothers–Otho, Botho, Clotho, and D’Artagnan.

These names and other little gems demonstrate Rushdie’s humor and style. The sentences are lush and inventive, all the while giving the reader a knowing wink. An example of this occurs when Rushdie describes the ways that the Mogor dell Amore’s story of Qara Köz filters through the citizens of Akbar’s city:

“As the story of the hidden princess began to spread through the noble villas and common gullies of Sikri a languid delirium seized hold of the capital. People began to dream about her all the time, women as well as men, courtiers as well as guttersnipes, sadhus as well as whores…. She even bewitched the queen mother Hamida Bano, who ordinarily had no time for dreams. However, the Qara Köz who visited Hamida Bano’s sleeping hours was a paragon of Muslim devotion and conservative behavior. No alien knight was allowed to sully her purity.” (197)

The Qara Köz who visits Hamida Bano’s sister-in-law, Old Princess Gulbadan, in her dreams, is quite different:

“a free-spirited adventuress whose irreverent, even blasphemous gaiety was a little shocking but entirely delightful… Princess Gulbadan would have envied her if she could, but she was having too much fun living vicariously through her several nights a week.” (197)

If you enjoyed these sentences, you will enjoy The Enchantress of Florence. If you didn’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.


Thomas Baughman   |   05 Feb 2012 @ 19:15

Poor Rushdie. He never wrote anything great after The Ayatollah’s fatwa.

Ifty Zaidi   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 01:57

Great review. I’ve always been a little wary of fiction set in historical settings and "fairytale" eastern settings are always in danger of being ridden through by creeping orientalism. That said this looks like something I would like to read, even if painful liberties are taken with historical personalities in order to twist them into allegorical moulds. The Princess Gulbadan has always been an intriguing figure and I’d be interested to see what is done with her here. I’m hoping (though not holding high expectations) that such interesting figures as Abu’l-Fazl, Faizi and Raja Birbal are not excised from Akbar’s Court.Anyway I thought you might be interested to know that Qara Koz is obviously a play on the Urdu term Qora Kaghaz, which means ‘blank paper’ and is often employed by authors to mean the equivalent of tabula rasa.

Emil   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 02:20

Sadly, I’m not a huge fan of Rushdie. Should he be in the SF&F genre? Well, can we ask the same question about David Mitchell or even Thomas Pynchon? And what about Umberto Echo, whose "Foucault’s Pendulum" is one of my all-time favourite books? Rushdie’s quality is not anywhere near the aforementioned, but they do seem to address similar themes. Where I read anything and everything (yes, even Pynchon’s mamoth "Against the Day") from the aforementioned literatti, I doubt very much that I will enjoy this book. The quoted sentences does not appeal to me.

Rhonda Knight   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 08:33

@Ifty Zaidi. Thanks that makes an interesting point

Rhonda Knight   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 09:27

@Emil, from your comment I’m not sure if we agree, so I don’t want to put words in your mouth. However, when you say that we can ask the same question about X, Y, or Z author, my response is we should be asking the question. I found Aldiss’ acceptance that Rushdie’s publishers did the right thing disturbing. Is he saying: put Grimus in the science fiction ghetto and Midnight’s Children would have never been able to overcome the science fiction label, no Booker Prize, no Booker of Bookers, etc. It seems so. The idea that authors can’t jump from genre to genre or explore genres, seems so silly to me but seems very real to those in the business side of publishing. However, as I say that, three authors that have accomplished this (on differing scales) come to mind. One is David Mitchell, as you said, because Cloud Atlas is basically an experiment in genre writing from detective, to adventure, to science fiction. The second is China Mieville. I read somewhere that his goal was to write books that explore different genres (but I need to read more of his books to see how he is accomplishing this.) Third is Joyce Carol Oates. She seems to publish in every genre imaginable, romance, gothic, horror, mystery, yet she’s won National Book Awards and been nominated for a Pulitzer.I’m not saying that everything that is strictly non-realistic should be labelled F and SF, but I’m thinking that the convenience of labeling shelves in the box stores should not determine a writer’s future career. Sorry for the mini-essay.

Rhonda Knight   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 16:32

Following up from this morning:Ted Gioia’s second paragraph from the essay in the link below says what I was trying to say much better. Go look if you are interested.

Scott Laz   |   06 Feb 2012 @ 16:46

As another SF writer who preferred not to be labeled as such once put it: "So it goes"! The conundrum of the relationship between the "mainstream" and the genre "ghetto" continues to be fraught. A couple of days ago I read an article in The Atlantic about the importance of A Clockwork Orange on the 40th anniversary of the film. The author feels the need to point out that "despite not being (by any acclamation) a science-fiction film, A Clockwork Orange is ranked No. 4 on the AFI Best Sci-Fi List," as though all those people who see it as SF just don’t realize that an interesting, important, and influential work of art can’t possibly be science fiction. One of Stanley Kubrick’s aides is quoted: "He [Kubrick] was incapable of making a pure genre movie—too smart—though many were mistakenly promoted that way." This seems to imply that no one working within a genre framework can possibly have her own "smart" artistic vision, so such auteurs, by definition, are outside genre. Rushdie, Oates, Vonnegut, Kubrick, Lethem, Chabon, et. al. have a complicated relationship with SF/fantasy genre fiction in that the determination of whether they’re "in" or "out" differs with reader and critical response, desires of publishers/marketers, and their own attitudes toward their work in relation to the genre. But if it walks like a pig and talks like a pig… Thanks to Rhonda and other critics who are helping to (slowly) make these silly artificial barriers less important.

Emil   |   07 Feb 2012 @ 08:56

@Rhonda, I do think we agree. I’m equally disturbed by Aldiss’ comments. Thanks for the link. I guess part of the point I was attempting to bring across was that I do not / did not enjoy the odd few Rushdie’s I’ve read. I don’t mind him staying "out" of the genre *smiley* My experience with the other authors I’ve mentioned (by no means an exhaustive list) was a lot more engaging. I’m reading "Cloud Atlas" (slowly) and can certainly appreciate the literary experiment. But above all it is an engaging read, whereas my experience with "The Satanic Verses" wasn’t. Don’t you think that it is also the fans of genre fiction who contribute much in creating the artificial barriers? These barriers are more than just distinctions in genres – here at my local bookshop I also have to content with the label "African fiction." Heavens know what that definition entails, but it appears to be books written by authors from Africa (not South Africa, or Nigeria, or Kenya, or any other country from this continent, but rather as a collective ensemble). Under "African fiction’ I’ll find Lauren Beukes’ "Zoo City" and "Moxyland" and Nnedi Okarafor’s "Who Fears Death" , next to all the books by Chinua Achebe, and not in the SF/F section. Figure that! @Scott, yes, I’m hoping those barriers disappear. But without the magnificently stocked SF/F sections in bookstores, where will I go to find them? *smile*

Rhonda Knight   |   08 Feb 2012 @ 08:20

@Emil You said: "Don’t you think that it is also the fans of genre fiction who contribute much in creating the artificial barriers?" Yes, I do. I’ve spent many, many years talking to F&SF fans and academics. For the most part, both groups are generally entrenched in whatever opinions they hold about what constitutes genre and what constitutes Literature (and, yes, I used the capital L on purpose). In fact, I lent a friend an Orson Scott Card book once (in an attempt to teach her about the structure of genre novels) and she sneered because it had an embossed cover. She could not believe that I read books that have embossed covers. That’s from the academia side, but if I thought hard enough I’m sure I could think of a story about a friend complaining when the populus "discovered" an F&SF author or how X author sold out to popular tastes.

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