Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Enchantress of Florence

The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie

Rushdie’s latest novel is a generous, extravagant dollop of story and metaphysical speculation, leaping wildly from India to Italy and back again in the heady days of the fifteenth and sixteenth century. It’s a novel of magic and tale-telling, of imagery and reflections, of love and of desire. A traveller comes to the court of an Emperor with a strange story. Telling it will change many things, reveal much that was hidden — if the tale is true. It will change its hearers, and it will change its teller. The Enchantress of Florence is the story, and the story of the story, and the story of its telling.

So, yes, it’s one of those stories about stories. And an exuberant one, deliberately calling up echoes of The Arabian Nights and Orlando Inamorato and Furioso and Marco Polo and Machiavelli and, and, and ... and always, it seems, more. It’s a dizzying book, thick not only with narrative colour but with theme; there are many and interpenetrating analyses of love, there are characters discussing the nature of divine revelation and its possible subordination to democratic dialogue, there are stories told inside stories. It’s hard to keep track of what the novel’s about, because it seems to be trying to be about everything.

Curiously, given much of its tone, the book shuns adventure and heroism. Perhaps this is not so curious, given that it certainly can be seen as resolutely humanist — celebrating the earthiness of life, the common man rather than the hero. But then on the other hand, its characters are anything but common people; even if the book does try to indicate the commonality within their experience, the story’s own nature seems to be trying to pull it in the direction of the larger-than-life. There may be a tension in the book, then, glorifying story while being highly aware of the ideological baggage of traditional storytelling and traditional heroism.

In any event, this is a great book. Its language, its structure, its deft use of imagery, its ability to play with history and with storytelling tradition — it’s the sort of book that could be described as an intellectual puzzle-box, except that there’s something more of life to it than the phrase implies. Rushdie has a knack for creating mythopoeic tableaux; for coming up with images, characters, situations that seem resonant, that seem to carry meanings beyond any that can be easily or confidently ascribed to them. This novel is brim-ful of such things, wonder upon wonder. It’s not an easy book, necessarily, but it is involving, and, perhaps, enrapturing.

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