In his latest act of magic, Salman Rushdie has united mythology and the India of the Mogul empire with the Italy of the Renaissance, writes Jane Cornwell
THERE are no armed guards outside the Wylie Agency in Bedford Square, Bloomsbury, the premier agency for A- list authors in London. Its Georgian facade looks calm, welcoming; up three steps and the huge front door buzzes quickly open. A young male receptionist smiles and, without so much as a bag check, directs me towards an adjacent room. Where, sitting on his own — but rising with hand outstretched, those hooded brown eyes twinkling — is possibly the most prominent novelist of our time, Salman Rushdie.
‘‘ Have you seen a finished copy?’’ he asks before I’ve even got my coat off, his mellifluous voice the stuff of a million audio books. Pacing over to a wall of shelves he plucks a pristine redand- yellow hardback from a row all bearing the title The Enchantress of Florence . ‘‘ Look what the clever designers have done,’’ he beams, flicking the book open to reveal the 16th- century Indian Mogul painting on the inside front cover, and then a detail from a panorama of Renaissance Florence inside the back.
‘‘ Marvellous, just marvellous,’’ he sighs, looking as if he might happily fall into either and never climb out.
Which is just the sort of thing that happens in a Rushdie novel. Myth and fantasy intertwine with real life in the oeuvre of this Mumbai- born, Cambridge- educated writer: from 1981’ s Booker Prize- winning Midnight’s Children ( judged the Booker of Bookers in 1993 and odds- on for the Best of the Booker prize later this year) to 1988’ s fatwa- inspiring Satanic Verses ( which kept him hidden in a series of safe houses for nine years) and 2006’ s politically charged Shalimar the Clown , Rushdie has created a magic realist swirl within which official history is challenged, rewritten and fictionalised.
A fantasia set at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, The Enchantress of Florence unites the India of the Mogul empire with the Italy of the high Renaissance. It begins with a tall, yellowhaired European traveller arriving by bullock cart at the palace- city of Fatehpur Sikri, seat of the emperor Akbar, armed with a tale that will obsess the imperial capital.
He is, he claims, Mogor dell’Amore, the Mogul of Love; the son of a lost princess named Qara Koz, who was the youngest sister of the Grand Mogul, Akbar’s grandfather Babar. Which makes him the much older Akbar’s uncle.
Mogor’s tale gives way to that of the ravishing, dark- eyed Qara Koz, an ( alleged) sorceress captured by warlords and shahs before becoming the lover of Florentine army commander Argalia, boyhood friend of one Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s all rather complicated. It is also the work of a master storyteller. Like a sort of literary Russian doll, or a series of Persian miniatures, Rushdie’s audacious novel pulses with stories within stories, worlds within worlds. Time is blurred, turned inside out. Truth is told and stretched. Complex ideas — from belief and desire to power and projection — are explored concisely through a teeming and vibrant cast of characters.
We get Argalia’s tale, and Ago’s, and Machiavelli’s. We get that of Akbar’s scheming son, Salim, and Qara Koz’s lookalike lady- in- waiting, the Mirror. We get, briefly, a depressive portrait painter named Dashwanth who does indeed fall into his picture of Qara Koz and stay there, in contrast to the feat achieved by Akbar, who has conjured up his fantasy queen, princess Jodha. There are real historical figures in the shimmering heat of Fatehpur Sikri and the sensual, tyrannical world of Florence. But when Rushdie wants extra colour — some Swiss albino giants, say, or two whores named Skeleton and Mattress — he simply makes people up.
‘‘ But an enormous amount is true,’’ he says, sipping the extra strong coffee he’s ordered from the receptionist; just in from New York, he’s wrestling with jet lag. ‘‘ I kept finding out stuff — like the fact the gardeners in Topkapi Palace were also executioners — that I wouldn’t have even imagined.’’
Seven years in the research, 20 years in the thinking, The Enchantress of Florence was given breath by Rushdie’s upbringing in India ( as the only son of a barrister who also studied at Cambridge) and his undergraduate history degree. ‘‘ I spent a whole student summer in Florence without a bean, having to . . . choose between a pizza or a gelato,’’ he offers. ‘‘ A friend of mine had a car so we’d drive to the countryside and find all these old little churches with huge frescoes inside.’’
Rushdie has long since resumed his international travel schedule. Although the original death sentence decreed by Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989, was revoked, it was replaced by a new fatwa: one that seemed to fade away in tandem with changes of government on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1990s and, ironically, with the rise of Islamic radicalism. ‘‘ I was the pretext they found,’’ says Rushdie, whose 2007 knighthood briefly revitalised his enemies. ‘‘ Given that they were looking for pretexts.’’
While Rushdie was being guarded round the clock, fellow writers Roald Dahl and Germaine