jueves, 26 de mayo de 2011

The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie

The Enchantress Of Florence by Salman Rushdie is a thoroughly entertaining read. It’s a super-real experience, so vivid and sharp that the focus starts to blur even imagined distinction between the real, the unreal and the surreal. And when everything becomes clear, the process starts again.

We are transported to the sixteenth century and the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar the Great, who has many concerns. Akbar, indeed, has all the concerns you would expect any self-respecting emperor might have. He agonises, for instance, over being “I” or “We”. Usually, of course, as befits his status, he is “We”. He has grown up as “We”, assumed himself to be “We” and continues to recognise himself as “We”. But recently he has tried “I” and found it lies strangely on the tongue and might even have changed his reflection in the mirror. On top of this, he worries about his succession, the indolence and ambition of his offspring, the comfort of his harem, the performance of his armies, the future of his fortunes.

But Akbar is also the ruler of a vivid imagination. His favourite queen, the one who adds grace to his harem, the one whose every step must be upon polished tiles, exists only in his imagination. He spends more time with her than with any other of his wives, and she probably consumes more of the palace budget than anyone, so perfectly does Akbar desire to provide for her insatiable needs.

So what might Akbar the Great make of a fair-haired young man in a multi-coloured coat who arrives with a story to tell, a claim to make and tricks of the hand that can be explained as illusions? His name is Uccello, bird, when we meet him aboard ship. Then he is Vespucci, a relative of he who had in the recent past sailed to and named the real new world that Columbus had both missed and misinterpreted. And later he transforms into Mogor dell' Amore, the mughal of love, or perhaps with a little imagination, the Mughal’s love-child. And more than that, he arrives bearing a letter from the Queen of England, herself a virgin in her own legend.

Uccello Mogor Vespucci, whoever he might be, also has a claim. He is a direct descendent of the Mogul royal line by virtue of an almost forgotten princess, Qara Köz, who as an infant was abducted, traded, swapped, travelled, perhaps trammelled until she emerged in Florence as a young woman of enchanting, perhaps bewitching beauty. Mogor Vespucci Uccello related how he and her apparently permanent, inseparable assistant, her Mirror, captivated the interest of Medici Florence. Suitors queued at the door, including Argalia, if indeed that be his name, a soldier of fortune. The abandoned princess is then adopted by European high society and learns to live by its rules. She has liaisons whose confusion is only doubled by the constant proximity of the Mirror, and offspring springs outward.

Now for an emperor who already has the facility of imagining his favourite wife, Vespucci Uccello Mogor’s story fires the mind, re-ignites memory and raises possibility. He dreams dreams, interprets them, re-interprets what he doesn’t like and then seeks them in reality, only to find them. A conjoined history that spans Asia and Europe unfolds and he, alongside the reader, sees the familiar in a new, conflicting light.

But in the end, who is telling stories? Are the stories true? And, if we can imagine, who might judge them to be false? Is this trickery? Or is it claim? The Enchantress Of Florence is an enchanting read. It is provocative, humorous and in places iconoclastic. Fiction and fact become blurred and, even in reality, we can hardly distinguish between them. We create stories to enhance our experience and sometimes we believe them. Sometimes we also deign to believe what is real, but often we cannot agree on a definition of the label. It’s a magical experience, a conjuror’s achievement.

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