The Enchantress of Florence, by Salman Rushdie

A forking path of fable that unites East and West

Reviewed,Aamer Hussein
Friday 25 April 2008 00:00 BST

"Not our Akbar. Not our Akbar at all," a Pakistani friend complained. She was referring to a romanticised portrayal of the great Mughal emperor in a new Bollywood film. "Our" Akbar? Idealist or pragmatist, opportunist or a moderniser ahead of his time? In his entrancing tapestry, also woven around Akbar, Salman Rushdie seeks answers to many of the questions history has left open. Let's take just one: the religion this illiterate visionary founded to bring together diverse elements of the world's great faiths in a nation of conflicting beliefs.

Rushdie has Akbar reflect: "Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in unthinking obeisance to a deity but rather, perhaps, in the... error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path." Goodness as individual responsibility, then, is the road the emperor contemplates. He does not wish to be divine, but is "mired in contradiction" and wonders whether discord and iconoclasm might be the "wellsprings of the good. These thoughts were not fit for a king."

Rushdie's Akbar, like Marguerite Yourcenar's Hadrian, does think the unkindly thoughts that history obliterates. He creates a tiny city that becomes a metaphor for his syncretic vision. He examines his own heritage; given his own Indianised perceptions, he designates the founder of his dynasty, the legendary Central Asian conqueror Babar, a barbarian. In his desire to reach out to the invisible masses, he invents a wife, the beautiful Rajput princess Jodha Bai. The legend of their love will survive.

Many readers will be haunted, at the end of a dense and intricate epic novel, by the image of this man with one foot on the precipice of the modern; with his imaginary wife, a city that dies of thirst, and a religion that fades away into allegory along with its founder and its adherents. Even his erotic encounters with his wife are self-pleasuring fantasies. But this lament for failed dreams is also a testament to the immortality of dreams.

Akbar's story, meticulously researched, is only one strand in Rushdie's rich weave. Research can also lead to reinvention, of which there are characteristic examples here. Recent speculation about Akbar's queen and the mother of his heir Jahangir has led historians to conclude that this was a posthumous title attributed by a colonial historian to his chief wife. In the novel's version, this queen becomes a figment. Rushdie's cultural translations transform mundanities: a bedchamber or khwabgah, with a shift of meaning from Persian to Urdu usage, becomes a place of dreams; and Majnun-e-Laila, a reference to the lovers Qais and Laila, makes the latter mad for love itself, rather than merely for his beloved - as the original phrase implies.

Many tales converge in this tapestry. There's an exuberant strand of fable, in contrast to Akbar's autumnal meditations. A stranger, the self-styled Mogor d'Amore, comes to Akbar's court from Italy; he tells a multi-faceted tale of kinship and ancestry, war and passion that links teller and listener in a trajectory of exile and return.

Central to the stranger's Sherezadian narration is the character of Qara Köz, a great-aunt of Akbar's who, a pawn in the play of potentates, passed from ruler to ruler until she became the soul mate of a certain Argalia, himself an Italian soldier of fortune who reinvented himself as a commander of the Ottoman army. Is the yellow-haired stranger an imposter?

Lovers of historical fantasy will be entranced by the Florentine strand, a complex intertwining of history and imagination. The sections set in Italy and elsewhere can at times be so densely detailed that the reader yearns for the quiet of Akbar's contemplations.

Rushdie holds an ongoing dialogue with other writers: one is occasionally reminded of the exchanges between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in Calvino's Invisible Cities; of Eco's playful list of rules for historical fiction; of Pamuk's border-crossing protagonist in The White Castle; and of the musings on art and reality in his My Name is Red, in which the experiments in realism of Akbar's court painters are cited. There's a resounding echo of the Indo-Persian storytelling tradition, with its lush images, forked progressions and digressions, its obliteration of boundaries between magic and reality.

The author has a purpose. Akbar feels that the lands of the occident are "exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East". In Rushdie's deft reversal of the orientalist gaze, Mughal India, the east, is often portrayed as more tolerant, philosophical and progressive than Europe. But, as Akbar learns from his storytelling kinsman, in one sense at least west and east are not as distant as they seem: "The curse of the human race is not so much that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike."

Aamer Hussein's 'Insomnia' is published by Telegram

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