Readers who succumb to the spell of Rushdie’s convoluted, cross-continental fable may find it enchanting; those with less patience could consider it interminable.
This is a very different sort of novel for Rushdie (Shalimar the Clown, 2005, etc.), partly based in Renaissance Italy and intensely researched (there are pages of entries listed in its bibliography), though themes of East and West, love and betrayal, religion and unbelief, sex and sex, are familiar from previous work. It’s plain that the author worked hard on this deliriously ambitious book, and so must the reader. Despite the title, there is more than one enchantress of Florence, and other key characters have multiple names and perhaps identities as well. Some characters might even be imaginary. The plot commences with the arrival of a blonde-haired vagabond who has traveled from his native Florence to deliver a message from the Queen of England to “the emperor Abdul-Fath Jalaluddin Muhammad…known since his childhood as Akbar, meaning ‘the great,’ and latterly, in spite of the tautology of it, as Akbar the Great, the great great one, great in his greatness, doubly great, so great that the repetition in his title was not only appropriate but necessary in order to express the gloriousness of his glory.” And so on. The man from the Christian West and the emperor of the Muslim East develop a strong bond, mainly through the stories spun by the former (in which he assumes multiple names and identities) to the latter. Yet at one point, even Akbar issues “[a] curse on all storytellers,” telling his visitor “You’re taking too long. . .You can’t draw this out forever...” Machiavelli and Medicis make their appearances, as the plot shifts to the impossibly beautiful seductress of the title, who also finds her way from Italy to the emperor, and who ultimately gives clues to her identity by explaining, “The Mirror’s daughter was the mirror of her mother and of the woman whose mirror the Mirror had been.”
Rapturously poetic in places, very funny in others, yet the novel ultimately challenges both patience and comprehension.