The real uses of enchantment - The Enchantress of Florence
From the sea of stories our master fisherman has brought up two gleaming, intertwining prizes - a tale about three boys from Florence in the age of Lorenzo de' Medici, and a story of Akbar, greatest of the Mughal emperors, who established both the wondrous and shortlived city Fatehpur Sikri and a wondrous and shortlived policy of religious tolerance. Both stories are about story itself, the power of history and fable, and why it is that we can seldom be sure which is which.
Fabulous as his life was, Akbar was a historical figure, and one of the young Florentines is Niccolò Machiavelli, our byword for political realism. But Niccolò's friend Argalia flies off on the peacock wings of the novelist's invention to become the bosom friend of Akbar before returning to fight for a lost cause in Florence. Some characters are the inventions of other characters: Queen Jodha, and Qara Köz, the Enchantress, are Akbar's daydreams of the Perfect Wife, the Perfect Lover, brought into existence by tale-tellers and artists and Akbar's all-powerful desire and obsession. They are accepted by his people, "such occurrences being normal at that time, before the real and the unreal were segregated forever and doomed to live apart under different monarchs and separate legal systems".
This brilliant, fascinating, generous novel swarms with gorgeous young women both historical and imagined, beautiful queens and irresistible enchantresses, along with some whores and a few quarrelsome old wives - all stock figures, females perceived solely in relation to the male. Women are never treated unkindly by the author, but they have no autonomous being. The Enchantress herself, who turns everyone into puppets of her will, has no personality at all, and exists - literally - by pleasing men. Akbar calls her a "woman who had forged her own life, beyond convention, by the force of her will alone, a woman like a king". But in fact she does nothing but sell herself to the highest bidder, and her power is an illusion permitted by him.
In one marvellous scene Akbar's wife and mother come to show his imaginary wife Jodha how to release him from the Enchantress's spell, and in so doing are reconciled with Jodha in a moment of hilarious feminine solidarity - but the Enchantress materialises, Jodha vanishes, the women are defeated by the man's obsession. Indeed, the men in the book are as hormone-besotted as adolescents. All their derring-do, their battling for cities and empires, comes down to little more than a desire for a bed with a young woman in it. Machiavelli becomes a disappointed middle-aged lecher whose middle-aged wife "waddles" and "quacks" while he looks at her, of course, with loathing. But then suddenly, for a page or two, we slip into her soul; we feel her anger at his disloyalty, her hurt pride as a woman, her unchanged pride in his "dark sceptical genius" and her puzzlement at his failure to see how he lessens himself by scorning what he has that is treasurable and honourable. For that moment I glimpsed a very different book, almost a different author. Then it was back to the dazzling play of fancy and the powerful dreams of men.
The swashbuckling Argalia's adventures, which links the Florentine and the Indian strands of the double tale, are full of Rushdian charm and extravagance (descending sometimes into facetiousness, as in the case of the four giant albino Swiss mercenaries named Otho, Botho, Clotho and D'Artagnan). But Argalia's exploits are less interesting than the misfortunes of Machiavelli or the mind of the Emperor Akbar.