Like a peddler just arrived in town, or a traveler come from foreign shores, Salman Rushdie spreads before us his magic carpet of stories. Rushdie has been many things–political novelist, national epicist, probing essayist, free-speech icon out of force of circumstance–but he has always been, first and last, a storyteller. As Conrad sought to return to fiction the immediacy of the sailor’s tale–one man entertaining his mates over claret and cigars–so Rushdie seeks to reanimate the printed page with the exuberance and exoticism of legend and fable, fairy tale and myth: the province of the wanderer, the yarn spinner, the bard. More than Ulysses or The Tin Drum, his most persistent models have been the Thousand and One Nights and the Hindu epics, The Wizard of Oz and Bollywood. He doesn’t want to be Joyce; he wants to be Scheherazade. His greatest works engage the tragedies of modern history through the most audaciously archaic of narrative devices. Midnight’s Children hinges on the switching of two babies in the cradle; The Satanic Verses features flying carpets and Ovidian metamorphoses.
Barring his children’s book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Rushdie’s new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, may be the purest expression yet of his fabulating impulse. Set in a faraway time, the 1500s, and dividing its pages between two storied lands, the Mughal Empire and Renaissance Florence, it is replete with princesses and pirates, mysterious strangers and long-lost cousins, enchanted waters and magic cloaks. But what it does not contain is as telling as what it does. The Enchantress of Florence exhibits none of the complex allegorical structures, dense systems of allusion or broad political implications–in short, none of the satanic ambition–that both weigh down his major works and give them weight.
The result, if relatively slight, is probably Rushdie’s most coherent and readable novel. The 500-plus-pagers tend to sprawl as they spread, bogging down in their proliferating mass of characters and plotlines. Their language, while often playful, is also sometimes labored, sweating to keep the narrative machinery aloft. Here the story is clean and compact, and the ever-so-slightly archaic style goes down like ice cream:
The path sloped upward past the tower of the teeth toward a stone gate upon which two elephants in bas-relief stood facing each other. Through this gate, which was open, came the noises of human beings at play, eating, drinking, carousing. There were soldiers on duty at the Hatyapul gate but their stances were relaxed. The real barriers lay ahead. This was a public place, a place for meetings, purchases, and pleasure. Men hurried past the traveler, driven by hungers and thirsts. On both sides of the flagstoned road between the outer gate and the inner were hostelries, saloons, food stalls, and hawkers of all kinds. Here was the eternal business of buying and being bought. Cloths, utensils, baubles, weapons, rum.