The Litanies of Absence:  Mughal India meets the Italian Renaissance in Rushdie’s ‘The Enchantress of Florence’

13 March 2023

In this blog, the novel The Enchantress of Florence (2008) by Salman Rushdie is revisited in the context of my research “Qalandars in the Divine Religion”. I am interested in the way Rushdie had reanimated Akbar and his reign in Fatehpur Sikri to paint an alternative picture of the pre-casts of the modern era.

The enchantress of Florence and India, Qara Köz, journeys across the oceans, in search of the promised land.

The cover image of The Enchantress of Florence (2009)

“And yet this was where she had gone, the delinquent princess of the house of Timur and Temüjin, Babar’s sister, Khanzada’s sister, blood of his blood. No woman in the history of the world had made a journey like hers. He loved her for it and admired her too, but he was also sure that her journey across the Ocean Sea was a kind of dying, a death before death, because death too was a sailing away from the known into the unknown. She had sailed away into unreality, into a world of fantasy which men were still dreaming into being. The phantasm haunting his palace was more real than that flesh-and-blood woman of the past who gave up the real world for an impossible hope, just as she had once given up the natural world of family and obligation for the selfish choices of love. Dreaming of finding her way back to her point of origin, of being rejoined to that earlier self, she was lost forever.” (327)

The ninth novel of Salman Rushdie, The Enchantress of Florence (2008) is an inventive yet resourceful remaking of history across time and space, weaving different cultures and separate continents through the threads of fiction and recorded chronicles. Rushdie’s thoroughly researched book opens a new window into the dynamics of the early modern period from a fresh and non-ethnocentric perspective. Rushdie highlights a meticulous web of intermingled histories in the traverses of the main characters between the polemics of the East and the West. Composing a concentric multifaceted narrative, the author plays with the boundaries of fantasy and reality. Traveling back in time to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Rushdie seeks to grasp the sensibilities of the time of explorers, at the dawn of ‘the new world discovery’. From the perspective of a cultural relativist, the pre-configuration of the modern era is studied. In this vein, the reader is offered a decolonized glance at the Mughal empire during its prime under Emperor Akbar (1542-1605), the established Safavid empire under Shah Ismail I (1487-1524), the expansive Ottoman empire under Selim the Grim (1470-1520), the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) the queen of England and Ireland, Florence at the dawn of renaissance, and finally the fever of ‘Mundus Novus’ at the time of Machiavelli (1469-1527).

The non-centric structure of the narrative is filled with the cacophony of characters often borrowed from historical, or literary sources, as well as folklore tradition, reanimated to embody Rushdie’s questions about his own contemporary moment. What did the question of religious belief and unbelief contain in the construction of a pragmatic societal scaffolding, aiming to facilitate all people to live peacefully together regardless of their differences? What is the benefit of revisiting this specific historical moment in the context of the “resurgence of religious fundamentalisms”? By transgressing Akbar’s historical persona and reworking him as a fictional character, questions revolving around the constraints of religious faith, and the possibility of imagining living an ethical life without religion are investigated through history.       

The frame story of The Enchantress of Florence revolves around the sudden appearance of a European to the Mughal emperor Akbar’s court. Despite the obvious differences in their appearances, the newcomer declares that he is Akbar’s uncle. He initially introduces himself as “Mogor dell’Amour” (Mughal of love/ ‘Mughal born out of wedlock’). Later we come to know him as Uccello di Firenze and Niccolo Vespucci as the character is imbued with different symbols and phantasmic identities. Throughout the novel, the visitor narrates the story of how his bloodline is linked to an exiled Mughal princess named Qara Köz (also known as Angelica) and an Italian man from Florence. The time of the story and the locus are characterized by an inexorable euphoria for the exchange of knowledge, and culture facilitated by people’s movements. Evidently, the early modern period witnessed magnitudes of artistic, and philosophical revolutions, due to the expansions in trading, and substantial patronage of culture. Through the stories of travelers and explorers, particularly that of the “mother” and “son”, we move between mainlands, from the Mughal court to Renaissance Florence blending history and imagination within the generic traditions of magic realism.

The novel is divided into three parts. The first part mainly focuses on Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar’s capital, which was the engine and beating heart of Akbar’s innovative experimentations. According to popular tradition, in the think tank of the Mughal empire, Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar often enjoyed the company of nine exceptional intellectuals also known as the ‘Nine Jewels’ (Hindu: Navaratnas). These intellectuals offered their insights on important governmental matters. In Rushdie’s account of Mughal history, a number of the courtly intellectuals, including Abu’l-Fażl ʿAllāmī (1551-1602), the grand vizier and Mughal historian, and his brother, Feyżī (1547-1595), the poet laureate are restored to life. Additionally, Rushdie offers some space to important women of the court and reimagines their presence and role in court matters. Expounding on the theme of enticement from a gendered perspective, Rushdie tailors a fictional space, sensible to the hierarchical nuances of class and gender. By highlighting the frenzy for new cosmopolitan modes of being through imaginary female personas, the author aims to capture the invisible trail of women through different historical moments.

The central themes of the novel, enchantment and magic, play an important role in constantly reminding the reader of literature’s creative power and the seductive force of imagination that create worlds beyond the perceptible. Remaking the world-famous enchanters of history such as Akbar and Qara Köz, Rushdie aims to open a space to imagine alternative histories and the possibility of dialogue between different cultures. Reworking the Sufi literary trope of the mirror in his twenty-first-century fiction, he employs mirror-like female characters throughout his narrative, for instance, Qara Köz and her servant the Mirror, and the Florentine prostitutes, Scandal and La Matterassina and their counterparts in Fatehpur Sikri’s House of Skanda, Mohini, and Mattress. The mirrors of characters are illuminating as they provide new insights. By projecting an almost certified copy of the characters, the mirrors in the story reflect a shadow-like image, accentuating similarities but also differences. Counterintuitively, Qara Köz is represented as both the symbols of Florence and Fatehpur Sikri. The trope of the mirror further reminds the reader of the active role of metaliterature in questioning fixed categories such as history, the act of reading, and interpretation.            

The second part of the novel focuses on the tale of three friends in Florence and the mark of Qara Köz on their lives namely, ‘Il Machia’ (Machiavelli), Ago Vespucci, and Nino Argalia. Qara Köz is the supposedly long-lost sister of Babur, Akbar’s grandfather, and founder of the Mughal dynasty. She accompanied her sister Khanzada Begum who was the bounty of the battle of Samarqand (during  Babur, Akbar’s grandfather, and founder of the Mughal dynasty s good relations with the Mughals, Qara Köz insisted on staying in Persia, away from home. During the battle of Chaldiran, between the Safavids and the Ottomans, Qara Köz met Argalia who was a military commander at the service of Selim the Grim, Sultan of the Ottoman empire. Qara Köz fell in love with Argalia and together they returned to Machiavelli’s Florence, Argalia’s hometown. In the third part of the novel, Qara Köz decides to leave with Ago Vespucci initially to Genua and then, on the proposal of Andrea Doria, to the “New World”. Qara Köz opts to go back home to Mughal India, but she never succeeds.

Akbar is infatuated with Niccolo Vespucci’s stories and Qara Köz’s persona to the extent that he imagines her coming to life. Constantly contemplating the stories, Akbar finds Vespucci’s claims of kinship ill-founded. As Vespucci escapes Fatehpur Sikri, suddenly, the city’s source of water dries out, signaling the end of the fertile hybridization that resulted from Vespucci’s stories. One night, Qara Köz appears to Akbar to take the lead in her story replacing the role of Niccolo as the narrator. Qara Köz clarifies that Niccolo must be the son of the Mirror’s daughter and Ago Vespucci (the father of the mirror’s daughter). Therefore, not knowing himself, Niccolo is a result of ‘incest’. Nevertheless, as was shown through the symbol of water, Vespucci’s stories, although founded falsely, create a fantasy world in the story, which congregates different dimensions of time and space such as Machiavelli’s and Akbar’s worlds. To attain a new perspective, by means of comparing cultures and mirroring time and settings, the novel offers its own historiography, reading between the lines of fiction and reality.

Both Akbar and Machiavelli were inquisitors, seeking to find universal structures that could form an ideal dominion and sustain the hierarchical status of the rulers. Akbar’s interest in foreign cultures and the act of cultural hybridization, described in the novel as hegemonic and elitist, accentuated his passion for different modes of being and further enabled him in construing an alternative path. Dissatisfied with the status quo, Akbar was actively searching for a comprehensive framework that grants a decent life in this material existence beyond the limits of any religion. In Rushdie’s understanding, Akbar opted to construct a man-made religious structure as opposed to a divine one, albeit under the name of ‘Divine Religion’. Rushdie masterfully dramatizes an intermezzo in India’s history where important questions about the separation of religion and politics were dominant.

The following is an example of Akbar’s inner dialogue, reflecting Rushdie’s understanding of Akbar’s view on the question of religious faith.

“Akbar forced his thoughts back onto their proper path. He was not a perfect man, that was a flatterer’s phrase, and Abul Fazl’s flatteries led him into what Mogor dell’Amore had called the webs of paradox. To elevate a man to near-divine status, and to allow him absolute power, while arguing that human beings and not gods were the masters of human destinies contained a contradiction that would not survive much examination. Besides, the evidence of the interference of faith in human affairs was scattered all around him. He had not been able to forget the suicide of the angel-voiced sisters Tana and Riri for whom death had been preferable to compromising their faith. He did not wish to be divine. If there had never been a God, the emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was. This business of worship, of the abnegation of self in the face of the Almighty, was a distraction, a false trail. Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy, error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path.” (303)       

Selected literature:

Rushdie, Salman. The Enchantress of Florence. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2009.

Sasser, K. “Universal Cosmopolitanism in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.” Essay. In Magical Realism and Cosmopolitanism Strategizing Belonging. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014.

Schimmel, Annemarie, and Burzine K. Waghmar. The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture. London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Thiara, Nicole Weickgenannt. “Enabling Spaces and the Architecture of Hybridity in Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 46, no. 3 (2011): 415–31.

Thiara, Nicole Weickgenannt. “Salman Rushdie and Indian Historiography,” 2009.

© Fatemeh Naghshvarian and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project, 2023. This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant agreement No. 101020403). Any unlicensed use of this blog without written permission from the author and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project is prohibited. Any use of this blog should give full credit to Fatemeh Naghshvarian and the Beyond Sharia ERC Project.