NOTE: THOUGH I HAVE KEPT OUT OF THIS REVIEW THE MOST IMPORTANT SPOILERS, SOME READERS MIGHT THINK IT STILL CONTAINS TOO MANY OF THEM.
One of the chapters ends: "Witchcraft requires no potions, familiar spirits or magic wands. Language upon a silver tongue affords enchantment enough." Salman Rushdie knows whereof he speaks! Unlike an earlier reviewer, I found his language limpid and often poetical, without the verbal pyrotechnics and the straining after effect as in `Midnight's Children' or `The Satanic Verses'. This book is rather closer to `Haroun and the Sea of Stories', the wise fairy story Rushdie wrote for his then eleven year old son and one of my absolute favourites. This novel is an adult (and sometimes bawdy, and sometimes coarse) fairy story, mixed with the early 16th century history of India, the Middle East and Italy, of all of which Salman Rushdie has a very thorough and detailed knowledge.
It begins in Fatehpur Sikri, the Moghul capital of Akbar the Great. My own knowledge of the Moghul Empire is too sketchy to allow me to catch all the allusions to its history or to be able always to tell what is fact and what is fiction: for that I would have to read some of the books in the seven page bibliography at the end of the book. I knew that the Emperor Akbar mulled over philosophical questions; but was it originally he or Salman Rushdie who fantasized the existence of Jodha, a wife more perfect and more real to him than any of the many real wives he kept in his palace? At any rate, Rushdie makes her seem almost real to us.
And then an Italian adventurer, a self-confident teller of tales, turns up at Akbar's court and claims to be his uncle, the son of the Emperor's lost great-aunt. The Emperor of course wants to know how this could be, given the discrepancy between the age of the lost princess and that of her purported son. The latter now tells a long story - again a mixture of history and fantasy, much of it set in Italy. The lost princess, a literally bewitchingly beautiful woman, the Enchantress of the title, had undergone many vicissitudes, had been seized as a trophy by one warrior after another: an Uzbek Khan, a Persian Shah - historical figures, these - and then by Argalia, the Italian-born head of the Ottoman janissaries, who, fleeing from the Sultan's suspicions of him, brought her to his native city of Florence. There Argalia was reunited with the friend of his youth, Niccolo Machiavelli who, after a prominent career as servant of the Florentine Republic, was now, under the restored Medici Duke, in disgrace. (Machiavelli's reflections - on the nature of power, on what the people expect from their rulers, and how important `magic' is in the lives of people and rulers alike - were just as important in Renaissance Italy as they were in the Mughal Empire.)
Argalia became the Medici Duke's chief condottiere, while the princess duly casts her magical and beneficent enchantment over the entire city, from the Duke downwards.
It would be a spoiler to tell how this part of the story told by the story-teller ends.
Akbar was well aware that the story teller could not be his uncle; but the Emperor had become fond of him; and as the stories spread among his people, the story teller became beloved of them also. For Akbar the Enchantress of Florence had become so real that his fantasy of her displaced his fantasy of Jodha. For his people, too, the Enchantress became `the people's princess'. The story-teller became a key figure at the court, and he showed himself as skilled in administration as he was in story-telling. Akbar contemplated making this foreigner his heir, and he muses whether this would be a good or a bad thing to do. The historical Akbar is famous for wishing to reconcile all traditions, Muslim as well as Hindu; so why not Indian as well as European? Is not what human beings have in common more important than their differences? This is of course also at the heart of the philosophy of Salman Rushdie, of this citizen of the world who is himself a bridge between Europe and Asia.
Rushdie is the supreme story teller, and of his inventions there is no end. There is one further twist in the story which I must not reveal. The Emperor finally demands an explanation of the age discrepancy between his great aunt and her supposed son. The latter freewheels into inventing a part of the world in which Time is not what it was in India. It is the tallest of tall stories. Did it convince the Emperor? And did it save the story teller? Read and find out.