Rushdie Novel: Fitfully Good But Mostly a Muddle

There are splendid moments in "The Enchantress of Florence," Sir Salman Rushdie's tenth novel. Here's one, in which two friends, gentlemen in Renaissance Florence, are suddenly reminded of a third friend, who had run away to court adventure while they were all still boys. "They had loved Argalia and lost him, and for months, even years, they had hoped for news. Finally they had both stopped mentioning him, both separately convinced that Argalia's silence must mean their friend was dead. Neither of them wanted to face that truth. So each of them had hidden Argalia away within themselves, because as long as he was a taboo subject he might still be alive. But then they grew up and he got lost inside them, he faded, and became no more than an unspoken name. It was hard to call him back to life."

Rushdie has a knack for capturing intense emotion on the page and a correlative skill for inspiring strong feelings for his characters. It is surprising how often one finds oneself caring intensely about what happens to the people in this novel. What Rushdie lacks, at least in this book, is the skill necessary to tie things together. "The Enchantress of Florence" bumps down one road, then another, skips from continent to continent and sometimes breaks down entirely, while the author beguiles his passengers over the rough spots with one good little story after another. Do all those stories add up? It's hard to say because by the end you've been so bounced around that everything seems like a muddle.

To further complicate matters, plot summary is out of the question, because any summary would give away too much. Rushdie has broken up his chronology very deliberately, feeding us information a scrap at a time. Put it in order, and the gas goes right out of the balloon. Let's just say that a mysterious stranger from Europe shows up in the Mughal court of the lately knighted author's native India sometime in the 17th century, claiming to be related to the royal family. To save his skin, he tells a story, a story that grows and grows, until it takes over the novel. We're in Florence, Savonarola is out, the Medicis are in and Niccolò Machiavelli is suddenly a character in the story. That's jarring but not all that odd, since this is a book where a king imagines his own wife out of thin air—and we gradually realize she is indeed real. Magic can happen! Well, after a couple of hundred pages of this, you'll figure anything can happen. And either you have a taste for that sort of thing or you don't.

"The Enchantress of Florence" is not a hard book to read, or even to finish. The mysterious stranger is a wonderful character, and so are the three old Florentine friends, and so is the eponymous enchantress. But the book that contains them and their various stories lacks any kind of coherent momentum. If you put it down, you may not care if you pick it up again. And if you do finish, you may wonder where you've been. It seemed pleasant at the time, but what was that all about?