Archives » Amerigo Vespucci

The Enchantress of Florence by Salman Rushdie

Jonathan Cape, 2008, 359 p.

The Enchantress of Florence cover

A foreigner turns up to the court of the Mughal Emperor, Akbar, at Fatehpur Sikri with a claim to be related to him and a tale to tell to justify it. The foreigner has called himself variously Uccello di Firenze, Mogor dell’ Amore (the Mughal of love) and Niccolò Vespucci. So begins this typical piece of Rushdian flamboyance.

Containing elements of fable, fairy tale and Rushdie’s usual dose of magic realism (among other things Akbar has managed to conjure up for himself an imaginary – and therefore perfect – wife) there is nevertheless something about the treatment that does not quite hit the mark. Rushdie has always been fond of digression, word games and allusions (in this case, for example, take the mercenaries Otho, Botho, Clotho and D’Artagnan) but it has to be said; in amongst the showing here, there is a lot of telling. As if to underline this there is a list of works consulted for research given in a bibliography.

Yet, as the author notes, “The untruth of untrue stories could sometimes be of service in the real world.” That is what fiction is for after all. But then again, “Those sceptics who by virtue of their sour temperament resist a supernatural account of events may prefer more conventional explanations.” Indeed.

It might seem, too, that in a novel entitled The Enchantress of Florence that the woman concerned could be expected to appear in the narrative somewhat earlier than two-thirds of the way through but while this is her story it is also the story of Akbar, of the Florence of the Medici (and the monk Giralomo,) and of three friends from that city, Antonino Argalia, last of the condottieri, Niccolò – ‘il Machia’ – Machiavelli (yes, that Machiavelli) and Agostino Vespucci (cousin to Amerigo.) It is also the tale of why the Mughal court had to leave Fatehpur Sikri.

The enchantress is Qara Köz, “Lady Black Eyes,” Akbar’s Great Aunt, sister of Babar the first Mughal, eliminated from the family history when she rejected a return from capture. Her enchantments seem to lie in the ability to entrance men, if only for a while. Her destiny is to pass through the hands of a warlord, to the Safavid Shah Ismail, to Antonino Argalia and finally to the New World with Agostino Vespucci. She has a companion, her mirror in all respects (bar one.) Yet she is an absence in the book, an emptiness around which Rushdie weaves his tale of folly, wisdom, hope and loss. Akbar is at the heart of it, a ruler wise to his surroundings and to the machinations of the power hungry. There is a barbed inversion of insular Western conceptions when Akbar muses that, “The lands of the West were exotic and surreal to a degree incomprehensible to the humdrum people of the East.”

A noteworthy aspect of this edition is that it is endowed with beautiful endpapers picturing at the front a detail from The Building of Fatehpur Sikri Palace from the Akbamama and at the rear from the Carta della Catena showing a panorama of Florence.

Pedant’s corner:- A 16th century Scottish pirate may well have been carrying letters of marque or even diplomatic credentials from Queen Elizabeth (of England) but I doubt he would treasure a locket containing her portrait. Equally he may have boasted of climbing all Scotland’s Munros but not in those terms. They were not named as such for a further three centuries. “I’d keeped her locked up” (keep,) rowboat.

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

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