With his dense prose and penchant for genre-mashing, Salman Rushdie has always been more interested in journeys than destinations. His approach has had varying degrees of success; while Midnight's Children and The Moor's Last Sigh provide dazzling linguistic playgrounds for the attentive reader, the 2002 novel Fury is so disjointed that its lack of a unifying conclusion makes its disparate elements feel like an outrageous cheat. Rushdie's latest, The Enchantress Of Florence, is jammed full of enough wordplay and fantasy to satisfy anyone on a page-by-page basis. The problem comes in trying to put all the pages together; taken as a whole, Enchantress is simultaneously over-generous and miserly, setting a 12-course meal before readers, but only offering the smallest bite of each entrée.
Mixing history with fiction, Enchantress opens with a yellow-haired stranger making a pilgrimage to the ancient Indian city Sikri, a beauty of the Middle Ages, ruled over by the most magnificent Emperor Akbar the Great. Through a series of subterfuges and outright thievery, the stranger finds his way to the emperor's feet and insinuates himself in the royal court via wit and boldness. After weeks of hinting, the stranger reveals that he has a story to tell about the most beautiful woman who ever lived. But his revelations threaten to undo the core of the kingdom and wrap the emperor in a web of seduction from which even His Weightiness might not wish to escape.
Given its nesting-doll structure, with mysteries hiding inside narratives crouched beneath anecdotes, it isn't surprising that Enchantress has a lot going on; details like Akbar's philosophical musings about the nature of one-ness, or the tragic tale of the kingdom's greatest painter, are the kind of magic Rushdie excels at, and there's no shortage of them in the novel's relatively short length. But the underlying plot that holds everything fails to satisfy. With its circular movement and endless false starts, it's less a complete book than a series of compelling moments. Still, it's good to have Rushdie back to his old playful self. While Enchantress lacks the cumulative impact of his best writing, there are far worse trips to get lost on.