Some of you may recall that famous line from "Ulysses," when Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce's great everyday hero, laments, "History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake." Not so lovers of historical fiction, those of us who try to dive deeper and deeper into pasts we've never known, or learn about only from research. Some go there as tourists, others because they're trying to escape the present, however worrisome or humdrum they might find the present to be.
On the other side of the argument from Dedalus stands William Faulkner's famous dictum from "Requiem for a Nun": "The past is never dead. It's not even past." When you ponder that remark, it may seem as though some of us who read—and write—historical fiction do it to bring ourselves even closer to the present.
In his forthcoming novel, "The Enchantress of Florence," Salman Rushdie seems to do both things at once, helping us escape from the present into a dreamlike past that ultimately makes us more aware of the dangers and illusions of our everyday lives.
Rushdie works hard to sweep us up in a baroque whirlwind of a narrative and carries us back to the court of a South Asian emperor, Akbar, head of the great Mongol Empire. A stranger who calls himself Mogor dell'Amore, or the Mughal of Love, whom, as the novel opens, we see swindle and poison his way to gaining an audience with the great head of state, begins to tell a story, a story he constantly changes and embellishes, in the center of the larger story Rushdie recounts of the greatness and at the same time the utter fragility of the powerful emperor and his minions.
"In this half-discovered world," Rushdie writes, "every day brought news of fresh enchantments. The visionary, revelatory dream-poetry of the quotidian had not yet been crushed by blinkered, prosy fact."
But in fact it's fact that allowed Rushdie to construct this great dream-palace of a novel. To build his twin story of life in the grand city of Florence, his hero's home, and Sikri, the Mongol capital to which he has traveled, the novelist had to digest a library wall of volumes (an extensive bibliography follows the story). In a world in which many readers seem to crave fact after fact after fact—the tiresome legacy of our Puritan ancestors—the novelist, the last alchemist, miraculously turns fact into something greater, and as if transforming clay bricks into gold, gives facts life.
The location itself leads to delusion, as Rushdie describes it, the heat in Sikri "deafening human ears to all sounds, making the air quiver like a frightened blackbuck, and weakening the border between sanity and delirium, between what was fanciful and what was real." This sets the tone for the novel, in which Mogor dell'Amore tells a tale of two cities, cities teeming with what the Latin American magical realists have called marvelous reality.
And marvelous above all others are the women, from prostitutes to empresses, real and imaginary, and marvelous above all the women is our hero's supposed ancestor, Qara Koz, beauty and sorceress who made the reverse journey, from East to West and became, as Rushdie puts it, a "new symbol" of Florence, "the incarnation in human form of that unsurpassable loveliness which the city itself possessed. The Dark Lady of Florence: poets reached for their pens, artists for their brushes, sculptors for their chisels."
And Salman Rushdie began typing.
The Enchantress of FlorenceBy Salman RushdieRandom House, 355, $26Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun