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Originally published Friday, June 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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"The Enchantress of Florence": a thousand and one beguilements

Part fairy tale, part history lesson,"The Enchantress of Florence" by Salman Rushdie is a tricky, dreamy meditation on a wide array of topics.

Seattle Times book critic

Author appearance

Salman Rushdie

The author reads from "The Enchantress

of Florence," noon Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com) and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Town Hall, 1119 Eight Ave., Seattle; $5 or free with book purchase (206-634-3400

or www.ubookstore.com). Rushdie also takes part in a Words & Wine event, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, W Seattle, 1112 Fourth Ave., Seattle; $45 (reservations: 206-632-2419 or info@kimricketts.com).

"The Enchantress of Florence"

by Salman Rushdie

Random House, 355 pp., $26

Part fairy tale, part history lesson, the new novel by Salman Rushdie is a tricky, dreamy meditation on a wide array of topics.

It weighs clan loyalty against individual self-interest. It explores cultural divides between East and West. It pits wayward human nature against notions of "divine will." It stacks institutional orthodoxy against maverick thought, and the power of love against the pragmatics of realpolitik.

And it does all this in an atmosphere of magic, eros and violence.

Set in an age "before the real and unreal were segregated forever," "The Enchantress of Florence" opens with a golden-haired European stranger dressed in "bright harlequin lozenges of leather" riding into the Indian city of Fatehpur Sikri. Here 16th-century ruler Akbar reigns over his Mughal Empire with a firm, intelligent hand, while dreaming of "a world beyond religion, region, rank, and tribe."

We know that this stranger, who goes by several names and has committed murder to gain access to Akbar, has a secret he'll disclose only to the emperor — a secret he believes "could make his fortune or else cost him his life." That secret is couched in a serpentine story he tells concerning a "hidden princess" of royal Mughal lineage who somehow is, or was, connected with three boyhood friends in Medici-ruled Florence (one of whom is Niccolò Machiavelli).

The stranger's story is subject to all sorts of digressions and interruptions (including his brief imprisonment), and opinions on his trustworthiness vary widely among Akbar's family and court. But Akbar himself is charmed by the man. And Rushdie, in turn, beguiles the reader with a sleight-of-hand narrative that's a dizzying dance of veils, postponing its ultimate revelations until the last dozen pages.

"Enchantress" may touch giddy heights, but it demands close reading. Just keeping track of complicated Mughal royal lineages takes some concentration. The book doesn't deliver the gut punch of Rushdie's last novel, "Shalimar the Clown" (about the collapse of Kashmir into bloody ethnic conflict). Instead it takes its cue from the work of Italo Calvino: serious in thought, light in manner. And it's tricked out with one fantastical character after another: an "imaginary wife" that Akbar dreams up for himself, a "Partly-dead Giant" one of the Florentine boys has to deal with, a personality-drained slave who's been made into a "memory palace."

Then there's the "hidden princess" herself, the "enchantress" of the title, who for much of the book slips free of most constraints of origin, identity and loyalty. In the playful fabric of the book, Florentine stories echo episodes from Akbar's court while dreams magically bridge the realities of far-flung continents. Countless bawdy interludes let Rushdie indulge the word-drunk voluptuary side of his talents.

Underlying these shenanigans, a serious purpose lurks. Questions are raised on herd mentality ("Did the crowd enhance one's selfhood or erase it?") and on the inability of East and West to see each other clearly. ("We are their dream," Akbar's imaginary queen tells him, "and they are ours.")

A veteran of wars and court intrigue gives Machiavelli advice on power politics that will turn up in his masterpiece, "The Prince." Akbar, in his meditations, tries on thoughts that would be regarded as heresy in any of his subjects.

"This business of worship," he reflects, "was a distraction, a false trail. Wherever goodness lay, it did not lie in ritual, unthinking obeisance before a deity but rather, perhaps, in the slow, clumsy error-strewn working out of an individual or collective path."

Eloquent words — but the search for meaning in "Enchantress" goes even deeper than that. Rushdie and his creations are after "the rhythm of the world, the deep rhythm, the music below the music, the truth below the truth."

And sometimes, as in life itself, they come close to it.

Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been the Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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