Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence (Random House, 2009) is perhaps the most beautifully crafted book in terms of the language and the intricate storytelling that revolves around its main characters. However, it is a book written by a man who attempts to write about the burgeoning power of one princess known as Angelica, Qora Koz, and the Lady Black Eyes. In fact, all the women depicted in this magical and haunting tale within tales are introduced and discussed from the perspective of male characters. This is problematic, because this masculine gaze and knowledge of women limits the potential of female characters within the narrative.
While the main characters of this novel are men, Turkish warlords, Indian emperors, Ottoman assassins, and other lowly figures the likes of soldiers, heathens, and travelers, their roles are full of adventures and glory and savagery. And it is through the eyes of these men—all different—that we get to know the women. What this male perspective brings to light, however, is that women are all good for one thing: sex.
As beautiful as this book is in terms of language, imagery, and depth of the masculine characters, Rushdie’s female characters are vacuous beauties, reduced to nothing more than slaves, whores, prostitutes, and witches. They are spoils of war, interchangeable, usable, and exploitable vessels that exist only to service the needs of men for softness, for abuse, and for beautiful trophies.
Even the character that is awarded favor in the title of this book, the enchantress of Florence, also known as Qora Koz, and later on as Angelica, is assigned power only through her beauty and the sorcery that is evident in the black eyes that transport warriors, kings, and assassins equally in a trance and in immediate love.
The men in this novel all fall in love—for women seem to provide them with a place of home and safety and warmth—but this love is superficial and always based on love at first sight. The women, whether they are slaves, spoils of war, abandoned princesses, or prostitutes, fill men with physical desire because they are outwardly beautiful. They are considered witches and sorceresses and enchantresses in possession of beauty and sex and power that render men weak, speechless, and powerless. And this is the power that Rushdie supplies the women in his novel, deeming this as empowerment when it is nothing but. As powerful as their witchery is, they are still vessels that contain men’s lust, rage, selfishness, and indiscriminate desires. They are secondary entities in a novel—and in a world designed by a male writer—narrated by male characters.
In spite of all these powers that Rushdie assumes to be empowering for his female enchantresses, Qora Koz is deserted by her husband—the Prince of Persia—for whom she sacrificed her family. Having lost the battle, the Prince leaves her in her tent with her “mirror” slave, without protection. She becomes the spoils of war for the winner of the battle—Argalia—who falls in love with her in seconds, and for whom she uses her dark powers to save him in return. Still, her powers lie in her beauty and in the magic and surreal sorcery that lies in the depths of her black eyes. This is only the kind of power men would assign women.
The “Memory Palace” is perhaps the most disturbing representation of one woman’s experiences in this book. Originally a French princess, she became a slave after her family was murdered in war. As a slave, she was raped and passed around, and then she was reduced to a vessel of one man’s memories, one man’s life experiences. Rushdie explains that the memory palace is a human being—usually a slave—who has had her memories and thoughts expunged and replaced with the memories and experiences of another human being. In this case, Angelica’s body became the memory bank of the experiences of none other than Argalia, an Italian orphan who pursued his own adventures and fortunes and ended up becoming the love interest of Qora Koz.
Angelica, or Argalia’s memory palace, is considered nothing more than an empty body used for the sole purpose of transporting the memories of someone more important—in this case, a man of great power and courage. Without her own memories or identity intact, Angelica’s voice can only utter the history and the adventures of Argalia. Her own name, her own history, her own identity and narrative have all been displaced, erased, replaced, and muted as if she and they are of no consequence. And this is at the heart of Rushdie’s narrative for women. As Angelica relates the story that has been implanted into the multiple chambers of her limbs to Argalia’s childhood friend Niccolo Machiavelli, she is an absent and non-existent form as she lies there, beside this stranger who runs his hands all over her naked body as if it belongs to him, without guilt, without remorse, telling himself—and the reader—that in doing this, he is freeing her from the narrative that is not hers. He is her savior.
When the tale ends, Angelica’s own tale returns, but it lasts only as long as a paragraph, not nearly as long as the story of Argalia’s fortunes. Of course not. She is only a woman. And in the morning after she tells her story, after yet another stranger’s hands have fondled her body as if it weren’t her own, she goes mad, running through the courtesan’s mansion without stopping, for she has awoken to remember how her family had been murdered and how her body had been used, and raped, and groped, and prodded as if it was nothing more than a cold object, unattached to a self, a woman, a girl who had lost her childhood, her place, her identity, and even her voice.
If anything, this is the most imperfect thread in Rushdie’s work. His perspective of women—and the narrative that he inscribes upon them—is vapid, offensive, and dangerous. Their beauty is skin-deep, their powers are weak in that they are reduced to either witches or whores, and their narratives are limited because they are told from the perspective of male characters who see women only as vacuous and interchangeable vessels of sex and beauty that can be usurped, consumed, and controlled.