Age of empires

<strong>The Enchantress of Florence</strong>

Salman Rushdie <em>Jonathan Cape, 368pp, £18.99</em>

The Enchantress of Florence is a luxuriant triumph. The plot is complex, but then this is a Salman Rushdie novel. Dozens of characters bridge two old empires - Florence of the Medicis and India of the Mughals. A blond foreigner makes his way to Akbar's freshly minted imperial capital, Fatehpur Sikri, carrying a secret that could rewrite history. He believes himself to be a Mughal, born of an affair, and the secret of his lineage has the potential to disrupt the dynasty's complex tapestry.

Linking the two empires is a mysterious Mughal princess, Qara Koz, who becomes war booty. Her mesmerising spell - or Rushdie's - permeates the novel, and the reader keeps turning the pages, no matter how long the sentences run. (Some exceed 70 words, but they grip you and pull you on towards the end point, leaving you fulfilled yet exasperated, wanting more when the sentence ends, like the novel itself).

The sheer range of historical characters is breathtaking - we meet the dreamer-king Akbar and his cabinet of navaratnas, or "nine jewels"; the imagined perfect queen, Jodha; and the whores in Fatehpur Sikri's netherworld. In Jodha and Qara Koz, Rushdie creates memorable female characters to join the ranks of Aurora Zogoiby in The Moor's Last Sigh, Jamila Singer in Midnight's Children and India Ophuls in Shalimar the Clown. Qara Koz or Jodha exist primarily to please the men around them, and use their powers of enchantment - and entrancement. In Florence, we meet Machiavelli, the prince of intrigue; Ago Vespucci, cousin of Amerigo (after whom the New World is named); Ottoman janissaries; the Medicis and the monk Savonarola; we also get a second-hand glimpse of Elizabeth the virgin queen.

The language is rich while retaining magic. A glowing lake becomes "a sea of molten gold", shrieking parrots explode "like green fireworks" over the sky, and the shape of Florence acquires the sensuality of a woman's lips, with the Arno running through it. The novel is fragrant with oils, unguents and pastes to cure and to arouse. The real merges with the unreal, legends become history, and devils turn into angels. We are on familiar turf here, vintage Rushdie territory. The linguistic pyrotechnics are fewer, but the garrulousness is never verbose.

In focusing on Akbar, who tried to develop a tolerant and inclusive religion, Rushdie sends a powerful message of hope for our divided selves during these edgy times. The profound questions Akbar raised surround us. In the absence of God, instead of inventing him - or her - "the emperor thought, it might have been easier to work out what goodness was", writes Rushdie, placing the human mind at the centre of the moral universe. In that universe, good can only result from "discord, difference, disobedience, disagreement, irreverence, iconoclasm, impudence, even insolence". And when Akbar thinks "[God's] existence deprived human beings of the right to form ethical structures by themselves", he wants to free us from dogma.

Explaining disbelief clearly, the grand vizier Birbal says: "All true believers have good reasons for disbelieving in every god except their own, and so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none." Indeed, at the temple in Fatehpur Sikri there is no deity; the only god is the "argument".

This is Rushdie's ongoing, illuminating conversation with readers about our world and our place in it. The other ongoing conversation is about our being astride several cultures, often in different time periods, and at home nowhere. In his essay on the film The Wizard of Oz, Rushdie wrote: "The truth is once we have left our childhood places and started out to make up our lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that 'there's no place like home', but rather that there is no longer any such place as 'home': except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz: which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began." Here, Rushdie tells us: "You haven't stopped being a child. You still think the home, at the end of a long journey, is a place where a man finds peace." But it never is.

Being uprooted is one aspect of modern times that fascinates Rushdie. What does that do to inspiration? In The Satanic Verses, Rushdie explored the sources of divine inspiration, the flawed nature of human experience and the birth of a religion. Here, Akbar develops a faith that accepts everyone, stretching human imagination to contemplate the supernatural.

In the end, Akbar leaves his dry city, surrounded by his dreams, promised love for eternity by Qara Koz, and yet painfully aware of what it means. The story ends, our thirst remains. Rushdie writes: "All he had worked to make, his philosophy and way of being, would evaporate like water. The future would not be what he hoped for, but a dry hostile antagonistic place" - a violent continuation of "the great quarrel he had sought to end for ever, the quarrel over God". We are the ones left to pick up the pieces.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!