Tim Adams in The Guardian:
The overriding argument of The Enchantress of Florence is partly that Western civilisation, to borrow from Gandhi, would be a good idea. Superstition and despotism are not the preserve of the mystical East here, nor are enlightenment and humanism inventions of the classical West. Each civilisation has its fair share of beauty and folly, cruelty and benevolence. ‘This may be the curse of the human race,’ the traveller suggests at one point, ‘not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.’
In setting this out, Rushdie the jackdaw is much in evidence too: he borrows and moulds all sorts of familiar tales into this one; the Arabian nights have long since been fair game, but he also steals gleefully from Orlando Furioso and from Machiavelli. The novel offers something of a paper trail of such references in a long bibliography, mostly of scholarly histories: ‘A few liberties have been taken with the historical record in the interests of truth,’ Rushdie notes, in a wry statement of intent.
Namechecked in these notes is the writer that Rushdie has most often claimed as a touchstone, Italo Calvino. In his recent collection of essays, Step Across This Line, Rushdie noted that he wanted his later writing to aspire to Calvino’s stated virtues of ‘lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility and multiplicity’. He suggested that he was searching for something like the Italian’s tone of voice, which ‘used the language of fable while eschewing the easy moral purpose of, for example, Aesop’. Calvino might be mentioned in the compendious endnotes, but oddly not for the book this one most resembles, Invisible Cities, which played out exactly Rushdie’s storytelling scenario, though between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan.