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Palimpsest Regained

Here Moraes articulates a passionate but fearful attachment to his mother—whom he elsewhere calls “my Nemesis, my foe beyond the grave”—and through her to a “Mother India who loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children, and with whom the children’s passionate conjoining and eternal quarrel stretched long beyond the grave.” This conflicted attachment is a submerged, barely explored element of his makeup.

Moraes’s yearning for authenticity expresses itself most clearly in his dream of peeling off his skin and going into the world naked “like an anatomy illustration from Encyclopedia Britannica…set free from the otherwise inescapable jails of colour, race and clan.” Alas,

in Indian country [the joke here is complex: rushdie conflates Indian Indians, whom Columbus set off to find, with American Indians, the Indians he in fact found] there was no room for a man who didn’t want to belong to a tribe, who dreamed…of peeling off his skin and revealing his secret identity—the secret, that is, of the identity of all men—of standing before the war-painted braves to unveil the flayed and naked unity of the flesh.

If this is not a crisis in Rushdie’s thinking—a longing for the pages of history to stop turning, or at least no longer to turn “double-quick,” for the ultimate self to emerge from the parade of fictions of the self—then it is at least a crisis for the Moor persona, the prince in exile, no longer young, confronting the overriding truth uniting mankind: we are all going to die.

Besides palimpsesting, Rushdie also experiments with ekphrasis, the conduct of narration through the description of imaginary works of art. The best-known instances of ekphrasis in Western literature are the descriptions of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad and of the frieze on Keats’s Grecian urn. In Rushdie’s hands ekphrasis becomes a handy device to recall the past and foreshadow the future. The magical tiles in the Cochin synagogue not only tell the story of the Jews in India but foretell the atom bomb. Aurora’s paintings project her son into the past as Boabdil; the entire history of India, from mythic times to the present, is absorbed into a great phantasmagoria on the wall of her bedroom. Scanning it, her father marvels that she has captured “the great swarm of being itself,” but then notes one great lacuna: “God was absent.” Through paintings whose only existence, paradoxically, is in words, the darkly prophetic historical imagination of Aurora dominates the book.

Like Midnight’s Children (1981), Shame (1983), and The Satanic Verses (1989), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel with large ambitions composed on a large scale. In its architecture, however, it is disappointing. Aside from the dynastic prelude set in Cochin, and the last fifty pages set in Spain, the body of the book belongs to Moraes’s life in Bombay. But instead of the interwoven development of character, theme, and action characteristic of the middle section of what might be called the classic novel, we find in the middle section of Rushdie’s novel only fitful and episodic progress. New actors are introduced with enough inventiveness and wealth of detail to justify major roles; yet all too often their contribution to the action turns out to be slight, and they slip (or are slipped) out of the picture almost whimsically.

To complaints of this kind—which have been voiced with regard to the earlier books as well—defenders of Rushdie have responded by arguing that he works, and should therefore be read, within two narrative traditions: of the Western novel (with its subgenre, the anti-novel à la Tristram Shandy), and of Eastern story-cycles like the Panchatantra, with their chainlike linking of self-contained, shorter narratives. To such critics, Rushdie is a multicultural writer not merely in the weak sense of having roots in more than one culture but in the strong sense of using one literary tradition to renew another.

It is not easy to counter this defense in its general form, particularly from the position of an outsider to India. But to concentrate our minds let us consider a single instance from The Moor’s Last Sigh: the episode in which Moraes’s father, Abraham Zogoiby, in a fit of enthusiasm for the modern, impersonal, “management” style in business, adopts a young go-getter named Adam over Moraes as his son and heir. For some fifteen pages Adam occupies center stage. Then he is dropped from the book. I find the episode unsatisfying; further, I would hazard a guess that the reason why Adam disappears is not that Rushdie is following traditional Indian models but that he is only halfheartedly committed to satirizing the business-school ethos; he abandons this particular narrative strand because it is leading nowhere.

There are plenty of readers, I am sure, who will disagree—who will enjoy the stories of Adam and other personages who blaze briefly across the pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh and then expire. Where I see intermittent development they will see prodigality of invention. Such divergences are to be expected: narrative pleasure is a notoriously personal matter. But this ought not to mean that we should refrain from articulating our disappointments or trying to uncover their causes. Some of our expectations may indeed turn out to derive from our own culturally defined preconceptions; nevertheless, “multiculturalism” should not become a card that trumps all other critical cards. There cannot be no universals of the storyteller’s art; otherwise we could not read and enjoy stories across cultural borders.

Such characters as Vasco Miranda or Uma Sarasvati or even Abraham Zogoiby himself provide a comparable problem. In their extravagant villainy they seem to come straight out of Hollywood or Bollywood. Yet in so palimpsested a novel as The Moor’s Last Sigh, why should the popular storytelling media of today not contribute to the textual layering? And are traditional folk tales not full of unmotivated evil anyway?

If we want to read The Moor’s Last Sigh as a postmodern textual romp, however, we must accept the rules of the postmodernist game. The notion of “authenticity” has been one of the first casualties of postmodernism in its deconstructive turn. When Moraes, in prison, wonders whether he is on the wrong page of his own book, he moves into a dimension in which not only he but the walls of his cell consist of no more than words. On this purely textual plane he can no longer be taken seriously when he laments that he is trapped within “colour, caste, sect” and longs for an authentic life outside them. If as self-narrator he wants to escape the inessential determinants of his life, he need only storytell his way out of them.

In fact Rushdie is far from being a programmatic postmodernist. For instance, he is disinclined to treat the historical record as just one story among many. We see this in his treatment of the two histories out of which Moraes’s story grows: of the Moors in Spain, and of the Jews in India. In the case of the Moors, and of Muhammad/Boabdil in particular, Rushdie does not deviate from the historical record, which is probably most familiar to Westerners from Washington Irving’s nostalgic sketches in The Alhambra. As for the Jewish communities in India, their origins are ancient and will probably never be known with certainty. However, they preserved certain legends of origin, and to these legends Rushdie adheres without embroidering, save for one superadded fiction: that the Zogoibys descend from Sultan Muhammad (called by his subjects El-zogoybi, the Unfortunate) via a Jewish mistress who sailed for India pregnant with his child. This story is specifically (through not unequivocally) singled out as an invention by Moraes in his function as narrator.

2.

Identity, in our times, has become overwhelmingly a matter of group identification: of identifying with and/or being claimed by groups. The problem of identity in this sense has hovered over Rushdie’s head for most of his life. As a British citizen of Indian Muslim ancestry and, since Khomeini’s fatwa, of indeterminate residence, it has become less and less easy for him to claim that he writes about India as an insider. For one thing, he does not live there; for another, the notion of Indianness has become lamentably contested, as The Moor’s Last Sigh shows. Yet in a bitter irony, the religion into which he was born will not let him go.

No wonder, then, that the hero of Midnight’s Children, the book that revolutionized the Indian English novel and brought Rushdie fame, cries out (prophetically, as it emerged): “Why, alone of all the more-than-five-hundred-million, should I have to bear the burden of history?” “I [want] to be Clark Kent, not any kind of Superman,” laments Moraes in similar vein. Or if not Clark Kent, then simply his own, essential, naked self.

It is in this context, in which Rushdie’s personal life has been overtaken by an increasingly political conception of personal identity, that we should understand the moment when Moraes, moving beyond a by-now-familiar Rushdian celebration of bastardy, mongrelhood, and hybridity, rejects his “anti-Almighty” father Abraham—a father ready to sacrifice him on the altar of his megalomaniac ambitions—and embraces a heritage that has hitherto meant nothing to him: “I find that I’m a Jew.” For not only are Rushdie’s Jews (the Jews of Cochin, the Jews of Spain) powerless, dwindling communities; but to claim, voluntarily, the identity of a Jew, after the Holocaust, is to assert, however symbolically, solidarity with persecuted minorities worldwide.

In a book in which ideas, characters, and situations are invented with such prolific ease, one wishes that Rushdie had pushed the story of Moraes as rediscovered Jew further. “Here I stand,” says Moraes/Luther, at the end of the journey of his life: “Couldn’t’ve done it differently.” What does it mean in real-life terms, in India or in the world, to take a stand on a symbolic Jewishness?

The microscopic scrutiny commentators have devoted to the text of The Satanic Verses, particularly to its offending passages, and the wealth of religious and cultural reference they have uncovered, have demonstrated how superficial a non-Muslim reading of that book must be. Similarly, when it comes to sectarian infighting in India, or to the Bombay social and cultural scene, the non-Indian reader of The Moor’s Last Sigh can have at most an overhearing role: jokes are being made, satiric barbs being fired, which only an Indian, and perhaps only an Indian of a certain social background, will appreciate.

Rushdie came under attack for The Satanic Verses and will no doubt come under attack—from other quarters—for The Moor’s Last Sigh. In the former case he defended himself ably, arguing that readers who smelled blasphemy were oversimplifying and misreading his book. But his defense was not heard: authority to interpret was almost at once wrested from him by factions with political aims of their own. The Satanic Verses thus provided a model illustration of how, in Gayatri Spivak’s words, the “praxis and politics of life” can override a “mere reading” of a book. Let us hope (o tempora! o mores!) that determined foes of The Moor’s Last Sigh will confine their energies to the artefact and let its author be.

A final word. Five centuries after the campaigns of Ferdinand and Isabella swept Islam out of Iberia, the Muslims of southeastern Europe faced genocidal attack. Though the word Bosnia is not so much as breathed (or sighed) in his book, it is inconceivable that the parallel did not cross Rushdie’s mind as he wrote, or will not cross ours.

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