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Palimpsest Regained

The Moor’s Last Sigh

by Salman Rushdie
Pantheon, 435 pp., $25.00

1.

The Moor’s Last Sigh is a novel about modern India. Its hero is Moraes Zogoiby of Bombay, nicknamed by his mother “the Moor.” But the famous sigh to which the title refers was breathed five centuries ago, in 1492, when Muhammad XI, last sultan of Andalusia, bade farewell to his kingdom, bringing to an end Arab-Islamic dominance in Iberia. Fourteen ninety-two was the year, too, when the Jews of Spain were offered the choice of baptism or expulsion; and when Columbus, financed by the royal conquerors of the Moor, Ferdinand and Isabella, sailed forth to discover a new route to the East.

From Sultan Muhammad a line of descent, partly historical, partly fabulous, leads to Moraes, the narrator, who in 1992 will return from the East to “discover” Andalusia. In a dynastic prelude occupying the first third of the novel, Moraes’s genealogy is traced back as far as his great-grandparents, the da Gamas. Francisco da Gama is a wealthy spice exporter based in Cochin in what is now Kerala State. A progressive and a nationalist, he soon disappears from the action (Rushdie gives short shrift to characters whose usefulness has ended), but his wife Epifania, faithful to “England, God, philistinism, the old ways,” survives to trouble succeeding generations and to utter the curse that will blight the life of the unborn Moraes.

Their son Camoens, after flirting with Communism, becomes a Nehru man, dreaming of an independent, unitary India which will be “above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened.” He dies in 1939, though not before he has had a premonition of the violent, conflict-riven India that will in fact emerge.

Camoens’s daughter Aurora falls in love with a humble Jewish clerk, Abraham Zogoiby. Neither Jewish nor Christian authorities will solemnize their marriage, so their son Moraes is raised “neither as Catholic nor as Jew,…a jewholic-anonymous.” Abandoning the declining Jewish community of Cochin, Abraham transfers the family business to Bombay and settles in a fashionable suburb, where he branches out into more lucrative activities: supplying girls to the city’s brothels, smuggling heroin, speculating in property, trafficking in arms and eventually in nuclear weapons.

In Rushdie’s hands Abraham is little more than a comic-book villain. Aurora, however, is a more complex character, in many ways the emotional center of the book. A painter of genius but a distracted mother, she suffers intermittent remorse for not loving her children enough, but prefers finally to see them through the lens of her art. Thus Moraes is worked into a series of her paintings of “Mooristan,” a place where (in Aurora’s free and easy Indian English) “worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away…. One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top of. Call it Palimpstine.” In these paintings, with increasing desperation, she tries to paint old, tolerant Moorish Spain over India, overlaying, or palimpsesting, the ugly reality of the present with “a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation.”

Aurora’s paintings give a clear hint of what Rushdie is up to in this, his own “Palimpstine” project: not overpainting India in the sense of blotting it out with a fantasy alternative, but laying an alternative, promised-land text or texturation over it like gauze.

But The Moor’s Last Sigh is not an optimistic book, and the paintings of Aurora’s high period become darker and darker. Into them she pours not only her unexpressed maternal love but also “her larger, prophetic, even Cassandran fears for the nation.” Her last painting, which gives the book its title, shows her son “lost in limbo like a wandering shade: a portrait of a soul in Hell.”

Moraes is born under the curse of two witch-grandmothers, so it is no surprise that he is a prodigy, with a clublike right hand and a metabolism that dooms him to live “double-quick,” growing—and aging—twice as fast as ordinary mortals. Kept apart from other children, he receives his sexual initiation at the hands of an attractive governess and soon discovers he is a born storyteller: telling stories gives him an erection.

Venturing into the world, he is caught in the toils of the beautiful but evil rival artist Uma Sarasvati. A pawn in the war between this demon mistress and his mother, Moraes first finds himself expelled from his parental home and then—after some complicated stage business involving true and false poison capsules—in jail, accused of Uma’s murder. Released, he joins the Bombay underworld as a strikebreaker and enforcer in the pay of one Raman Fielding, boss of a Hindu paramilitary group whose off-duty evenings sound like Brownshirt get-togethers in Munich, with “arm-wrestling and mat-wrestling…[until] lubricated by beer and rum, the assembled company would arrive at a point of sweaty, brawling, raucous, and finally exhausted nakedness.”

Moraes’s grandfather Camoens had faith in Nehru but not in Gandhi. In the village India to which Gandhi appealed, he saw forces brewing that spelled trouble for India’s minorities: “In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram… In the end I am afraid the villagers will march on the cities and people like us will have to lock our doors and there will come a Battering Ram.” His prophecy begins to fulfill itself in Moraes’s lifetime when the doors of the Babri mosque at Ayodhya are battered down by crowds of fanatical Hindus.

Camoens is prescient but ineffectual. Aurora, an activist as well as an artist, is the only da Gama with the strength to confront the dark forces at work in India. When the annual festival procession of the elephant-headed god Ganesha, a show of “Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism,” passes by their house, she dances in view of the celebrants, dancing against the god, though, alas, her dance is read by them as part of the spectacle (Hinduism notoriously absorbs its rivals). Every year she dances on the hillside; dancing at the age of sixty-three, she slips and falls to her death.

Raman Fielding, rising star of the Hindu movement, is a thinly disguised caricature of Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Shena Party, which Rushdie elsewhere calls “the most overtly Hindu-fundamentalist grouping ever to achieve office anywhere in India.” Closely linked with Bombay’s criminal underworld, Fielding is “against unions,…against working women, in favour of sati, against poverty and in favour of wealth,…against ‘immigrants’ to the city,…against the corruption of the Congress [Party] and for ‘direct action,’ by which he meant paramilitary activity in support of his political aims.” He looks forward to a theocracy in which “one particular variant of Hinduism would rule.”

If Rushdie’s Satanic Verses outraged the dour literalists within Islam, then The Moor’s Last Sigh will anger the fascist-populist element within Hindu sectarianism. On Raman Fielding Rushdie lavishes some of his most stinging satirical prose: “In his low cane chair with his great belly slung across his knees like a burglar’s sack, with his frog’s croak of a voice bursting through his fat frog’s lips and his little dart of a tongue licking at the edges of his mouth, with his hooded froggy eyes gazing greedily down upon the little beedi-rolls of money with which his quaking petitioners sought to pacify him,… he was indeed a Frog King.”

The underworld struggle between Fielding and Moraes’s father culminates in the murder of Fielding and the destruction of half of Bombay. Sick of this new “barbarism,” Moraes retires to Andalusia, there to confront another monster or evil, Vasco Miranda. Miranda is a Goan painter who has made a fortune selling kitsch to Westerners. Obsessively jealous of Aurora, he has stolen her Moor paintings; to reclaim them, Moraes finds his way into Miranda’s Daliesque fortress. Here Miranda imprisons him and lets him live only as long as (shades of Scheherazade) he writes the story of his life.

Locked up with Moraes is a beautiful Japanese picture restorer named Aoi Uë (her name all vowels, as the Moor’s, in Arabic, is all consonants: would that they had found each other earlier, he thinks). Aoi perishes; Moraes, with Miranda’s blood on his hands, escapes. It is 1993, he is thirty-six years old, but his inner clock says he is seventy-two and ready to die.

The final chapters of the book, and the opening chapter, to which they loop back, are packed (or palimpsested) with historical allusions. Moraes is not only Muhammad XI (Abu-Abd-Allah, or Boabdil, in the Spanish corruption of his name): he sees himself as Dante in “an infernal maze” of tourists, drifting yuppie zombies, and also as Martin Luther, looking for doors on which to nail the pages of his life story, as well as Jesus on the Mount of Olives, waiting for his persecutors to arrive. It is hard to avoid the impression that all the left-over analogues of the Moor fable from Rushdie’s notebooks have been poured into these chapters, which are as a result frantic and overwritten. Some of the historical parallels fall flat (Moraes is no Luther: the hounds on his trail are the Spanish police, who suspect a homicide, not the bishops of Hindu orthodoxy, who couldn’t care less what he gets up to in Spain), while elementary rules of fiction, like not introducing new characters in the last pages, are ignored: Aoi is the case in point.

Nor is this the worst. As if unsure that the import of the Boabdil/Moraes parallel has come across, Rushdie, in what sounds very much like propria persona, glosses it as follows: Granada, in particular the Alhambra, is a “monument to a lost possibility,” a “testament…to that most profound of our needs,…for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self.” With all due respect, one must demur. The palimpsesting of Moraes over Boabdil supports a less trite, more provocative thesis: that the Arab penetration of Iberia, like the later Iberian penetration of India, led to a creative mingling of peoples and cultures; that the victory of Christian intolerance in Spain was a tragic turn in history; and that Hindu intolerance in India bodes as ill for the world as did the sixteenth-century Inquisition in Spain. (Fleshing out the thesis in this way depends, one must concede, on ignoring the fact that the historical Boabdil was a timorous and indecisive man, dominated by his mother and duped by King Ferdinand of Spain.)

Rushdie pursues palimpsesting with considerable vigor in The Moor’s Last Sigh, as a novelistic, historiographical, and autobiographical device. Thus Granada, Boabdil’s lost capital, is also Bombay, “inexhaustible Bombay of excess,” the sighed-for home of Moraes as well as of the author over whose person he is written. Both are cities from which a regenerative cross-fertilization of cultures might have taken place, but for ethnic and religious intolerance.

Occasionally palimpsesting descends to mere postmodernist frivolousness: “Had I slipped accidentally from one page, one book of life on to another?” Moraes wonders, unable to believe he has been put in a Bombay prison. At other moments, however, Moraes expresses a hunger for the real, for that which is not merely one textual layer upon another, that is the keenest and saddest note in the book: “How,” he asks himself, looking back in bafflement, “trapped as we were…in the fancy-dress, weeping-Arab kitsch of the superficial, could we have penetrated to the full sensual truth of the lost mother below? How could we have lived authentic lives?”

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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