- The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie
Cape, 437 pp, £15.99, September 1995, ISBN 0 224 03814 1
The Moor’s last sigh is several things, both inside and outside Salman Rushdie’s sprawling new novel. It is the defeated farewell of the last Moorish ruler in Spain, the Sultan Boabdil leaving his beloved Granada in 1492, a year also known for other travels. It is Othello’s last gasp of jealousy and violence. It is, in the novel, the name of two paintings depicting Boabdil’s departure; and it is what the novel itself becomes, the long, breathless, terminal narration of the asthmatic Moraes Zogoiby, alias ‘Moor’. Old Moore’s Almanach flickers somewhere here (‘Old Moor will sigh no more’), as does Luis Buñuel’s dernier soupir (which appears as the Ultimo Suspiro petrol station). Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart were wrong, we learn, to think that a sigh is just a sigh: a sigh could be almost anything, and the name Zogoiby is a version of the Arabic elzogoybi, ‘the unlucky one’, the sobriquet traditionally attached to Boabdil.
Boabdil is elegiac shorthand for a delicate, plural civilisation unable to defend itself against single-minded religion; or rather against the single-minded political use of religion: the spirit of the Catholic Spanish kings of the Counter-Reformation, or the mosque and temple-destroying Hindus and Muslims of a later day. Boabdil, remote as he seems in time and space, is an aspect of India as it might have been in this century, and the novel gives him a legendary descendency of Indian Jews, one of whom finally marries an Indian Catholic of (probably also legendary) Portuguese descent. A Zogoiby weds a Da Gama; the dispossessed Moor meets up with an originator of empire. In South India; in Cochin, to be precise, one of the formerly (notionally) independent states which are now part of the state of Kerala. The date of the meeting is 1939, although most of the rest of the novel takes place in post-Independence India, and in Bombay.
The meeting is several centuries late and occurs only in the family imagination, and in what looks like the wrong place, but how else, Rushdie is suggesting, are we to understand, or even picture, the failed dream of a many-cultured peace, what the wreckage of empire might look like if it were not only a wreck. There are Chinese tiles in the synagogue in Cochin, ‘pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns ... can this really be India?’ ‘Shenanigans’ is good, an entirely gratuitous dash of yet another culture. Rushdie’s narrator continues his questions: ‘Is this not the most eccentric of slices to extract from all that life – a freak blond hair plucked from a jet-black (and horribly unravelling) plait?’ He knows we know the answer.
These characters and stories are not less Indian than for whom the claim is made. And the same goes for the stories. The supposed centre that makes them seem marginal, or (later) seeks to expel them, is the invention of a murderous ideology. A sigh is not just a sigh. But it’s not a shout; even less a last battle. Scarcely a memory. It’s appropriate – too appropriate, I think, too literary in the genteel old fashion – that the book should end in a clatter of names, phrases and scenery borrowed from Don Quixote, that great work of comic mourning written by a Spaniard pretending to be an Arab. On the last pages, the narrator gazes, for good measure, across a valley at the Alhambra, ‘the glory of the Moors, their triumphant masterpiece and their last redoubt’. Is this Rushdie or the Granada tourist office?
Rushdie takes risks as a writer, apart from the obvious ones. Well, the obvious ones aren’t risks, they are grave dangers, and to call them risks would be to suggest that Rushdie courted them. His life is in danger not because he wrote a clever, irreverent book, but because of the thuggish way his book was received. The question of a more diffuse hurt and offence caused by The Satanic Verses – well, caused by the idea or the description of The Satanic Verses – is different, and very complicated, not helped by knee-jerking in any direction. It seems to me monstrous to ‘think of taking offence as a fundamental right’, as someone says in East, West. But then it is heartless not to see that unintended offences can cause pain. The risks I have in mind are far less grave. The worst that can happen here is a little critical disagreement.