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.
The risks are more or less lost in the sheer spilling high spirits of Midnight’s Children; muted by a disciplined sense of outrage in Shame: converted into charm in the fantasy world of Haroun and the Sea of Stories; carefully rationed in the stories of East, West. But they are there all the time. In The Satanic Verses they become broadly visible, boldly taken as risks, so that great imaginative coups alternate with peeling patches of whimsy. The Moor’s Last Sigh is steadier than that, more old-fashioned, a sort of hysterical family saga, and its risks play off each other more harmoniously; but they are still very visible, a sort of signature, and it may be worth trying to say what they are.
Garrulousness first of all. Rushdie’s narrators not only talk a lot, they are their talk. They are not so much characters as voices – sometimes they are unconvincing as characters – and the less they understand about themselves, the more they talk. They represent brilliant, voluble evasions of the world, which is nevertheless evoked by these evasions – which leaks through their words and their scarce silences. When the young hero of Haroun and the Sea of Stories discovers that silence, too, has ‘its own grace and beauty’, the effect is one of major shock. He had thought that silence was evil, and the rest of the story he is in points that way. The arch-enemy is the Prince of Silence, destroyer of stories. He has imposed ‘Silence Laws’, and his more fanatical devotees sew their lips together with twine. Speech is the freedom of speech, of course, and such freedom dies if it is not exercised. Since Haroun is a form of fairy tale, liberal democracy not only gets a little plug, but wins the day, because the chattering good guys also form a fine army: ‘All those arguments and debates, all that openness, had created powerful bonds of fellowship between them.’ We wish. But words are also the foes of reality, as Conrad suggested, and it’s not always good to like them so much. The narrator of The Moor’s Last Sigh finds what he calls gabbiness erotic: ‘When I chatter on, or am assailed by the garrulity of others, I find it – how-to-say? – arousing.’ Midnight’s Children is a triumph of such arousal; but we can all think of occasions, in and out of fiction, when chatter is either irrelevant or helpless or worse. Even Midnight’s Children is a shallow masterpiece (Pauline Kael’s phrase for Citizen Kane); it’s no use looking for the depths it doesn’t have.
Melodrama, Rushdie’s narrative method is full of extravagant nods and winks: spoofed nods and winks, mostly, but maybe nods and winks, unlike sighs, are just what they are, spoofed or not. ‘When I needed to move a mountain for love, I thought my mother would help. Alas for us all; I was wrong.’ ‘O mother, mother, I know why you banished me now. O my great dead mother, my duped progenitrix, my fool.’ ‘I brutally put an end to his accursed life. And in so doing called a curse down upon my own.’ This is not the tourist office, it’s some sort of fire-breathing, little-did-we-know romance. Rushdie is aware of what he is doing. He sets up Disney cartoons as a context, accuses his characters of ‘old-style Indian melodrama’, and when the narrator learns that his father is ‘the most evil man that ever lived’, the reference is made in contrast to the father of Superman. The trouble is that Rushdie really needs some of the emotions, and some of the power, that are being burlesqued here. At times he gets them, but it’s a close thing; often the sheer lumpishness of the spoofed mode gets in his way.
Hyperbole, Rushdie specialises in a mode of fantasy which doesn’t depart from the real but only exaggerates it; this exaggeration then becomes a brilliant or lurid metaphor for a different but related reality. A good example would be the elaborately twinned cracking-up of Saleem Sinai and India in Midnight’s Children. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, the narrator was born four and a half months after his conception, and has lived his whole life at twice the ordinary pace, double-quick, as people say in old-fashioned public schools and Rushdie’s India. The idioms and the images begin to sprout, the narrator telling us, rather too helpfully, that he is living out ‘the literal truth of the metaphors so often applied to my mother and her circle’: ‘In the fast lane, on the fast track, ahead of my time, a jet-setter right down to my genes, I burned – having no option – the candle at both ends.’ The city connection is almost irresistible, in any case not resisted: ‘I have always been, if only in my uncontrollable increases, prodigious. Like the city itself, Bombay of my joys and sorrows, I mushroomed into a huge urbane sprawl of a fellow, I expanded without time for proper planning.’ Should that really be ‘urbane’? I wouldn’t ask if elsewhere a man’s ‘niece Sara’ didn’t turn into his ‘daughter Sara’ within half a page. There’s magic realism and there’s magic realism. But then if the narrator is Bombay, Bombay is India: ‘the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities ... Those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay.’
Rushdie’s hyperboles are often memorable, but sometimes work too hard, and they and the garrulousness are closely connected to another risk: the explanation. Rushdie is an extraordinarily intelligent and fluent writer, but he doesn’t always trust the reader to get what he means. Sometimes the explanations are cogent enough, too explicit for some tastes, but loaded with the energy of anxiety: ‘Children make fictions of their fathers, re-inventing them according to their childish needs. The reality of a father is a weight few sons can bear.’ At other times perhaps Rushdie is just allowing his narrator a little sententiousness: ‘That’s not a star worth following; it’s just an unlucky rock. Our fates are here on earth. There are no guiding stars.’ But at other times we seem to be sinking into genuine soppiness: ‘his willingness to permit the co-existence within himself of conflicting impulses is the source of his full, gentle humaneness ... that hate-the-sin-and-love-the-sinner sweetness, that historical generosity of spirit, which is one of the true wonders of India’; ‘There is in us, in all of us, some measure of brightness, of possibility. We start with that, but also with its dark counter-force.’ Or just wordiness: ‘the tragedy of multiplicity destroyed by singularity, the defeat of Many by One’. At other times the explainer and the novelist in Rushdie seem to be telling different stories, and curious tensions arise.
The whole of The Moor’s Last Sigh is predicated on an argument about the One and the Many, about the vulnerability and desirability of the world of the Many. All the stories run that way except one: that of a woman with a multiple personality disorder who ruins a whole series of lives by pretending to a number of people she was what each of them wanted. Singularity in this case would have been better than multiplicity, and the story thus becomes ‘a bitter parable’ in which ‘the polarity between good and evil was reversed.’ The narrator says that ‘it did not fail to occur’ to him that the woman’s story – she is among other things his mistress and his nemesis – was ‘a defeat for the pluralistic philosophy on which we had all been raised’. He doesn’t do anything with this counter-example, though, and fifty pages later he is still lyrically allegorising his affair:
I wanted to cling to the image of love as the blending of spirits, as mélange, as the triumph of the impure, mongrel, conjoining best of us over what there is in us of the solitary, the isolated, the austere, the dogmatic, the pure; of love as democracy, as the victory of the no-man-is-an-island, two’s company Many over the clean, mean, apartheiding Ones.
Plainly Rushdie sees this attempt as doomed to failure, but he doesn’t seem to disavow it, and the mention of apartheid dumps all the virtue on one side. There is no real tussle or dialogue here, and even the contradiction of a philosophy only reverses it, leaving us with the same polarity upside down. What if the polarity is the problem? What if the Many need to talk to the One as well as to each other? What if the whole proposition is just too general or too abstract to apply to any recognisable human situation, if even the impure and the mongrels can’t quite rise to the Platonic dignity of their own idea, the impure, mongrel best of us? These are the questions that I think Rushdie the novelist is asking, that his novel is asking, in its intricate profusion. But the explainer doesn’t seem to be listening; and the explainer takes over the whole last section of the book: an epilogue which limps along into a shoot-out sponsored by the Lone Ranger and other heroes of moral complexity.
Rushdie’s last risk, that of writing in pictures, so rarely fails to deliver brilliant results that it doesn’t look like a risk at all. But it is one; and only a writer of great gifts could make it look so safe. For all his talkiness, Rushdie also understands that less can be more, and there is a very moving moment in this novel when he tells us, through his narrator, ‘another secret’ about fear: ‘the revolution against fear, the engendering of that tawdry despot’s fall, has more or less nothing to do with “courage”. It is driven by something much more straightforward: the simple need to get on with your life.’ What Rushdie doesn’t say is that that is courage, of the most exemplary sort.
And so his images, which rightly raise far more questions than we can answer, speak for themselves, and often quite laconically. A bridegroom on his wedding night takes off his clothes, his wife already undressed and waiting; puts on her wedding-dress, and takes off across the water for a homosexual rendezvous: ‘the bridegroom’s face beneath the bridal veil’, as Rushdie’s narrator puts it. A character in Cochin is given permission to train a group of actors as Lenin impersonators, eager to spread the great man’s word to these far southern regions. They say his speeches in Malayalam, Kannada, Tulu, Konkani, Tamil, Telugu and English, but they don’t look much like Lenin, and are exposed and dismissed by a Russian Lenin impersonator, who calls them a mockery: ‘this is not adaptation but satirical caricature.’ ‘O, I was lost in fiction,’ a character says, ‘and murder was all around.’ Fiction really feels like a place here, rather than a metaphor, and when another character is said to die, ‘quickly, in great pain, railing against the enemy in her body, savagely angry with death for arriving too soon and behaving so badly’, we are so caught up in the picture that the very idea of the figurative seems to fade.
I haven’t said much about the plot of The Moor’s Last Sigh. It details the lives of wealthy spice merchants and their eccentric children and in-laws; their colleagues and fellow conspirators, protégés and enemies; their loves and deaths. There is a great deal of violence and corruption (‘one man one bribe’ is a cynic’s definition of democracy), and some good story twists. At the heart of the novel, though, is the work of the narrator’s mother, the painter Aurora Zogoiby. She herself is a dazzling character, prematurely white-haired, beautiful, fearless, limitlessly talented – ‘Listen: she was the light of our lives, the excitement of our imaginations, the beloved of our dreams. We loved her even as she destroyed us’ – but she is not as memorable or as complicated as her paintings. Her Moor’s Last Sigh, for instance, 170 x 247 cms, oil on canvas, 1987, the year of her death, is ‘a picture which, for all its great size, had been stripped to the harsh essentials, all its elements converging on the face at its heart, the Sultan’s face, from which horror, weakness, loss and pain poured like darkness itself’. Aurora has done all kinds of paintings since she covered the walls of her room with a vision of India when she was 13; and she has done a sequence of paintings about the defeated, departing Moor. ‘She was using Arab Spain to re-imagine India,’ and so ‘Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains crowded into her paint – Boabdil’s fancy-dress balls.’ A pluralist’s golden age. ‘So there was,’ her son thinks, ‘a didacticism here, but what with the vivid surrealism of her images and the kingfisher brilliance of her colouring and the dynamic acceleration of her brush, it was easy not to feel preached at, to revel in the carnival without listening to the barker, to dance to the music without caring for the message in the song.’
It’s easy to do the same with Rushdie, although he could make it easier, and it’s worth remembering, as he always does, that the fantastic sometimes just is the historical. Here is another piece of picture-writing, showing the working poor of Bombay, who are not only poor and horribly exploited, but officially regarded as non-existent:
They continued to be classified as phantoms, to move through the city like wraiths, except that these were the wraiths that kept the city going, building its houses, hauling its goods, cleaning up its droppings, and then simply and terribly dying, each in their turn, unseen, as their spectral blood poured out of their ghostly mouths in the middle of the bitch-city’s all-too-real, uncaring streets.