By Konstantin Sofianos
In the frantic opening passages of Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, his fifth novel, and the first to appear following the globally-publicised fatwa or clerical decree ordaining his death, the eponymous Moraes Zogoiby is pictured fleeing the Alhambra-like mountain-fortress that had become his prison, bearing with him a sheaf of manuscript-pages that are his testimony. His persecutors are possibly already at his heels, and may lurk everywhere. As he plunges into the Andalusian woods, he nails pages from his testament onto passing trees, defiantly. He can do no other, presumably.
To return to The Moor's Last Sigh is to be reminded of the imaginative force and exuberance of Rushdie's writing at its best. Individual scenes are preternaturally vivid, words and phrases unroll like circus tumblers in every direction, and are gathered together again in bulging, comic sentences, that combine to exert an irresistible narrative pull. The dialogue is improbable and priceless: "inform your goodwife to shutofy her tap. Some hot-water trouble is leaking from her face." As the novel unfolds, it extends to embrace both the trans-oceanic pepper trade of the early modern period and a dynastic saga of four generations, full-up with formidable women-figures and cowed but tragic men, and still finds space to accommodate a troupe of delinquent Lenin-imposters. At its core, however, lies an exaltation of the occult capacities of art, a theme evoked in the resplendent frescoes of the blazing-eyed and white-haired Aurora, matriarch and painter, Rushdie's finest character.
Rushdie's previous novel, The Satanic Verses, had been published in 1988, and initially met with a favourable reception that placed it on that year's Booker Prize short-list. The text presented a sprawling, flamboyant fiction that ruminated on ideas of identity, migrancy and flux in a newly globalised world, but its appropriations from received accounts of the life of Mohammed, and its allusion to apocryphal passages allegedly once included in the Qur'an, the satanic verses of the title, attracted the attention, then the outrage, of Muslim authorities.
The book was first banned in India, and then in South Africa, following appeals by the Muslim Judicial Council. In Britain, the offense of Rushdie's novel provided a rallying-point for marginalised Muslim communities and especially youths, who had lived through the Thatcher-years, and a decade of fierce racial tension and state persecution. Protests and book burnings were held, initially in the Yorkshire town of Bradford, traduced as "Bradistan", then Islamabad, subsequently across the UK and the Middle East.
On Valentine's Day of 1989, the theocratic head of the Iranian Republic, the Ayatollah Khomeini, pronounced the call for Rushdie's assassination, which was reaffirmed by the Iranian government, and bolstered by the offer of a bounty on Rushdie's head, that would eventually run to millions of dollars.
Bookstores were boycotted, and fire-bombed. The novel's paperback-version was delayed as further threats reached the publishing houses - in later years, its Japanese and Italian translators would be murdered, and its Norwegian publisher shot. Conservative figures questioned the allegiance of the arriviste Indian-born novelist, and implicitly endorsed the threats as merely Rushdie's just dessert. On the left, the likes of Germaine Greer and John Berger flourished their third-worldist credentials by deploring Rushdie's affront to multiculturalism, and attacked his work and character in print.
Rushdie, bewildered and increasingly horrified, asserted the autonomy of art and free speech in public statements, before disappearing into the shelter offered by friends, and behind a cordon of police protection grudgingly extended by a Tory government. He was to remain thus in furtive, security-protected hiding for over a decade, while the so-called "Rushdie-affair" boiled on.
What The Moor's Last Sigh demonstrates is that Rushdie, in the 1990s, was capable of responding to these nightmarish circumstances with an imaginative throw of the first order, and some reflexive insight. The dark atmosphere of the fatw? infiltrates the text, and its opening setting in Andalusia is hardly fortuitous, harkening back as it does to the cultural glories of Moorish Spain, cradle of cosmopolitan learning and architectural achievement, the seat of Islamic free-thinkers like Ibn Rushd (Averoës) - all lapsed in the violence of the Catholic reconquista, which bore the authoritarian Spanish Inquisition along with it. In the 1990s, Rushdie retained an historical awareness that did not content itself merely with a blanket denunciation of religious Islam.
In his most recent work, Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Jonathan Cape), a voluminous personal chronicle of the fatwa-years, Rushdie is very far from such intellectual discrimination or imaginative power, but the book is strangely engrossing nonetheless.
Over the roughly dozen years of his life in the underground, during which he became at once a globally reviled figure and an international cause célèbre, Rushdie met with a procession of political leaders and cultural ambassadors, went through two divorces and began courting a supermodel, shared a stage with U2, dined with endless literati, and published a children's tale and two accomplished novels, all while being harried from safe-house to safe-house. These events are exhaustively detailed in a book that, for long stretches, reads like an appointment diary.
A decade before the Satanic Verses-controversy, Rushdie had been a portly advertising executive whose proudest achievement was coining the slogan "Irresistibubble" for Aero chocolates. Born to a secular Muslim and bourgeois family in Delhi, the adolescent Rushdie was sent to attend the public-school of Rugby in the UK, and subsequently read Modern History at Cambridge, where his knowledge of historical Islam was mainly garnered. For many years outstripped by literary friends like Ian McEwan, or Martin Amis, he established his reputation in 1981 with the award-winning Midnight's Children.
When the fatwa-decree fell, Rushdie was torn from a celebrity circuit of publishing events and literary lunches, and hustled into something like a cockney version of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, replete with blokey coppers, mildly comedic misunderstandings, elaborate security measures and drudging round-the-clock surveillance. Asked to select a code-name for himself, Rushdie characteristically conjoined the given names of Conrad and Chekhov, to form the deracinated pseudonym Joseph Anton.
Purporting to be an account of the fictional Anton, the book is narrated in the third-person, a strategy perhaps gleaned from J.M. Coetzee's austere trilogy of memoirs. But Rushdie maintains nothing like Coetzee's ironic detachment. His identification with his subject is total: his second wife is presented as simply pathological, while his third shifts from enchanting to "mulish" at the drop of Rushdie's affections. Personal acquaintances are either courageous and loyal or cowardly and craven, while his son Zafar, periodically summoned to humanise the protagonist, remains a doting and affectionate cipher.
The warmest and most arresting portions of the book pass with the opening evocations of Rushdie's childhood years and sentimental education, and the depictions of early marital life and travel with his first wife, Clarissa. The blow-by-blow narration of the tumultuous events around the fatwa is still compelling, but this eventually gives way, in the later parts, to a pedestrian chronicle of names, dates and movements.
The book is written in a functional, fluid-enough prose, but the great novelist rouses himself to enthusiasm too rarely. Such moments do occur, as in the interspersed epistolary addresses to his accusers and even to God, with topics that fire Rushdie's artistic imagination, like the Wizard of Oz, the history of Indian painting or the Argentine writer Borges's library, and in the witty and venomous pen-portraits of his foes, a guilty pleasure of the book. "If you sit by the river for long enough", he quotes Confucius at one point, "the body of your enemy will float by." Rushdie sits by the river-bank, pen in hand.
Then there are the celebrities. Rushdie is an egregious name-dropper and celebrity-spotter: dinner with Harold Pinter, or Julian Barnes. Lunch with Bono. At a party with Susan Sontag and Paul Simon. Thomas Pynchon, we are intrigued to read, has "Einstein hair" and "Bugs Bunny" teeth. Nadine Gordimer is getting up a petition. Gabriel Garcia Marquez telephones. Margaret Thatcher is oddly maternal, French Prime Minister Jospin "an empty space in a loose suit", while the philosopher Derrida appears as an apologist for fundamentalism, and seemed to go "through life with an invisible wind-machine permanently ruffling his hair."
On the topics of religious or political Islam, the imputations of blasphemy and the problem of censorship, Rushdie finally has little to say, invoking instead a witticism of H.L. Mencken's: religious fervour is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy". Rushdie evidently feels that his stance during the fatwa-years has been vindicated, and his critics abashed, by ensuing historical events like 9/11 and the rise of terrorist groupings like al-Qaeda. Borrowing an image from Hitchcock's The Birds, he presents the condemnation of The Satanic Verses, and his own victimisation by "remote-control terrorism", as the first raven, of the deathly squall to follow.
This is melodramatic and crudely simplistic, but it is also a shame: an earlier Rushdie knew that his novel required no such bloody vindication. Ian McEwan comes for tea. - published January 20, 2013.