At the End of East/West:
Myth in Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh
The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Copyright © 2000 by Timothy Weiss, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.
The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity. . . .
Myths do not die; they sleep. When they awaken, they travel, passing from one epoch to another, crossing oceans and continents, taking their abode in the most secret thoughts of humankind.
--Pietro Citati 
- Toward the end of Part I of The Moor's Last Sigh, Flory Zogoiby, the wife of Solomon Castile and mother of Abraham Zogoiby, sits in a "sunset's vermilion afterglow," wrapped in a mixture of reverie and contemplation. She is recollecting a magnificent collection of Cantonese tiles that decorate the walls, floor, and ceiling of a synagogue in Cochin, site of the first European (Portuguese) settlement in India in 1500. How strange to find there these Chinese tiles, which made their way to India in the eleventh century. In her service to the synagogue Flory has cleaned and buffed them many times and has enjoyed imaginatively entering "their myriad worlds . . . universes contained within the uniformity of twelve-by-twelve" (84)1 She is "enthralled" by the tiles; now, in a moment of anguish, her son's discovery that they the Zogoibys are a mixture of both Moslem and Jew -- as her son, Abraham, puts it, "myself, born of the fat old Moor of Granada's last sighs in the arms of his thieving mistress -- Boabdil's bastard Jew" (83) -- the Cantonese tiles "unvei[l] a secret" (84). The narrator of the novel, Moraes Zogoiby, alias the Moor, describes Flory's revelation in this way:
Scene after blue scene passed before her eyes. There were tumultuous marketplaces and crenellated fortress-palaces and fields under cultivation and thieves in jail, there were high, toothy mountains and great fish in the sea. Pleasure gardens were laid out in blue, and blue-bloody battles were grimly fought; blue horsemen pranced beneath lamplit windows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbours. O, and intrigue of courtiers and dreams of peasant and pigtailed tallymen at their abacuses and poets in their cups. . . . in Flory Zogoiby's mind's eye, marched the ceramic encyclopaedia of the material world that was also a bestiary, a travelogue, a synthesis and a song, and for the first time in all her years of caretaking Flory saw what was missing from the hyperabundant cavalcade. (84)
For the devout Flory, an unexpected conclusion hits with force: "There is no world but the world," she murmurs. "There is no spiritual life," she whispers shockingly.
- In this excerpt we find some of the essentials of Rushdie's art and of Rushdie the orientalist -- I use the term, in lower case, not in a pejorative, ideological sense but rather in a neutral sense to denote any artist who treats materials with origins in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures and societies. Rushdie, or specifically here his narrator, Moraes, is above all a storyteller; he spins his tales as does his creator with the sword of Damocles dangling above his head. The Moor tells his tale, or writes his story, as a dying captive in Vasco Miranda's phantasmagoric "Little Alhambra," a castle-fortress in Benengeli, Spain. "May you never find what you seek," the cabbie who drives the Moor to Miranda's castle shouts to him. "May you stay lost in this infernal maze, in this village of the damned, for a thousand nights and a night" (389). As in Alf Layla wa Layla (The Thousand and One Nights) the Moor, like Shahrazad, must tell stories until there are no more to tell; or to rephrase this in existentialist, postmodern terms, like Samuel Beckett's Malone in Malone Dies, he must keep talking or writing because that is the plight of man the language-bound, talking animal. For Rushdie, though, man is also the mythmaking animal, and myth, as an extension of humankind's imagination, is about possibility.
- This passage illustrates well the theme of cultural hybridity and the counterpart compositional style by which Rushdie has made his mark as a postcolonial and postmodernist writer. These Chinese tiles decorate a synagogue in India, whose caretaker is proud of tracing her heritage back to the fifteenth-century Portuguese navigator, Vasco da Gama. Elegant, poetic language mixes with slang: the "blue horsemen pranc[ing] beneath lamplit windows" contrast with phrases like "[h]ocus-pocus" and "[m]umbo-jumbo" (84). Rushdie's India, Rushdie's Orient is no less an imagination fabrication than the Orient of earlier orientalists; here, however, the Orient is being reinterpreted and reconceived along lines that historize it differently. Cabral Island, home of the novel's da Gama family, takes its name from Pedro Álvares Cabral, the Portuguese navigator who founded Cochin; later Vasco da Gama established the first Portuguese trading post. When Portuguese rule began to flag, the Dutch took over. The city of Cochin became prosperous. Through its harbor goods such as pepper, cardamom, and other spices and drugs as well as coir, coconut, and copra were shipped. "All of the city's racial and religious groups, including its Hindu majority and Muslim, Syrian Christian, and Jewish minorities, shared in the . . . prosperity." These were Cochin's heydays. After 163 years of Portuguese rule and 132 years of Dutch rule, the British ruled the colony from 1795-1947.
- In its own manner Rushdie's novel is faithful to the history of Cochin and adjacent Mattancheri, with its Jewtown and renowned synagogue; these were indeed multicultural places, and Rushdie's India is also a multicultural place -- and a fantastic one. The synagogue and the tiles have a factual basis, which Rushdie then transforms into stories. Legends spring up about the tiles' magical powers, Moraes recounts; "if you explored for long enough," he says, it was claimed that "you'd find your own story in one of the blue-and-white squares, because the pictures on the tiles could change, were changing, generation by generation, to tell the story of the Cochin Jews" (75-76). The tiles become, then, a kind of pictorial version of The Arabian Nights and other narrative treasure hordes. When, as a boy, Abraham Zogoiby scans the Cantonese tiles, he begins to read the story of the father who has deserted him and his mother. He sees his father in a "cerulean scene of Dionysiac willow-pattern merrymaking amid slain dragons and grumbling volcanoes"; later, the father changes into Sinbad and has other adventures in the course of his odyssey (76-77). Finally, as Abraham turns into a less believing adolescent, the father disappears forever into the tiles' ethereal blue.
- The vignette of the Cantonese tiles is one among numerous tales in miniature that illustrate the creative, mythmaking process of the novel as a whole. "In the end, stories are what's left of us, we are no more than the few tales that persist," muses the dying Moor. And Rushdie's novel is a veritable treasure of stories that retell, reinvent and improvise all manner of fairy tale, legend, myth, and historical allegory. To analyze how the elements of this network of fantasy interlock and serve the author's larger project as a writer is the primary focus of this essay. Rushdie is perhaps the last great orientalist writing in English, and what he attempts in this novel is to reconceive the world -- through his stories, to give the East (and, in turn, the West) another possible history and identity. "In my family we've always found the world's air hard to breathe; we arrive hoping for something better," Moraes Zogoiby explains. Rushdie also seeks something other: an inversion, a re-vision of the world, in which the many are not conquered by the one and the power of the imagination, as it was for the Romantic poets, occupies a prominent place. Reinterpreting history and conceiving of new possibilities of the present and future, the imagination has a hermeneutic and a vatic capacity, and in both of these capacities it stands in opposition to the trend toward instrumentalization of the modern world. "[T]he first danger in our present culture," explains philosopher Paul Ricoeur, is a "reduction of langauge to communication at the lowest level. . . . We have only one model of language--the language of science and technology"3 (448). It is against this "instrumentalization of language," a reduction of language's basic polysemy to the rule of one-word one-meaning, that poets by the very nature of poetry as well as imaginative, mythopoeic writers such as Rushdie struggle. Myth is a kind of narrative polysemy, which, rather than narrowing a story toward a single meaning, enlarges it, keeping it indefinitely open, indefinitely capable of new interpretations and rewritings. Myth infuses story with hidden, as yet unrealized meaningfulness, which takes presence only later, under the right circumstances, with the right readers, if at all.
- This idea coincides with the concept of "radical typology," a term that I borrow from Laurence Coupe who in turn has borrowed it from Peter Munz and other scholars. Radical typology claims for myth a transformative quality and an open-endedness, as well as a capacity to endure. It is important to think of myth as narrative rather than as a static collection of symbols and symbolic relationships. "Every myth we know has both a past and a future," Munz states (ix). Elaborating on this aspect of myth and differentiating "orthodox typology" from "radical typology," Coupe explains:
All myths presuppose a previous narrative, and in true form the model of future narratives. Strictly speaking, the pattern of promise and fulfillment need never end; no sooner has one narrative promise been fulfilled than the fulfillment becomes in turn the promise of further myth-making. Thus myths remake other myths, and there is no reason why they should not continue to do so, the mythopoeic urge being infinite. This understanding is what we are calling radical typology. Where orthodox typology [an example of which would be viewing Christ as the fulfillment of the type that Moses incarnates] works in terms of closure, radical typology works in terms of disclosure. (108)
Orthodox typology is essentially allegorical in its functioning, the word "allegory" deriving from the Greek, allos, or "other"; that is to say that, "[a]llegorical tales are those which in effect announce, or are made to announce, their own intention: to say this in terms of that. Thus the 'other' is always subsumed under the 'same'" (Coupe 105). No matter how many levels of meaning an allegory might feature, it is still limited and fairly static in comparison with radical typology, which possesses the power of story or narrative.
- Although The Moor's Last Sigh relies on allusion and allegory and often uses them brilliantly, it would be reductive to read the novel as an allegorization of the author's own personal and political predicament or as a roman à clef in terms of the history and politics of twentieth century India (e.g., reviewers cite the character Raman Fielding as a thinly disguised caricature of the Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray). Rushdie likes to get in his jabs, that's for sure, but he is not primarily a political satirist. He is more interested in the capacity of narrative to destabilize and break apart a stagnancy of assumptions and a tyranny of orthodoxy; he uses myth to reinterpret and rewrite East-West histories and stories.
- Myth has multiple functions in the novel, three of which are patterning, the imagining of possibilities, and reterritorializing. Mythmaking is "a primal and universal function of the human mind as it seeks a more-or-less unified vision of the cosmic order, the social order, and the meaning of the individual's life," mythologist Don Cupitt observes. "The individual finds meaning in his life by making of [it] a story set within a larger social and cosmic order (29)". Thus Moraes Zogoiby gives meaning to, or patterns, his individual and family's experiences through the numerous mythic and other allusive parallels, often ironic, that he constructs about their lives. This patterning becomes something more dynamic when Rushdie uses the narrative capacity of myth to re-interpret myth itself and conceive of other possibilities. "Every telling of a myth is a part of that myth," Marina Warner insists; "there is no Ur-version, no authentic prototype, no true account." She continues: "Myth convey values and expectations which are always evolving, in the process of being formed, but . . . never set so hard they cannot be changed again" (14). Related to this liberating function of myth is mythmaking as reterritorialization. In "Myth as the Bearer of Possible Worlds," Paul Ricoeur argues that there are essentially "two uses of the concept of myth," first, as "creative symbol," and second, as "reductive ideology" (487). In the latter use, myth "serves as an alientation of [a] symbolic structure; . . . it becomes reified and is misconstrued as an actual materialistic explanation of the world" (487). Reductive ideology of this sort would include Nazism, white supremacy, and the various ideologies of European colonial expansion.
- In The Moor's Last Sigh Rushdie seeks to invert certain myths that constitute reductive ideologies, such as the founder myths of European colonization embodied in epic accounts like Luís de Camões's Os Lusíadas wherein the Portuguese people are given their identity and the Orient taken into their realm of possession. Through telling another, inverted epic tale whose theme is not radical identity and exclusion, but rather, multi-cultural identity and inclusion, Rushdie reinterprets the colonial world and reterritorializes the postcolonial one. He writes a novel that is another version of "the empire writing back," a counter Os Lusíadas. In the Portuguese epic, Europeans circumnavigate Africa and "discover" the Indian subcontinent; in Rushdie's serious and mocking ironic epic of the spice trade and the "sub-condiment," India goes to Europe.
- A related function of myth-reading and mythmaking in The Moor's Last Sigh is a recuperation in which stories of the West are shown to be mixed up with stories of the East. Rushdie recuperates for the East that which has been taken from it through centuries of Orientalism. Through reinterpreting and rewriting narratives -- that is, histories and myths -- Rushdie reimagines the world. Because he treats both history and myth as narratives, in other words, as stories open to interpretation and rewriting, he eludes static dichotomies and can, on the one hand, show fully the violence of the past and present as well as, on the other hand, avoid falling prey to a deterministic vision of the human predicament. At the end of his family saga, Moraes is exhausted and disillusioned, yet the manner in which the history has been interpreted and told raises the possibility that the future need not be the same as the present. The conclusion of the novel is apocalyptic in its vision of destruction and catastrophe, but also in its implicit understanding that all narrative, including the human story, has an unfinished quality that insures that the story will continue. Every end is arbitrary, there is always some other beginning. 
- What, then, are the main mythic paradigms or narrative superstructure within which Rushdie unfolds his tale? There are primarily three: the vision, the fall and subsequent wandering in quest of a redemption, and the labyrinth. The Moor's Last Sigh is Rushdie's Xanadu; in terms of myth, one can draw a connection between the novel and the dramatic situation and mythic components of "Kubla Khan," the celebrated poem whose images are drawn in part from accounts of the life of the first emperor of the Yüan, or Mongol, dynasty in China, and his residence of K'ai-p'ing, or Shang-tu, in southeastern Mongolia (see "Kublai Khan," Britannia Online). Kenneth Burke has argued that "Kubla Khan," which he calls a "proto-surrealist" poem, is a narrative statement of romantic principles of creativity (221). Its tripartite structure moves from beatific vision (thesis), to a recognition of the sinister and turbulent (antithesis), to a fusion of these two components (synthesis, as in the phrases "sunny dome," "caves of ice," and "holy dread") (Burke 201). The poem progresses through a series of visions, from "stately pleasure dome" to "romantic chasm" to the "damsel with a dulcimer." These visions tell a story, one mythic correlative of which is the narrative of innocence and experience, or the myth of the fall, the quest, and an imagined paradise regained. Like "Kubla Khan," The Moor's Last Sigh presents a vision, combining realistic and fantastic elements; its dramatic situation -- Moraes, or the Moor, a prisoner in an Andulusian castle, spilling out his life's story to a young Japanese damsel in distress, Aoi Uë, who is likewise a prisoner of Vasco Miranda -- recalls, ironically, Xanadu. The novel's narrative progresses through an ironic version of "Kubla Khan's" series of visions that imply a movement from innocence to experience, or from a fall to a imaginative recovery.
- In terms of radical typology, "Kubla Khan" could thus be called an "anti-type" (i.e., fulfillment) of the myth of the fall, or paradise lost, as is the specific legend from which all the legends of Moraes's family history derive, a story surrounding the final defeat of the Moors in Spain and the end of their seven-hundred year reign in the Iberian Peninsula. The legend of the last Sultan, Boabdil, and the Moor's defeat in Spain in 1492, moves narratively from the lovely gardens of Alhambra to the bitterness of the expulsion from Granada to wandering and exile in Fez, Morocco. The paradigmatic myth of innocence-fall-imagined recovery structures many stories, both Eastern and Western; it underlies the narrative of human maturation, the individual's development from child to adult, undergoing along the way tests and trails of various sorts. An ironic version of this myth structures The Moor's Last Sigh. Other mythic paradigms and variations of the myth of the fall and recovery that inform the novel is the myth of a return to origins (which we see, by the way, in Moraes's telling of his family history); the myth popular with romantics from Wordsworth and Coleridge to W.B. Yeats, that of the artist's vision; and the myth of the apocalypse, both in the sense of a world coming to an end and a re-visioning of a new world. Throughout Moraes's tale there is a fundamental struggle between Eros and Thanatos.
- In addition to the vision and the fall-redemption myths, one other mythic structure that informs the novel is that of the man in the labyrinth, as in the Greek tale of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. The Moor -- and the reader as well, because the novel has an aspect of detective fiction -- must find his way through the twists and turns of events until the moment when the monster is slain and the truth of the matter is revealed. But the monster changes form, and the truth is partial and open to other interpretations. The Moor's Last Sigh uses these mythic paradigms post-modernistically, drawing the reader into the maze.
- But what is the name of the game? I suspect that many readers will find Rushdie's performance both daunting and confusing; like Joyce's Ulysses, this is an epic-like novel that many more readers will begin than finish. But to respond to my own question, I must draw one more parallel with Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." At a fundamental level, the poem meditates on identity. Just as, at the dawn of Western philosophy, Presocratic philosophers such as Anaximander, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus meditated on the basic matter of the world, on transformation, on oppositions and arrangement -- the Greek work, "kosmos" means harmonious arrangement -- so too "Kubla Khan" and Rushdie's novel ponder these basic concepts of being as the creative principle of poetry and the universe. The final game in The Moor's Last Sigh is the identity game, a poetic and zany spectacle of the enigma of "who or what are we?" Of course we need to add that Rushdie draws on both Eastern and Western sources, Indian myth as well as Greek. At the end of the twentieth century we are in some ways back at the beginning of the fundamental conceptions of philosophy as articulated by the Presocratic philosophers and in Indian mythology. In Anatomy of Criticism Northrop Frye views all literature as part of a great cycle, beginning with myth and concluding in the ironic mode, which itself turns back to myth. That is what we have in Rushdie's novel. 
- The Moor's Last Sigh is a narrative in the ironic mode, with a hero confronting a certain "bondage, frustration," and "absurdity"; at the same time it is a narrative that plays with myth, making it and mocking it in almost the same phrase (Frye 33-34). Scenes transform mercurially, and the tone flip-flops between poles of epic seriousness and postmodern slapstick. Even those ideas that Rushdie defends throughout the novel -- such as the idea of hybridity and cultural plurality -- are approached with an attitude that ranges from the dignified to the streetcorner matter-of-fact. Thus, the pre-marital love between Abraham, the Moorish Jew, and Aurora, the Catholic, is implicitly likened to that of Romeo and Juliet. In Aurora's fabulist painting "The Scandal," Moraes describes the scene in this manner: "Warring Lobo and Menezes clans can be spotted on the mountains . . . : the Menezes people all have serpents' heads and tails and the Lobos . . . are wolves. . . . in the foreground are the streets and waterways of Cochin, and they teem with scandalised congregations: fish-Catholics, dog-Anglicans, and the Jews all painted Delft blue, like figures in Chinese tiles" (103). Abraham and Aurora rest "asleep on a peaceful island at the centre of the storm" (103). Their zoomorphic bodies feature feathers, wings, and heads of eagles. "We soared above it," Abraham recounts to his son, recalling the phoenix and other Greek myths of metamorphoses; "we defied the lot of them, and we endured" (103).
- Explaining the difference between their struggles of cultural identity and his, Moraes writes. "I . . . was raised neither as Catholic nor as Jew. I was both, and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a catchjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. . . . Yessir: a real Bombay mix" (104). He gaily declares his cultural impurity: "I like the sound of the word. Baas, a smell, a stinky-poo. Turd, no translation required. Ergo, Bastard, a smelly shit; like, for example, me" (104). There is something irreverent and mad-cap in Moraes's recounting of his family history; the mockery and irony do not dispel myth, but rather displace and reform it. In its own topsy-turvy fashion, the novel puts forward a vision of a pluralistic society that, with reference to the multicultural societies of colonial-Dutch Cochin and Moorish Spain, has a historical reality as well as an immediate contemporary necessity. In this sense the novel is the story of civilization, with its periods of violence and war as well as its realized harmonies of complex cultural order. Rushdie is both an interpreter of history and a maker of myth based on this history.
- The novel features numerous interlinked narratives that mix fairy tale, legend, myth, fantasy, and allegory of an historical, a literary and an autobiographical nature. Rushdie constructs a rhizome-like network that defies categorization because everything becomes mixed up with everything else. Within the overall narrative structure there are, for example: 1) fairy tales, 2) family legends, 3) Hindu and other religious mythology, 4) cartoon and pop culture 5) the surreal and the fantastic 6) literary fantasy, 7) allusions to Indian history in the context of European and contemporary history, 8) The Lusíades, the Reconquista, and tales of Moors and Jews of Spain 9) Xanadu, or the artist's dreamlike vision, and 10) religious fundamentalist ideologies and autobiographical elements. I will consider a few examples from these diverse through ultimately hybridized categories, focusing on Xanadu, the artist's dream-like vision, whose primary avatar is Moraes's mother, Aurora, the novel's dominant figure.
- Rushdie interweaves in his narratives many fairy-tale elements, including a basic struggle between good and evil: there are castles, damsels, witches, monsters of a sort, magic spells and a treasure, but none of these without specific ties to historical milieux. Flory Zogoiby's chest of keepsakes, for example, contains a silver dagger and a "tattered crown," four and a half centuries old, made not of precious metals but of cloth, "a dark green turban." What is this crown? Nothing other than, or so the legend goes, "the last crown to fall from the head of the last prince of al-Andalus; . . . the last crown of Granada, as worn by Abu Abdallah, last of the Nasrids, known as 'Boabdil'" (78). Rushdie both orientalizes this common fairy tale component -- in the manner of The Arabian Nights -- and places it within a specific historical context: the fall of Granada and the Reconquista. As befits the nature of Rushdie's art, where treasure is not something equated with administrative power but rather with imaginative potential, the final object in Flory's trunk is a manuscript of parchment pages that tells Boabdil's sad story, how he sighed and wept as he looked back on the sight of Granada and contemplated the end of Moorish rule in Spain.
- The sighs of Boabdil transform into the mixture of asthma and saudade (that special variant of Iberian nostalgia) that touch the male descendants of the da Gama-Zogoiby family lines: "These wheezing sighs not only mine, but his. These eyes hot with his ancient grief," Abraham reflects; "Boabdil, I too am thy mother's son" (80). Moraes also has respiratory problems, as do Francisco da Gama, Aires da Gama, and Abraham Zogoiby, so the sighs and sadness of Boabdil are passed on through the generations; the Moor's last sigh is not only Boabdil's upon saying farewell to Granada but Moraes's last words as he reclines in the graveyard overlooking the Alhambra. Thus, we see here that Rushdie basically uses fairy tale elements to combine with historical and other imaginative elements in the novel. This is a kind of magic realism, but not of the same kind that we find in South American writers such as Borges and Garcia Marquez. I mention Borges in particular because he was an orientalist in his own right, although of an orientalism different from Rushdie's. They are similar at least in the respect that both artists place fantastic elements within historical milieux.
- Family legends constitute a second category of mythmaking, with all narratives elements relating to or growing out of them. The story of Flory Zogoiby's treasure chest is both legend and an oriental Arabian Nights-like tale; many elements in the novel, whose overall organization is like a rhizome, function this way as a story within a story branching out to still other stories. Francisco da Gama, the family patriarch, brings his bride, Epifania Menezes, to a lovely mansion, with an Edenic garden, on Cabral Island. Restless, Francisco hires an a Frenchman who builds two houses within the gardens, one modernist, "with furniture looking like something made for a . . . geometry class," and the other in the Japanese style, "a paper house of cards" (15-16). Francisco enjoys going back and forth between them: "moving East" or "going West," he commands the household (16). This division of houses prefigures a division of the family, with the two sons Camoens and Aires holding divergent views on all things, including business affairs and the British empire. All the personages listed in the Da Gama-Zogoiby Family Tree have some legend through which they are immortalized. The branching of the tree, one branch proceeding from Camoens and the other from Aires, is the source of "the legends of the battling da Gamas." "I tell them as they come down to me, polished and fantasticated by many re-tellings," Moraes recounts. "There are old ghosts, distant shadows, and I tell their tales to be done with them . . . . From Cochin harbour to Bombay harbour, from Malabar Coast to Malabar Hill: the story of our comings-together, tearings-apart, our rises, falls, our tiltoings ups and down" (11-12).
- The stories are often sad. A harried Francisco commits suicide, diving into the sea at Cabral Island and swimming away: "perhaps he was trying to find some air beyond the island's enchanted rim," Moraes sardonically speculates (24). His two sons Aires and Camoens do not fare better. Gay Aires is celebrated in family legend for his "secret wildness" and his "gowned adventure"; he costumes himself in his wife's wedding garments and goes to the harbour to tryst with a sailor nicknamed Prince Henry the Navigator (14). Camoens, following in his father Francisco's footsteps, commits suicide; unable to live without his wife, he dives into the harbour and is carried away by the tide, or so eyewitness Snow White reports (67). All family members have some personal trait or idiosyncrasy that provides the gist of legends, such as Moraes's oversized hand and Aurora's Ganpati dance.
- These legends often tie in with other networks of fantasy and allegory. For example, the two branches of the da Gama family engage in dirty war for control of the family's spice enterprise, a war that culminates in an act of arson and various atrocities that clearly allude to the excesses of religious fundamentalism, one of whose real-life victims is Rushdie himself. The legendary fire in the da Gama spice fields results in several deaths: an overseer and his family are tied to a tree with barbed wire and burned like heretics, while three brothers who support the other side of the family are nailed to trees in the fashion of a crucifixion (40). "What sort of family is this? Is this normal? Is this what we are all like?" a dejected Moraes ponders. And then concludes, with a broad generalization meant to apply to humanity: "We are like this; not always, but potentially. This, too, is what we are" (40). The family quarrel and the fire in the spice fields is thus turned in the direction of an allegorical comment on the dark side of civilization.
- A third category of imaginative material integrates Hindu, Biblical, and other religious and mythological stories into the novel's larger narrative. Aurora Zogoiby's controversial painting, "The Kissing of Abbas Ali Baig," takes an innocuous incident at a cricket match and turns it into an erotic statement: "a tangle of womanly limbs and the cricketer's pads and whites that recalled the eroticism of the Tantric carvings at the Chandela temples of Khajuraho" (229). Hindu mythology informs Aurora's "Ganpati" dance and the characterization of another dominant female, Uma Sarasvati, Moraes's femme fatale lover. The word "Ganpati" is a variant of "Ganapati," itself another name for the Hindu elephant god, Ganesha. A patron of letters and learning, Ganesha is the legendary scribe who wrote down the Mahabharata, the epic of the Bharata Dynasty, from Vyasa's dictation.  It is appropriate, then, that Aurora, whose name alludes to the East and to the Roman goddess of the Dawn, should be linked with the Hindu god Ganesha, who is the first god invoked at the beginning of worship or of a new enterprise and whose image is often seen at the entrance of temples or houses. Aurora, as we will discuss later, represents the East as the place and power of stories, imagination, and fantasy.
- Uma Sarasvati is similarly mythically potent; her name incorporates the power of two goddesses, the supreme Hindu goddess, Shakti, who in popular worship also goes by the names Uma, Parvati, and Ambika, and the goddess Sarasvati. "I am the goddess who knows your secret heart," she tells Moraes, and she becomes a force for both his destruction and creative expression (248). In Hindu mythology, Sarasvati it the goddess of learning and the arts; she is the patroness of art, music, and letters, and is given legendary credit for having invented the Sanskrit language and the Devanagari script in which it is written. In paintings and sculpture, she is represented holding a lute and a manuscript or book. So much mythological and psychoanalytic narrative -- Hindu, Greco-Roman, Germanic, Freudian -- winds about in Uma: "Like a goddess from the machine she came upon us, speaking to our inmost selves," Moraes remarks (244). Her relationship with him is one of the principal vehicles in the novel for Rushdie's probing of the connection between love and betrayal. He does not so much attempt to explain such behavior; rather, he places the characters of his story in a network of other, ancient stories. Like Tristan and Iseult, Moraes and Uma prepare to die together, to immortalize their love; at the last moment, however, he refuses the poison tablet. Who betrays whom? Later Moraes learns that it is she who has betrayed him. Betrayal is also the theme of the relationship between Moraes and his father and mother. Who betrays whom? Like a detective story, the novel does not reveal the answer or the solution until the final pages, and then, its solution is open to interpretation.
- The Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac provides another framework that the Moor draws upon to interpret both his mother's and father's treatment of him. Both attempt to sacrifice him to achieve their ends: "O Abraham! How readily you sacrificed your son on the altar of your wrath!" Moraes exclaims. "Whom did you hire to blow the poisoned dart?" (225, 418) The dart, that is, that kills Aurora, his mother. In the prison Under World of Bombay Central, Moraes reflects that any mother who would sentence a son to such a Hell can only be a monster: "O, an age of monsters has come upon us. Kalyug, when cross-eyed red-tongued Kali, our mad dam, moves among us wreaking havoc. -- And remember, O Beowulf, that Grendel's mother was more fearsome than Grendel himself . . . Ah, Aurora, how easily you turned to infanticide. . ." (288). The allusion to the age of monsters recalls the tale of the woman on a frozen wasteland, fleeing the wolves who chase her; to protect herself she tosses out one child after another, illustrating the fearsome monstrosity of selfish women. "Everyone thought it ghastly a hundred years ago," a character in Paul Bowles's novel, Let It Come Down, comments about such monstrosity; "[b]ut today it's much more terrible. Much. Because then it was remote and unlikely, and now it's entered into the realm of the possible"(222). Moraes is eventually released from this Under World, but enters another one -- this time a tower prison -- in Vasco Miranda's Little Alhambra.
- The modernist takes himself seriously, whereas the postmodernist is willing to make fun of his own serious intentions -- that, at least, is one common distinction between the two. And so it is with Rushdie the postmodernist in this novel, which is another way of saying that the author never entirely forgets that he is playing a linguistic, cultural game. Moraes's mother, Aurora, probably epitomizes this esprit better than any other character in the novel, with the hero-turned-villain Vasco Miranda placing second. Lambajan Chandiwala, the security guard of Elephanta, the da Gama-Zogoiby family residence, is one of Aurora's hybrid (Biblical, mythological, literary, pop) creations. Moraes remembers him in this way: "that simple Peter at the doors of an earthly Paradise, who became my personal cut-price Virgil, leading me down to Hell -- the great city of Hell, Pandaemonium, that dark-side, through-the-looking-glass evil twin of my own golden city: not Proper, but Improper Bombay" (126). The name "Lambajan Chandiwala" is a kind of Joycean invention that translates as "Long John Silverfellow": "lamba, long; jan, sounds like John, chandi, silver" (126). To make him a perfect pirate, Aurora insists that he be equipped with "a green clipped-winged" parrot that "squawk[s] obscenities on his shoulder" (126). Part of the fun of Lambajan is that he is pretty harmless, "hairy-faced" like his namesake, but toothless and gentle, with a gift for mythmaking, spinning elephant stories: "Why do you think-so god Ganesha is so popular in Bombay City?" he rhetorically inquires, a bit awkwardly, and then explains that, long ago, elephants sat on thrones and argued philosophy; after the elephants' fall from rule, when men first arrived on Elephanta Island they found statues of mammoths and destroyed them out of fear. "Yes, men wiped away the memory of the great elephants but still not all of us have forgotten," Lambajan concludes (127-128).
- The world bristles with stories -- what is the world but its stories, Moraes asks - and the author continuously turns all into legend and shows how all legends have a reality. He is a postmodern orientalist who comprehends that the greatest storyteller herself, Shahrazad, knew that she was playing a game and that she had no choice but to keep playing this game.  From the Lone Ranger and Tonto, to Walt Disney cartoon characters, to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, Rushdie finds ways of making connections and inventing new stories based on old ones. Thus, the lost needle in Vasco Miranda's stomach -- left there after a "botched appendix operation" -- is an inventive variation of an element in Andersen's "The Snow Queen." Like Kay [WHO IS KAY?], who escapes the villainous queen but who carries as a wound "a splinter of ice in his veins," Vasco knows that the lost needle will someday enter his heart and kill him. The fateful needle transforms his character: "This was the secret of his hyperactive personality -- he slept no more than three hours a night, and when awake, was incapable of sitting still for even three minutes" (154). "'Until the day of the needle I have much to do,'" Vasco tells Moraes; "'[L]ive until you die, that is my creed'" (154-155). This is a creed with which Moraes can readily identify, for he too is "short of time."
- Pop culture, the surreal, and literary fantasy are three other categories of imaginative material in the novel. We find allusions, for example, to everything ranging from the Lone Ranger to The Arabian Nights to Gulliver's Travels. The boundaries between categories blur, with pop culture blending into fairy tale blending into the fantastic, or at least that is the case with the Moor's own sense of shortness of time, caused not by a lost needle or a splinter of ice in his veins, but rather by an accelerated growth rate of incredible proportions. "I have aged twice as rapidly as the old earth and everything and everyone thereupon," he relates (144). Moraes gestates a mere four-and-a-half months in his mother's womb; at the age of seven, he has the size and desires of a fourteen-year old, and at thirty-six, he feels seventy-two. From the beginning, he is, as he puts it, not pre- but "post-mature" (144). Another of Moor's surreal idiosyncrasies is his deformed right hand, which resembles a "club"; through Lambajan Chandiwala's mentoring, he becomes deft at boxing and uses his physical prowess to his advantage (146). Is he the hero of a mock postcolonial epic or a character in a daffy cartoon?
- Moraes defies facile categorization. His narrative mixes the serious with the comic in a postmodern game. Consider Moraes's name, which at once alludes to his family's Afro-Iberian heritage -- Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, and Jewish -- as well as to popular nursery rhymes and to the modern American slapstick act, the Three Stooges. His sisters are named "Ina, Minnie, Mynah," and he is Moe -- Moraes or the Moor (142). The children's nursery, conceived and painted by Vasco Miranda as a universe of cartoon pop-culture, provides much of the primordial matter for Moraes's imagination and self-identity. The nursery walls, full of "trompe-l'oeil windows" in various styles -- "Mughal-palatial, Andalusian Moorish, Manueline Portuguese, roseate Gothic" -- are described as "magic casements" that "open on the world of make believe" (151). A cursory list of the figures depicted there include Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Huey-Dewey-Louie, Goofy, Pluto, Heckle'n'Jeckle, Chip'n'Dale, Porky the Pig, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, Batman and Robin, Superman, Wonder Woman, Lois Lane, Green Arrow, Phantom, Flash, the Lone Ranger and Tonto (151-152). Of Vasco Miranda's hybrid marvels, Moraes, gaily piling literary allusion on literary allusion, comments: "He gave us story-oceans and abracadabras, Panchatantra fables and new lamps for old. Most important of all, however, was the notion he implanted in all of us through the pictures on our walls: the notion . . . of the secret identity" (152).
- This notion of something hidden is central to fairy tale, myth, legend, and fantasy of all sort: things are never quite what they seem is the essential message of magic and magicians. Jorge Luis Borges defines magic as a "unique causality," "the belief that besides the causal relations we know, there is another causal relation. That relationship may be due to accidents, to a ring, to a lamp. We rub a lamp, and a genie appears. That genie is a slave who is also omnipotent and who will fulfill our wishes. It can happen at any moment" (51). In The Moor's Last Sigh the magical and the fantastic are the product of both narrative movement (e.g., the legend of Flory Zogoiby's chest and the stories spanning the Cantonese tiles) and inventive characterization. Aurora, Vasco Miranda, Lambajan Chandiwala, the Moor -- each has a secret identity that expresses itself through different artistic media. For Aurora, her paintings take an increasingly dreamlike, fantastic quality as her career develops and as her relationship with her husband and son grows more estranged. Jilted by Aurora and Abraham, Vasco Miranda goes into exile in Spain and sets up his "Little Alhambra," a postmodern version of the great Moorish palace, in whose Generalife-like gardens he strolls costumed as a half-mocking, half-nostalgic "old-time Sultan" (398). Moraes's self is a multiple mirror, like a glass chandelier in a ballroom of dancers; his confession, that is, the text of his "last sigh," casts its light in all directions. He and it are composed of a variety male and female personages who are counterparts and secret sharers in this tale of many tales: Aurora; his sisters; his father, grandfathers, and great-grandfathers; Uma Sarasvati, Aoi Uë, and Vasco Miranda, for example. Masks, disguises, deceptions, betrayals, even the aesthetic concepts of "Mooristan" and "Palimpstine," project a sense of the world as one of secret identities and hidden correspondences. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Clark Kent and Superman, Bruce Wayne and Batman, Vasco Miranda (the Moor's dark self and final enemy) and Moraes: all lead a double life, a life in a labyrinth, one of whose final twisting paths is exile, which Moraes calls a "surreal foreignness." As he laments upon leaving India,
The place, language, people and customs I knew had all been removed from me by the simple act of boarding this flying vehicle; and these, for most of us, are the four anchors of the soul. . . . I felt as if all the roots of my self had been torn up like those of the flying trees from Abraham's atrium. . . . I was alone in a mystery. (383).
Moraes's plight is Rushdie's plight. Fantasy is sometimes a subversion and a line of escape, but it is also a scream in a prison cell, a cry from "Pandaemonium" (5). In the end a "banished," sick, debilitated Moor chooses, like Rip Van Winkle, to go to sleep, to give himself over to the final transformation; he becomes his fiction, the final page in the da Gama- Zogoiby family saga.
- Page by page, myth, legend, and fantasy of divers sort abound in The Moor's Last Sigh, but at the base of all this imaginative material is an historical network, which the author treats less as an unalterable reality than as a narrative, like other narratives, open to varying interpretations. The novel establishes links between the da Gama-Zogoiby family history and Portuguese, Spanish, and English imperial history, pulling the narrative away from the pole of fantasy and drawing it toward the pole of social and political commentary, giving it a potential significance as a postcolonial story of the Orient reinterpreted and European history inverted. "[A]ll this from a pepperpot!" Moraes exclaims, of the navigations and colonizations that define the Age of Discovery in modern European history:
Pepper it was that brought Vasco da Gama's tall ships across the ocean, from Lisbon's Tower of Belém to the Malabar Coast . . . . English and French sailed in the wake of that first-arrived Portugee, so that in the period called Discovery-of-India -- but how could we be discovered when we were not covered before? -- we were "not so much sub-continent as sub-condiment" . . . . From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight clear. . . . "They came for the hot stuff." (4-5)
- Here, both playfully and seriously, Moraes is reinterpreting, or refocusing, the history of Portuguese exploration and empire in Asia; the da Gama-Zogioby family saga takes its meaning in part through this recasting of the story of Portuguese presence in India. Not unlike a parody, the novel toys with The Lusíades. In the latter, the great epic of Portugal, Vasco da Gama's voyage to India and the subsequent beginning of European colonization of the Far East is celebrated in conjunction with the battle against Moorish reign in the Iberian Peninsula and throughout the sea routes of world. But all for pepper, Moraes mockingly adds. In The Moor's Last Sigh, a mock epic and a postcolonial rewriting of the Portuguese founder myth, Moraes, the Indian of Portuguese, Jewish, Islamic heritage, journeys in a westerly direction, this time to the Iberian Peninsula, and in the course of his story East and West are shuffled around and the notion of History treated mischievously. In Moraes's cartography, Bombay becomes the point of many intersections:
[It] was central, had been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of all Indian cities. In Bombay all Indias met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins. Everything north of Bombay was North India, everything south of it was the South. To the east lay India's East and to the west, the world's West. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once. (350)
Rushdie as an orientalist of a different order views the world from a vantage point whose center is neither Lisbon nor London nor Paris, but Bombay; furthermore, it is not so much History as a unified, definitive series of events and personnages that interests him, but rather the world as an "ocean of stories" whose historians are Shahrazad-like raconteurs, the oriental storyteller par excellence. The novel, then, is less about a decentering in the spirit of a narrowly conceived critique from the margins, but rather, about an assertion of the potential of the imagination, of the capacity of stories, to discern and envision realities.
- The historical reinterpretations and inversions and the fantastic aspects of Moraes's narration are part of an approach of "unnaturalism," which, he claims, is the "only real ism of these back-to-front and jabberwocky days" (5). This approach, which we can call the method of postmodern myth and fantasy, responds to at least three aspects of the late twentieth-century world: first, a sense of hopelessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable problems; second, the pressure of the masses and fundamentalist ideologies that sway them; and third, the struggle to safeguard for language its poetic potential. The imaginative and the fantastic do not do away with concepts like reality and history, but perhaps what Rushdie suggests is that history and reality are what one must reconcile oneself with when one has no other stories to imagine and to tell. One "tumble[s] toward history" when the high-wire act of the imagination no longer moves precariously forward into its unknown: at any moment Shahrazad may fall from the realm of intrigue and make-believe and become the king's next victim. To imagine and to make stories is a means to survive.
- Legends, such as those drawn from the history of the Moorish rule in Iberian peninsula, provide stories against which Moraes's narrative plays and juxtaposes itself. Legends surrounding the life of Rodrigo D'az, or El Cid -- the Castilian military leader and national hero whose popular name derives from Spanish Arabic as-sid, "lord" (see "The Cid," Britannica Online) -- and his wife, Ximena, become a comfort to the cancer-stricken Isabella Ximena da Gama. On her deathbed she asks her husband, Camoens (a variant Camões, author of the Portuguese epic writer), to remember "the story of El Cid Campeador in Spain" (52). According to one of the legends, after the Cid is mortally wounded in battle, he asks his wife Ximena to strap his dead body to a horse and then send it into battle so as to convince the enemy that he is still alive. Isabella, who is engaged in a bitter family quarrel with her sister-in-law Carmen Lobo, suggests something similar: "Then tie my body to a bloody rickshaw or whatever damn mode of transport you can find, camel-cart, donkey-cart bullock-cart bike. . . . Because the enemy is close and in this sad story Ximena is the Cid" (51-52). Rushdie uses this pastiche of legend to underscore, in a mock epic fashion, the heated conflict between the two branches of the family; he alters the legend to suit his purposes, one of which is to underscore the recurrent nature of story. Underlying this legend of El Cid is, of course, an episode in The Odyssey.
- The novel's principal narrative interplay between the da Gama-Zogioby family history, contemporary events in postcolonial India, and the history and legends of the Reconquista focuses on the themes of ethnic and religious intolerance, internecine war, alienation and exile. Myth as a universal, although it is always open to new interpretations and new mythmaking, insists that there is something perennial in the human condition. To the questions, what is this human condition and what does it mean to be civilized, Moraes's response is similar to that of Marlow's in Heart of Darkness: "Civilization is the sleight of hand that conceals our natures from ourselves" (365). Technology changes rapidly; human beings much less so. From the fire in the spice fields, with its crucifixions and inquisitorial burnings, to personal betrayals, to the horrors of the Bombay underworld, all along his story Moraes has puzzled over, and been the victim of, the irrational aspects of human nature, and all along the violent eruptions within the da Gama-Zogoiby family story have been running in parallel with the larger eruptions within twentieth-century Indian colonial history stretching from the country's independence to partition, persistent religious feuds, and the Emergency.
- In the final sections of the novel, fundamentalist feuding reaches a climax with the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque and the series of bombings that it sparks in Bombay.  There is not much sense in it all, Moraes points out; it was a Muslim worshipper at the Babri mosque who first claimed to see a vision of Lord Ram, and Muslim and Hindu have shared the site in the past: "what could be a finer image of religious tolerance and plurality than that?" he inquires (363). But the violence of the moment overwhelms everyone, including Moraes: "Hindu and Muslim, knife and pistol, killing, burning, looting, and raising into the smoky air their clenched and bloody fists. Both their houses are damned by their deeds," he concludes; "both sides sacrifice the right to any shred of virtue; they are each other's plagues" (365). In a grand sweep of allusion and invented narrative parallelism the novel links religious intolerance, artistic freedom, the fatwa against Rushdie, the Reconquista and Zionism; thus, when Aurora's paintings are stolen from the Zogoiby Bequest -- an allusion to the theft and destruction of images in India's temples and monuments -- Raman Fielding, the family's most dangerous enemy, comments approvingly: "When such alien artifacts disappear from India's holy soil, let no man mourn . . . . If the new nation is to be born, there is much invader-history that may have to be erased" (364). Just as the Muslims and Jews were banished from Catholic Spain, so too, according to the fundamentalist argument, the Portuguese-Muslim-Jewish heritage that the da Gama-Zogioby family line represents must be purged from Indian society.
- Moraes dips his own hands in the communal blood when he takes revenge on Fielding, pummeling him to death with frog-shaped telephone; the Moor likens his murder of Fielding to Lord Ram slaying Ravan and Achilles slaying Hector. In a mock-epic stylistic flourish, he notes: "After Ram killed Ravan he chivalrously arranged a lavish funeral for his fallen foe. Achilles, much the less gallant of these high heroes, tied Hector's corpse to his 'chariot-tail' and dragged him thrice round dead Patroculus's grave. . . . not living in heroic times, I neither honoured nor desecrated my victim's body. . ." (368). Having no choice but to flee, Moraes does so with much historical and legendary allegory:
Just as the fanatical "Catholic Kings" has besieged Granada and awaited the Alhambra's fall, so now barbarism was standing at our gates. O Bombay! . . . Star of the East with her face to the West! Like Granada . . . you were the glory of your time. But a darker time came upon you, and just as Boabdil, the last Nasrid Sultan, was too weak to defend his great treasure, so we, too, were proved wanting. For the barbarians were no only at our gates but within our skins. We were our own wooden horses . . . . We were both the bombers and the bombs . . . . And now can only weep, at the last, for what we were too enfeebled, too corrupt . . . to defend. (372-373)
In the final lines of this passage, Rushdie rewrites the legendary words of Ayxa to Boabdil upon the flight from Granada: "Well may you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man" (80). Although the tone of this passage attempts to signal a serious rather than a mocking or parodic commentary, even the patient, careful reader must wonder -- after so much inversion, mixing of messages, and linguistic shenanigans -- whether Rushdie can possibly make a moral statement at this point in the narrative. The author's recasting, five-hundred years later, of an episode of the Boabdil legend into a commentary on fundamentalist violence in India and around the world does attempt to convey one. Identity, conceived within a narrow framework, can only be destructive; essentialist identity is dead, although the blood it sheds continues to flow in a number of places around the world.
- What does Rushdie attempt to accomplish in all these allusions to and links with legends and historical narratives? First, he attacks religious fundamentalism. In the expulsion of Arabs and Jews, the Reconquista represents a victory of the one over the many; Aurora's art and Moraes's narrative seek a reversal, a re-vision of cultural plurality. They imagine a future that develops from an aspect of the past that has been occluded or erased. Second, Rushdie makes a point that widens to include a commentary on civilization: today's fundamentalist extremism is nothing new; ethnic and religious intolerance and extremism have long been a part of the human condition. The feud within the da Gama-Zogoiby family -- and the myths that support it and vein through it -- is a metaphor for violence and eruptions within human history; the history of the Reconquista and legends surrounding it illustrate that "fundamentalism" is neither Islamic by nature, nor is it a particularly new phenomenon. Thus, the link, through history and legend, between Hindu and Moslem fundamentalism today and Christian fundamentalism five-hundred years ago, is a means to broaden Rushdie's commentary and to oppose a persistent Orientalism in which Western analysts of contemporary events in the Middle East and Asia sometimes indulge. Third, through setting the Indian narratives of the novel in interplay with the history and legend of the Reconquista, Rushdie re-orientalizes their interpretations and their possible meanings. He looks at the Reconquista from the Arabic and Jewish perspective, somewhat as Lebanese French writer Amin Maalouf does in Les croisades vues par les Arabes and Leo Africanus. From the Western perspective, the Reconquista is the recovery of occupied Christian territory; from the Eastern perspective, it is a story of loss and exile. Rushdie writes stories of civilization; he orientalizes the history of the world in the sense that he reveals that Western civilization has always drawn from Eastern civilization. Fourth, with an oriental story-telling flair, Rushdie turns Bombay into a tout-monde. Shahrazad has her Baghdad, Moraes has his. Moraes the storyteller inhabits a kind of Xanadu, an imaginative vision.
- Whereas belated orientalists of the nineteenth century turned to the East to fill an absence, to engage their desire for an otherness, Rushdie turns to the Orient as a source of self-invention and, for an author whose audience is primarily Westerners, as an inspiration for an alternative vision of the world. With its allusions, allegory, and mythic structures, his Orient consumes, holds all the world in its extensions and narrative peregrinations; the East does not so much stand in contrast to the West, but rather, it is a tout-monde, a kind of gargantuan, protean imagination that swallows all and remakes all. The Orient as symbol is that magical power of the imagination that surpasses the limits of the quotidian and of history as a rational narrative. The Orient has already conceived other realities; the true realists, it asserts, are the visionaries.
- To elaborate Rushdie's imaginative, orientalizing project, we need to look at Aurora's art and analyze what it represents; this category of the novel's imaginary material I refer to as "Xanadu, or the artist's dreamlike vision." Aurora is an artist of life, not merely an artist for art's sake; it is appropriate to consider her acts as symbolically part of her art, just as her art is itself a symbolic act. Her Ganpati dance is at once a rebellious mock gesture and an appropriation of the sacred:
. . . sky-high above crowds and gods, year after year -- for forty-one years in all -- fearless upon precipitous ramparts of our Malabar Hill bungalow, which in a spirit of ironic mischief she had insisted on naming Elephanta, there twirled the almost-divine figure of our very own Aurora Bombayalis, plumed in a series of dazzle-hued mirrorwork outfits, in finery even the festival sky with its hanging gardens of powdered colour. Her white hair flying out around her in long loose exclamations (O prophetically premature white hair of my ancestors!) . . . speaking incomprehensible volumes with her hands, the great painter danced her defiance, she danced her contempt for the perversity of humankind . . . . (123-124)
Aurora Bombayalis -- like the inspired poet of "flashing eyes" and "floating hair" in the third stanza of "Kubla Khan" -- becomes semi-divine, an aurora borealis, the goddess of the dawn. And just as in Coleridge's poem, whose figure in reverie seeks to synthesize antinomies, Aurora's dance poses a question that goes to the center of the novel's project and its vision of the world: which is greater, "human perversity" or "human heroism"? (124). "Whatever today's excess, tomorrow's will exceed-o it," Aurora exclaims (124). So it would seem that perversity finally is going to win. The underlying mythic narratives of the novel concerns this battle between evil and good, between a tyranny that enforces a narrowing of human vision and a struggle to keep it from firmly closing.
- Aurora, the artist, who would seem to personify Rushdie's convictions, gives expression to her own vision through a mixture of strategies: silent refusals, defiant acts, imaginative interventions, and a fantastic visionary art. Her acts, no less than her art, are symbolic. Upon learning that her husband has promised his mother, Flory, to raise a first child according to the strictures of Jewish religious doctrine, she refuses to have sexual relations with him and thus to bear a child. Similarly, although she becomes a heroine of the Indian nationalist movement, she defies the Hindu fundamentalists who try to assimilate her rebellious acts to their own narrow purposes. An urban pirate flying her Jolly Roger over Elephanta Island, she is a fictional flowering of the artist in combat. "In Bombay you live crushed in this crazy crowd . . . your own story has to shove its way through the throngs," Moraes writes, commenting on Aurora's depiction of a swarming humanity in her painting, "The Last Supper." Here, as elsewhere, there is an allegorical element at play, for Rushdie is also commenting on his life and writing.
- Aurora's accidental maiming then healing of a sailor on strike is an illustration of her capacity to redeem life through art. After accidentally backing her car over the leg of the sailor, Aurora not only makes retribution, but heals and transforms the wounded man. "She brought him home and changed his life," Moraes explains. "She had diminished him, subtracted a leg and therefore his future in the navy; and now she sought fiercely to enlarge him again, providing him with a new uniform, a new job, a new leg, a new identity and a grumpy parrot to go with it all" (135). The wounded sailor metamorphoses into Lambajan Chandiwala, or Long John Silver, the faithful guardian of Aurora's home, Elephanta -- in the manner of his patron Hindu god, Ganesha -- and a "teller of fabulous elephant-tales," which he in turn gives back to her as an expression of his gratitude at not being abandoned to the fate of a cripple in India. Here we see Rushdie's belief in the imagination to heal and to open new possibilities of living. We also see his humor, itself a necessary capacity in the face of misfortune and human perversity.
- Aurora's paintings illustrate related ideas; they are symbolic vehicles through which the artist struggles against a reduction of human vision, and in this respect they have a poetic and salutary function. Just as Aurora heals the poor sailor whom she has maimed, imaginatively opening up another life for him to explore, so too her paintings envision possibilities of the real; they enlarge the real by disclosing what is hidden or concealed within it. Moraes uses various terms to describe her mythopoeic vision: "Aurorised [rather than Authorised] version of history," "Mooristan," and "Palimpstine," to mention just a few of his Joycean neologisms (225-27). In the painting entitled "Last Supper," Aurora mixes Christian and Indian religious imagery, at once mourning the loss of her mother and creating an allegory of contemporary India. Other paintings, particularly the "Moor series" treat related themes of loss and recovery by way of a mythopoeic vision. Aurora reimagines the legend of the fifteenth-century fall of Alhambra and of Boabdil's, Mohammed XI's, departure from Granada; this legend, told and embellished by the American fabulist Washington Irving in Tales of Alhambra, is then overlaid with elements of contemporary India and her own mother-son relationship with Moraes. Her paintings "were attempts to create a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation; she was using Arab Spain to re-imagine India," Moraes remarks (227).
- The various terms and neologisms that he uses to define Aurora's art, such as "interweaving," "hybridity" "Mooristan," and "palimpsest-art," convey a basic concept: an aesthetic of composite elements and a radical typology where something new emerges out of something old. Moraes calls Aurora's paintings a "Bombay remix of the last of the Nasrids [the last Moorish dynasty in fifteenth-century Spain]," in which the Alhambra is placed on Malabar Hill in southern India (225). (Myth and wordplay go hand and hand in Rushdie's fiction, for the word "Malabar," we should note, is an anagram of "Alhambra.") Aurora's paintings are fabulist, mythopoeic. In them the dividing line between land and water becomes a place of transformation where worlds collide and metamorphose; the paintings' backgrounds show new social orders in evolution. She "seek[s] to paint a golden age," Moraes explains. "Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains crowded into her paint[ings] . . . , and the Sultan himself was represented less and less naturalistically, appearing more and more often as a masked, particoloured harlequin, a patchwork quilt of a man; or, as his old skin dropped from him chrysalis-fashion, standing revealed as a glorious butterfly, whose wings were a miraculous composite of all the colours in the world" (227).
- But what can it mean, in the narrator's words, to "us[e] Arab Spain to re-imagine India"? Can one cross borders so easily? Can the past of one society inform another society distant from it geographically and chronologically? For Rushdie, it is partly a question of history--Moorish Spain and the coastal cities of the Indian Ocean do share a multiculturalism--, but it is more a question of myth. Rushdie wants to penetrate what Paul Ricoeur calls the "mytho-poetic nucleus of a society" (482-83). Rushdie seeks to valorize this mytho-poetic nucleus of Indian society -- and that of our global society at the end of the twentieth century -- and to invoke its possibilities of human development and enrichment. Aurora's paintings and Rushdie's novel are symbolic acts that resemble the invocations of the visionary poet in Coleridge's "Kubla Khan." By way of his typological reading of history and his mythopoeic textualization of twentieth-century India and the contemporary world, Rushdie makes the case for a "plural, hybrid nation" and a new human order. 
- This is not to say that the novel is flaccidly utopist. A tale told against a backdrop of genocide, civil wars, and the rise of religious fundamentalisms, violence is everywhere to be found. In a fit of black humor, Aurora exclaims in her idiosyncratic English: "Human perversity is greater than human heroism . . . or cowardice . . . or art"; "[w]hatever today's excess, tomorrow's will exceed-o it" (124). From the start, Moraes informs us that his family history will be indeed a violent one, but he transforms the violence into stories, appropriating it and taming it as does his oriental counterpart, Shahrazad, in her own stories invented against violence and tyranny. The Moor's Last Sigh is a modern Arabian Nights; the story-telling, mythmaking process itself becomes the novel's ultimate message and statement. Rushdie dips into the treasure chest of myth and legend and uses them to open an imaginary space that contemporary events would seem to bar.
- "Nothing is [what it is] purely," the Presocratic philosopher Anaxagoras claims (in Curd, 59). Rushdie's novel makes a similar claim, and raises a similar question. What is identity? Toward what kind of cultural and social organization must the world today evolve? The novel convincingly portrays the profusion of the many, i.e., cultural plurality, but at the same time, it must convey some standard of acceptable human behavior. In a world of cultural relativity, there still need to be values that apply across cultures. So Rushdie draws on myths and legends from around the world to illustrate a certain commonalty in the human predicament and to construct an implied set of values, thus reconciling the notions of cultural relativity and universal human rights and values. As a some reviewers have suggested, the novel has its contradictions, one of which, in my view, is that its underlying message can be interpreted as just the opposite of what it appears: not as a plea for the victory of the many over the one, but as a plea for the one that believes in the many, that is, for human values that do not exclude or do violence to cultural otherness. One of the surprises of this novel, then, is that its message is one of conservation, just as much as it is one of rebellion. But isn't this the very nature of myth, to conserve as well as to transform, to draw something new out of something old? Using myth and legend to carry its message forward, The Moor's Last Sigh takes a stand against static notions of identity and exclusion based on essentialism, and stands up for the openness of societies and open-endedness of human stories. Drawing on ancient as well as modern stories from East and West, it is book that believes in the power of myth and the imagination to liberate and to envision a better world.
The first epitaph, words attributed to Anaximander (in Curd, 12), constitute the first fragment of Western philosophy. Here I take the liberty to read them in my own way, linking them with the capacity of myth to change its form and to generate new meaning for each generation of humankind.
The second quotation is from an interview with Italian writer Pietro Citati about his recently published book on myth, La Lumière de la nuit. The original reads: "Les mythes ne meurent pas; ils dorment. Quand il se réveillent, ils voyagent, passant d'un âge à un autre, franchissent les mers et les continents, campent dans les pensées les plus secrètes des hommes" (Rondeau 78; translation mine). Back
See, for example, Norman Rush, "Doomed in Bombay," in The New York Book Review. Back
This aspect of narrative allows Rushdie to balance the "hurt" and "hope" of history. Back
The principle of myth, Coupe states, is radical typology, wherein a "type" (i.e., a person or event from which a narrative develops) is realised and modified by an "anti-type," which is not its opposite but rather its fulfilment and modification in some way (108). Back
In Anatomy of Criticism, Frye views all narrative as a cycle of displacement of myth through the narrative modes of romance, tragedy, comedy, and irony, with the cycle then tending to return to the mode of myth. Twentieth-century Western literature, a literature primarily in the ironic mode, contains many illustrations of this tendency of irony to move back toward myth. Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Joyce's Ulysses, and Eliot's "The Waste Land" are a few significant examples (see Frye 33-34). Back
We find another version of Shahrazad in John Barth's Chimera. Back
Here is a brief summary of the events to which the novel refers and draws narrative parallels:
The year 1993 began amid the turmoil generated by the destruction on Dec. 6, 1992, of the medieval mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, by Hindu militants, who believed the building was originally an ancient Hindu temple marking the birthplace of the god Rama. The ensuing bloody clashes between Hindus and Muslims throughout the nation claimed at least 2,000 lives within a few weeks, most of them Muslims. In Bombay riots resulted in the death of more than 600 Muslims, well over 550 alone during nine days within the first two weeks of January. Hundreds of Muslims were arrested in Ayodhya as they attempted to conduct prayers at the site of the destroyed mosque. On March 12 a series of bomb explosions in Bombay linked to a Muslim criminal element killed over 200, wounded more than 1,200, and badly damaged the headquarters of the Shiv Sena, the most powerful and radical Hindu organization in the city.
See "Book of the Year (1994): Religion: Hinduism," in Britannica Online. Back
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao had promised the construction of both a temple and a mosque in Ayodhya outside the disputed area. On February 25, in defiance of a government ban, the fundamentalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attempted to hold a rally in New Delhi. Anticipating the worst, the government arrested or detained over 60,000 Hindus and sealed off New Delhi with barricades. Scuffles with the police led to the arrest of nearly 5,000, including 110 BJP members of Parliament.
Caribbean poet, novelist, and intellectual Édouard Glissant calls this new order of relation the "chaos-monde" and the "tout-monde." This latter term denotes the presence of entire world within each individual's limited place and consciousness (see Introduction à une Poétique du Diversand Tout-Monde). Back
- Barth, John. Chimera. New York: Random House, 1972.
- "Book of the Year (1994): Religion: Hinduism." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=boy/94/H02340.html.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. Seven Nights. Trans. Eliot Weinbeger. New York: New Directions, 1984.
- Burke, Kenneth. "'Kubla Khan,' Proto-Surrealist Poem." Language as Symbolic Act: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: U of California P, 1966.
- Bowles, Paul. Let It Come Down. 1952; Santa Rosa CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1990.
- "The Cid." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/128/36.html.
- Citati, Pietro. La Lumière de la nuit: Les grands mythes dans l'histoire du monde. Trans. Prigitte Pérol and Tristan Macé. Paris: Gallimard, 1999.
- "Cochin." Britannica Online, 18 February 1998, "http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/134/7.html.
- Coupe, Laurence. Myth. London: Routledge, 1997.
- Cupitt, Don. The World to Come. London: SCM Press, 1982.
- Curd, Patricia, ed. A Presocratics Reader. Trans. Richarad D. McKirahan, Jr. Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett, 1995.
- Frye, Northrup. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1957.
- "Ganapatya." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/226/14.html.
- "Ganesha." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/226/26.html.
- Glissant, Édouard. Introduction à une Poétique du Divers. Paris: Gallimard, 1996.
- ---. Tout-Monde. Paris: Gallimard, 1993.
- "Kublai Khan." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/330/26.html.
- Munz, Peter. What the Golden Bough Breaks: Structuralism or Typology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973.
- Riceoeur, Paul. "Poetry and Possibility." A Ricoeur Reader: Reflection and Imagination. Ed. Mario J. Valdés. New York: Harvester, 1991. 449-62.
- Rondeau, Daniel. "Citati, premier rayon." L'Express 14 Jan. 1999: 78.
- Rush, Norman. "Doomed in Bombay," rev. of The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie. The New York Times Book Review, 14 Jan. 1996: 7.
- Rushdie, Salman. The Moor's Last Sigh. London: Vintage, 1984.
- "Sarasvati." Britannica Online, 05 March 1998, http://www.eb.com:180/cgi-bin/g?DocF=micro/526/97.html.
- Warner, Marina. Managing Monsters: Six Myhs of Our Time. London: Vintage, 1994.