Salman Rushdie Surrenders
I have in mind a plot for a satirical tale on the subject of literary courage. It goes like this:
A young and prominent Asian-born English writer with fashionably left-wing views, the son of a Muslim family and a consistent defender of third-world causes, publishes a novel containing passages that spoof the origins of Islam. There is nothing particularly scurrilous about them, just the suggestion that Muhammad was human like the rest of us and similarly attracted to money, power, and sex. The Muslim world, however, reacts to such blasphemy with an unanticipated fury that starts with book burnings and ends with a death sentence passed on our author by the head of an oil-rich, fundamentalist Islamic state. So great is deemed to be the danger to his life that he is forced to go underground and live in hiding.
Meanwhile, the international literary community rallies around him. It sends him fervent letters of support, issues statements defending his right to free speech, and petitions democratic governments to act against the Muslim leader who has put a price on his head. The world’s statesmen ignore these appeals, and meet with withering scorn for their cowardly surrender to economic and political interests. The affair makes headlines; our author is compared to Socrates, to Galileo; like them, he is viewed as a brave martyr in the age-old struggle against tyranny.
In his various hiding places, isolated from society and friends, our author has plenty of time to write, and the results are eagerly looked forward to. What literary riposte will he deliver to his persecutors, what irrefragable proof of the truth that the pen is mightier than the sword? Several years go by and he publishes a children’s book, a slim parable about a good kingdom that makes stories and an evil kingdom that wars against them. And still the world waits.
And then it comes: the long-awaited novel. It is set in our author’s native land, and it tells the story of the loves and hates of a single fierce-willed family, and of the modernization of a vast, sprawling, harmoniously diverse society whose traditional, easygoing acceptance of difference is subverted by the twin forces of religious nationalism and capitalist greed. Panoramic and ambitious, the book might seem inspired by our author’s experience—were it not for a curious fact. Or rather, three facts: there is not a Muslim character of importance in it; the forces of religious nationalism are represented by a hypocritical and sinister Hindu politician; and those of rapacious capitalism, by a power-mad Jew.
Our author’s new novel is well-received by the reviewers, who praise its rich imagination. None of the writers and intellectuals who formerly championed him questions the casting of its characters. There are no protests by Jews, and in India nothing worse than a ban on the novel’s importation. The successors of the Islamic head of state, who by now has died, have apparently lost interest in our author’s case. Lionized as a literary hero, he emerges from hiding and resumes his old life.
It is a tale, of course, that I will never write, for (although he is unlikely to write it, either) it is the property of Salman Rushdie, whose The Satanic Verses brought down on him the wrath of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988.
Rushdie’s new novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh,1 is too intricate and thickly populated to be easily summarized; but its two villains, locked in a titanic combat, are indeed a cynical Hindu demagogue and a ruthless Indian-Jewish businessman and crime boss. Also central to the story are the Jew’s wife, a leading Indian painter and the wealthy heiress of a Christian family descended from the famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and the couple’s only son Moraes, nicknamed “Moor,” who narrates the novel.
As even this abbreviated list of characters indicates, The Moor’s Last Sigh—the opening section of which is set in the southern port town of Cochin, the traditional home of India’s native community of Jews, the Bene Israel—takes place in a cosmopolitan world whose unraveling lies at the novel’s heart. Laced with a heavy dose of the fantastic, like nearly all of Rushdie’s work, the book begins with Aurora da Gama’s childhood in an eccentric aristocratic household and with her rebellious teenage marriage to Abraham Zogoiby, a handsome Jewish clerk twice her age who is employed in the family business. The action then shifts to Bombay, where Aurora launches a successful career as an artist and bohemian socialite and Abraham expands the da Gama spice trade to a wide range of legal and illegal activities. It continues with the raising of the Zogoibys’ children, of whom Moraes, the youngest, is born with a genetic defect that causes him to age at twice the normal rate. It then tells how this sexually precocious child grows up to be the model for a series of his mother’s paintings known as “the Moor pictures”; becomes a political goon in the I employ of Raman Fielding, the Hindu demagogue; and discovers the true enormity of his father’s criminal empire, which is engaged in helping an unnamed Muslim country build an H-bomb. It ends with Aurora’s death, Fielding’s murder by Moraes, the latter’s escape to Spain, his imprisonment in a castle where a stolen painting of his mother’s reveals that she was murdered by his father, his killing of his captor, and his flight.
Although Moraes comes to fear and hate his father, his troubled love for his mother—“a great beauty,” as he describes her, “who was also the most sharp-tongued woman of her generation”—endures. Despite her overweeningness, Aurora is the novel’s one heroic figure, an emblem both of artistic integrity and of that fecund and multifarious India which Fielding and Abraham Zogoiby would destroy. She is also the chronicler of that destruction, a painter of large, Breughelesque canvases of historical and social commentary that literally and figuratively grow darker as she ages.
When she first begins to paint Moraes, Aurora models him as Boabdil, the last Moorish king to rule from the Alhambra in Granada before the Muslim defeat. The “golden age” of medieval Spain, an age of Muslim-Christian-Jewish coexistence, serves her as a visual trope for the old India:
The Alhambra quickly became a not-quite-Alhambra; elements of India’s own red forts, the Mughal palace-fortresses in Delhi and Agra, blended Mughal splendors with the Spanish building’s Moorish grace . . . and the creatures of Aurora’s imagination began to populate it—monsters, elephant-deities, ghosts. . . .
Commenting on this work to her son, Aurora, in the daffy Anglo-Indian speech that is one of the novel’s most entertaining features, remarks:
Call it Mooristan. . . . Place where worlds collide, flow in and out of one another, and washofy away. . . . One universe, one dimension, one country, one dream, bumpo’ing into another, or being under, or on top. Call it Palimpstine. And above it all, in the palace, you.
Yet by the end of The Moor’s Last Sigh, when she returns once more to Moraes after many years of not painting him, this vision has collapsed:
It was in a highly fabulated milieu, a kind of human rag-and-bone yard that took its inspiration from . . . the great slums and chawls of Bombay. Here everything was a collage, the huts made of the city’s unwanted detritus, rusting corrugated iron, bits of cardboard boxes, gnarled lengths of driftwood, the doors of crashed motorcars, the windshield of a forgotten tempo; and the tenements built of poisonous smoke, out of water-taps that had started lethal quarrels . . . out of kerosene suicides, and the unpayable rents collected with extreme violence by gangland Bhaiyyas and Pathans; and the people’s lives, under the pressure that is only felt at the bottom of a heap, had also become composite, as patched-up as their homes, made of pieces of petty thievery, shards of prostitution and fragments of beggary. . . .
And the Moor-figure: alone now, motherless, he sank into immorality, and was shown as a creature of shadows. . . . He appeared to lose, in these last pictures, his previous metaphorical role as a unifier of opposites, a standard-bearer of pluralism, ceasing to stand as a symbol—however approximate—of the new nation, and being transformed, instead, into a semi-allegorical figure of decay.
That half of the responsibility for this decay should be semi-allegorically incarnated in The Moor’s Last Sigh in a Muslim-baiting Hindu demagogue like Fielding is not unnatural; Hindu nationalist politics have done their share in turning Indian society against itself. But that the other plenipotentiary of what the narrator calls “the new god-and-mammon India” should be a Jewish mafioso of satanically colossal proportions, a member of an ethnic group that numbers barely a tenth of a tenth of a tenth of 1 percent of India’s population, would seem to call for an explanation.
Salman Rushdie himself, to be sure, does not think so. He has been quoted as saying that since there are Jews living in India, there is nothing strange about one turning up in his novel—and oddly enough, the critics seem to agree with him. Of the dozen or so reviews that I have read of The Moor’s Last Sigh, nearly all laudatory, only two have perceived a problem in Abraham Zogoiby’s Jewishness, and both have apologized for doing so. Norman Rush, in the New York Times Book Review, thought it “an overreaction on my part” to find
something off-putting about the casting of Abraham Zogoiby, the patriarch, as a kind of Jewish Professor Moriarty of subcontinental crime, a controller of Muslim gangs, a drug kingpin, a plotter involved in creating the Islamic bomb, a procurer of little girls.
And in a rare negative review of the book, in Commonweal, Sara Mait-land confessed to its being “my own fault” that “I could not suppress a curiosity as to whether Jews would find themselves gravely offended” by the character of Zogoiby.
And yet the apologies are out of order, and not only because as a writer Rushdie is too much in love. with the symbolic potential in words and things for anything or anyone simply to “turn up” in his work. They are also unnecessary because, while there may be nothing very Jewish about Abraham Zogoiby (who severs all connections with the Bene Israel community after his marriage), Rushdie never stops playing on his ancestry. At various points in the novel Zogoiby is compared to Moses, to a scion of Shy-locks, to Abraham sacrificing his son; but most systematically and significantly, he is compared to the Jewish God Himself.
I cite three of these passages, whose tone increases in intensity as the book nears its end:
Did you ever see your father’s cock, your mother’s cunt? Yes or no, doesn’t matter, the point is these are mythical locations, surrounded by taboo, put off thy shoes for it is holy ground, as the Voice said on Mount Sinai, and if Abraham Zogoiby was playing the part of Moses, then Aurora my mother sure as eggs was the Burning Bush. Handing down commandments, pillar of fire, I am that I am . . . yes, indeed, she had made a study of the Old Testament god.
Recalcitrant, unregenerate, paramount: The Over World’s cackling overlord in his hanging garden in the sky, rich beyond rich men’s richest dreams, Abraham Zogoiby at eighty-four reached for immortality. . . .
In May 1991 . . . Abraham Zogoiby . . . chose . . . to brief me on the existence of the secret H-bomb project. . . Abraham became stone. He was ice, and flame. He was God in Paradise and I, his greatest creation, had just put on the forbidden fig-leaf of shame. “I am a business person,” he said. “What there is to do, I do.” YHWH. I am that I am . . . this shadow-Jehovah, this anti-Almighty, this black hole in the sky, my Daddyji. . . .
It is also part of the symbolic structure of The Moor’s Last Sigh that its narrator compares his own self to a God-banished fugitive from Paradise—a metaphor that first occurs early in the novel where Moraes Zogoiby speaks of being “a modern Lucifer . . . hurled from that fabulous garden and plunged toward Pandaemonium.” And it is already here, too, that the reader is reminded of The Satanic Verses. That novel begins with the unlikely survival of two men blasted out of a bombed airplane. These two semi-realistically drawn characters are, in fact, a fallen “angel” and “devil”; they are also the symbolic halves of a split self, of an original unity “condemned to [an] endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall.”
Indeed, an expulsion from a primal harmony, fracturing a peaceful polymorphousness, occurs in each of Rushdie’s novels. We find it in the book that first made his reputation, Midnight’s Children (1980), which tells of 582 Indian citizens born on the night of the country’s declaration of independence, all magically endowed with special powers and telepathically interconnected, and of the dissolution of this link in enmity and grief. And we find it in his next book, Shame (1983), whose central character is thrust out of a womblike home in which he is raised by three sisters so symbiotic that he never knows which of them is his real mother.
As The Moor’s Last Sigh peaks in an apocalypse of flames in an ethnically and religiously warring Bombay, Rushdie’s previous novels likewise climax in conflagrations. Toward the end of Midnights Children this takes the form of the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war; on the last page of Shame, of a giant explosion, the product of religious and civil strife in a country like Pakistan, which spreads in a “fireball of . . . burning, rolling outward to the horizon like the sea”; in the last part of The Satanic Verses, of bloody riots and torchings in the immigrant Asian ghettos of London.
And again like The Moor’s Last Sigh, each of these books is peopled by autocrats who help set such events in motion. In Midnight’s Children and Shame, they are politicians. But in the historical sections of The Satanic Verses, a novel that shuttles between contemporary London and Muhammad’s Mecca, the tyranny is a religious idea: that of an exclusivist monotheism imposed on a pagan society by a God “Who reigned by terror, insisting upon the unqualified submission of even [His] closest associates, packing off all dissidents to [His] blazing Siberias, the gulag-infernos of Hell. . . .” There are forces fighting this deity, headed by a Meccan businessman who “meets secretly with the [city’s] gang-leaders and organizes them all.” But against them is Mahound (Muhammad) with “his message: one one one.” And the victorious Muhammad is very much a businessman himself, “and a damned successful one at that . . . who handed down the management decisions of this highly corporate, noncorporeal God.”
If this sounds curiously like The Moor’s Last Sigh, that is because the latter is in many ways a thematic sequel to The Satanic Verses. Both are about the perils of monism—political, economic, theological, and psychological (Rushdie sees these spheres as interlocking)—and about the ways in which puritanical repression in its name leads to the return of the repressed, breakaway splinters of society and self that war on their hosts and on each other. At such times, as Moraes Zogoiby says, it is “not the civil social norm for which men yearn [but] permission openly to become our secret selves.” Or in the words of the narrator of Shame:
This opposition—the epicure against the puritan—is . . . the true dialectic of history . . . Virtue versus vice, ascetic versus bawd, God against the Devil: that’s the game.
In this game, needless to say, Rushdie is on the Devil’s side. True, in The Satanic Verses he attempts to preserve, like a fair-minded parent, a semblance of authorial neutrality. Yet his favoritism is belied by many passages in the novel that make evident his identification with the “devilish” Saladin Chamcha, a skeptical-minded, urbane Anglophile committed to “the pursuit of what is noble without recourse to that old crutch, God.” At times Rushdie seems to feel about this “crutch” a bit like the ancient Gnostics, to whom the deity of the Hebrew Bible was real but a usurper, a minor divinity who cunningly fobbed off the myth of his uniqueness on a gullible mankind. Ultimately, though, Rushdie’s affinities lie closer to home, with that European critique of religion that begins in the Enlightenment and views the zealotry of the monotheistic faiths and their ideological offshoots as the root evil of our civilization—and the Jews as the sowers of its seed.
Presumably, the author who writes in Shame that Pakistan was “until Khomeini, one of the only two theocracies on earth (Israel being the other one)” would not quarrel with the statement of Edward Gibbon in the 18th century that the Jews were the only people who had “refused to join in the common intercourse of mankind . . . or [in] the religious harmony of the ancient world,” in which “the most different and even hostile nations embraced, or at least respected, each other’s superstitions”; just as he would probably agree with Voltaire that the worst excesses of Christianity and Islam stemmed from the “absurd and barbarous” Pentateuch. Not by chance does this passage in Shame end with the battle cry of the French Revolution:
Autocratic regimes find it useful to espouse the rhetoric of faith. . . . religions shore up dictators. . . . And then the dictator falls and it is discovered that he has brought God down with him. . . . This leaves only two options: disintegration or a new dictatorship . . . no, there is a third . . . the substitution of a new myth for the old one. Here are three such myths, all available from stock at short notice: liberty; equality, fraternity. I recommend them highly.
There is, thus, within the context of Rushdie’s work, a logic in the Jewishness of Abraham Zogoiby; a logic in his name, too, since Abraham, the original Jew and the original monotheist, is in Islamic tradition also the first Muslim. And it is also logical that as between Zogoiby and Raman Fielding, Zogoiby is the greater monster. Fielding is a Hindu, a representative of the world’s last great polytheistic culture who corruptly elevates the god Ram to the status of a deity demanding absolute allegiance; Zogoiby is of the race of the corrupter.
But the worst thing about The Moor’s Last Sigh is not its attitude toward Judaism, without which the demographically improbable Jewishness of Zogoiby makes no sense. After all, one can in theory be perfectly fair-minded about Jews while considering Judaism a historical disaster; and even though, from a literary point of view, Rushdie has badly miscalculated in seeking to load so much symbolic freight onto so far-fetched a figure, he has not necessarily written an anti-Semitic novel.
No, the worst thing about The Moor’s Last Sigh is its cowardice. Had Rushdie’s personal history been different, had there been no violent reaction to The Satanic Verses, no fatwa declaring his life forfeit, his new novel would still combine flashes of brilliance with a good deal of less brilliant flashiness. It would be, however, less of a surrender.
But the fatwa was issued and those clamoring for Rushdie’s blood were not monotheists in the abstract; they were Muslim fundamentalists coming from a specific part of the world, where they have cowed Muslim society into intellectual submission even as it whispers that they do not represent it. Can it be an accident that, of the 27 statements of support by fellow writers published in The Rushdie Letters, a volume issued in 1993 by the International Committee for the Defense of Salman Rushdie and his publishers, only one is from a fellow Muslim? And while but four are signed by Jews, Salman Rushdie surely knows that had there been—but this is inconceivable—yes, had there been a similar outcry on the part of Jews over The Moor’s Last Sigh, 444 Jewish writers would have rushed to his defense in a twinkling.
Imagine that Rushdie had written a novel about the Muslim intellectuals who failed him, delving into their psyches, exposing their hypocrisies, demanding they come to terms with themselves.
That might have been brave.
Or that he had written about his years in hiding, the fears and doubts, the loneliness of his movable prison.
That too might have taken some courage.
Or that he had written something entirely unconnected to his recent experience, telling us: “I have been through a hard time and frankly, right now, I would rather write of other things.”
But what he has done is to write a novel, obliquely about this experience, that can only warm the cockles of an ayatollah’s heart. For in it “the most evil man alive,” as his son Moraes calls him, is a Jew, and he is building a bomb to bring about the biblically prophesied Armageddon of which the endings of Rushdie’s books are foreshadowings. When Voltaire’s predecessor, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre, wrote his Discourse against Mohammadanism as a disguised attack on Christianity, he had the excuse that no openly anti-Christian book was publishable in the France of his day. Rushdie’s only imaginable excuse for the disguises of The Moor’s Last Sigh is the desire to placate his persecutors.
Perhaps one should have expected no more from a man who, in December 1990, two years after receiving a death sentence, pronounced the Muslim confession of faith in the hope of having that sentence revoked. Yet this is also the man who wrote, in The Rushdie Letters:
. . . The most inspiring and strengthening thing about the many open letters [to me] is that they show precisely the kind of will that is required to hold out against tyranny and vilification and murder: the will to win.
In The Moor’s Last Sigh, he has lost.
1 Pantheon, 435 pp., $25.00.