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Fiction

The Moor's Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie
Pantheon, $25

by Paul Gediman

Among Salman Rushdie's novels, The Satanic Verses is singular not only for what the Ayatollah Khomeini thought of it -- it's the only one that ends on a note of reconciliation with the world. Saladin Chamcha, having been through hell, returns home to make peace with his dying father and to accept the embrace of his lover. No such peaceful ending awaits Moraes Zogoiby, aka "Moor," late of Bombay, the first-person narrator of Rushdie's new novel. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, given the death threats under which Rushdie has been living, that Moor tells his tale from a graveyard.

With a prolixity seemingly unaffected by his asthma, Moor speaks to us from Spain, sitting atop a tombstone within sight of the Alhambra and pursued by a policeman named--like the Islamic holy city--Medina. The tale is a Grand Guignol vindaloo whose most prominent flavorings are the double-helix of Good and Evil, the deformations of the spirit wrought by love withered or withheld, and the beauty and violence of art. Moor's family saga and personal afflictions reflect the tortured history of 20th century India. In this respect, The Moor's Last Sigh is a return, after the third-person narratives of Shame and The Satanic Verses, to the mode Rushdie employed in Midnight's Children, his 1981 Booker Prize-winning novel whose narrator, Saleem Sinai, was born at the precise moment of India's independence from Britain. But Rushdie's Moor, on his last legs (and breath) in Spain, has something more than allegorical satire about India on his feverish mind. He has a plea to make, and his case transcends time and place. This Moor is a champion of miscegenation and cultural stew, a believer in "love as the blending of spirits, as mlange, as the triumph of the impure." He's the prophet of a mongrel ethic of bastards and half-breeds.

Like Saleem, Moor is misshapen. He's six and a half feet tall. But he's no colossus. He has a deformed right hand and, like India, he grows too fast. He spends only four and a half months in the womb. As a child, he has the body of a man but the soul (and judgment) of a boy; at 36, he's as gray and wheezy as a 72-year-old man. Furthermore, his bloodline is as crowded and hybrid as the subcontinent itself. Abraham Zogoiby, his father, is a south-Indian Jew who may or may not be an illegitimate descendant of Boabdil, the last Muslim Sultan of Granada, who was driven from Spain in 1492. His mother, Aurora Zogoiby, ne da Gama, comes from a Christian spice-trading family that proudly claims illegitimate descent from Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese navigator who brought European trade and colonialism to India. Abraham becomes India's most powerful and corrupt businessman, lord of an empire that extends from international banking to prostitution and drug smuggling. Aurora is India's greatest living artist, "Aurora Bombayalis," the charismatic, viper-tongued queen of Bombay's secular elite. Deeply in love as soon as they meet, they never legally marry, refusing the blessings of both church and state (thus rendering their children legally bastards). They rise to dizzying, hyperbolic heights of fame and power, and naturally they fall far and hard -- out of love and down from their semi-divine perches as Rushdie (reprising the governing metaphor of The Satanic Verses) fashions several fun-house reflections of Lucifer's expulsion from Paradise.

Where there's fall and exile, there's bound to be an apocalyptic battle. Here it's fought between Abraham, ensconced atop Bombay's tallest skyscraper, and Raman Fielding, a Hindu political demagogue with an underground army of thugs and toughs. The allegorical lines appear clear: Fielding is the specter of ascendant Hindu fanaticism, the apostle of cultural purity who (despite his passion for cricket) foams that the "true nation is what we must reclaim from beneath the layers of alien empires." Abraham is secular India, the compromised remnant of a once-beautiful ideal of an enlightened state. As Moor, who spends time in the service of both masters, ruefully notes: "corruption was the only force we had that could defeat fanaticism."Neither side of this grand battle can fairly be called Good. Moor finds that Heaven can be hellish and that Hell can seem like Paradise. Rushdie insists on cross-breeding his absolutes, much as he insists on keeping his analogues to archetypal stories untidy: Abraham, for instance, does time as God, as Lucifer, and as his son-sacrificing namesake.

But Rushdie remains faithful to the structure of the archetypes. This is part of what makes him a great writer. If he simply contented himself with the easy pleasures of atheism and mockery, his subversions would amount to their own form of orthodoxy, a stance no less stifling and lifeless than the religious fanaticism he habitually takes to his tragi-comic woodshed. But Rushdie's irreverence co-habits with a genuinely religious (though hardly pious) cast of mind. If religion is the source of fatwahs and bloodlettings and hypocrisy, it's also the source of the planet's greatest stories. And Rushdie, a storyteller above all else, can't resist their allure or deny their power. Accordingly, he appropriates the archetypes and tropes of sacred stories and renders them profane. And of all these tropes, the most insistent is the idea of revelation. Abraham's mother, heartbroken at her son's love for a non-Jew, looks into some magic tiles on a synagogue floor and is met with a profane anti-revelation: "There is no world but the world . . . . There is no God. Hocus-pocus! Mumbo-jumbo!" For his part, Moor longs for nothing so much as revelation. But it's not divinity he wants revealed: it's humanity.
    Must we die before our souls, so long suppressed, can find utterance -- before our secret natures can be known? To whom it may concern, I say No, and again I say, No way. When I was young I used to dream . . . of peeling off my skin plaintain-fashion, of going forth naked into the world, like an anatomy illustration from Encyclopaedia Britannica, all ganglions, ligaments, nervous pathways and veins, set free from the otherwise inescapable jails of colour, race and clan. (In another version of the dream I would be able to peel away more than skin, I would float free of flesh, skin and bones, having become simply an intelligence or a feeling set loose in the world, at play in its fields, like a science-fiction glow which needed no physical form.)
Science-fiction glow? Rushdie has always combined high art with gaudy jags. He utilizes his linguistic brilliance to cover a formidable allusive range that is as likely to evoke Bugs Bunny as Othello, as willing to plunder The Wizard of Oz as Paradise Lost. He is capable of writing passages with the richness and density of Shakespeare and just as likely to plunge, suddenly and with a cackle, into the manic pleasures of a Looney Toon. Among the many dualities that play themselves out in The Moor's Last Sigh is that between good art and bad. The book's title refers to two paintings called The Moor's Last Sigh. One is painted by Aurora, the other by her one-time admirer and subsequent nemesis, Vasco Miranda, who flees to Spain and reappears in the novel's finale transformed into a monstrous amalgam of Salvador Dali and the Wicked Witch of the West. (Beneath both Moors, by the way, in keeping with the theme of revelation, lurk older paintings whose respective climactic unveilings have nothing to do with God and everything to do with Moor's sinful, broken, all too human parents.) Aurora's work is a masterpiece. The last in a series of allegorical paintings that take her son as subject, it's the one that -- as Moor realizes even after his mother has betrayed him terribly in real life -- finally gives him his humanity. Vasco's, on the other hand, a sentimental rendition of Sultan Boabdil's final departure from Granada, is described by Moor as "the fancy-dress, weeping-Arab kitsch of the superficial."

The novel virtually begs a reader to ask whose Moor, Vasco's or Aurora's, best describes Rushdie's. Maybe both. It goes far toward allowing Moor his human revelation, toward granting him the privilege of "peeling off his skin and revealing his secret identity -- the secret, that is, of the identity of all men -- of standing before the war-painted braves to unveil the flayed and naked unity of the flesh." On the other hand, Rushdie bequeaths more than a little of himself to "Vasco with his silly clothes and verbal inventions, with his frivolous disrespect of all shibboleths, conventions, sacred cows, pomposities and gods."

But a mongrel ethic requires a mongrel aesthetic. Rushdie doesn't sell artistic purity, the clear waters of Aristotelian drama or the seamless, sustained psychological portraits of modernism. He throws in the kitchen sink. More than in his previous novels, he has succeeded in wedding his many-tongued method to a passionate phrasing of his vision of a radical, chaotic pluralism in all things. The title refers not just to the two opposing paintings but also to Moor's last breath, which is his story. "A sigh isn't just a sigh. We inhale the world and breathe out meaning. While we can. While we can." Coming from an asthmatic, that's something pretty close to faith. Moor's final, magical exhalation occurs within sight of the Alhambra, symbol of the synthesizing genius of Moorish culture. He sees it as "the palace of interlocking forms and secret wisdom, of pleasure-courts and water-gardens, that monument to a lost possibility that nevertheless has gone on standing, long after its' conquerors have fallen."

In the end, Rushdie really does present the Moor as a prophet, albeit one whose messianism looks to the arrival not of God but of our better selves, to a reconciliation with the fact that we are all, culturally and spiritually speaking, bastards and half-breeds. It's a vision not of a new Jerusalem but of "a New Moor-usalem."

No living writer imagines it with a more profligate passion than Salman Rushdie. n


Griefwork

James Hamilton-Paterson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $22

by James Hynes

James Hamilton-Paterson sports an author biography that recalls a time when it was necessary for a writer to have a wide range of experience ("Mr. Hemingway has been an ambulance driver and a journalist, and he has run with the bulls at Pamplona . . ."). Hamilton-Paterson is fifty-something and British, and his early career was that of the rootless, globe-trotting, politically committed journalist; he now lives part of the year in Tuscany and part of the year on a small island in the Philippines. He has written two books of poetry, a volume of short stories, and several children's books. He has also published several works of non-fiction, including The Greedy War, a sort of documentary novel about American corruption in Vietnam; Playing with Water, a memoir of his life on the aforementioned Philippine island; and The Great Deep, a lovingly researched and beautifully written meditation on the sea and the seashore.

Hamilton-Paterson turned in his late forties to writing novels, as if he had been working up to it in a career with more than its fair share of odd twists and turns. The result of the last ten years is a body of work of consummate skill, remarkable insight, and unfashionable emotional depth. With his first novel, he entered the top rank of British novelists. Gerontius (1989, published in the US in 1991) is based on the life of Sir Edward Elgar; in particular upon a trip he took up the Amazon on a pleasure cruiser in 1923, when he was 66. The mere mention of Elgar makes most American readers roll their eyes at the memory of high school graduation and "Pomp and Circumstance #1," but the book is a marvel, managing to be at once a wonderfully entertaining social comedy and a compassionate but tough-minded study of its surprisingly complex main character. It is also one of the most insightful meditations on the life of the artist since Death in Venice. Like most of his longer fiction, the novel is deceptively plotless; a lighthanded accumulation of largely comic episodes, written with a wonderfully evocative attention to detail. But the novel builds, as do his other books, to a shattering conclusion, as the aging composer meets an old love in the least likely of places, the Amazon port city of Manaus. It's a splendid mimetic effect, paralleling the experience of Elgar himself in the novel: you think you're on a pleasure cruise, with no worries, and you find yourself at the end confronting a challenge to your deepest beliefs about art and its creation.

Hamilton-Paterson's second novel is The Bell-Boy (published in the United States under the ungainly title That Time in Malomba); it too begins lightheartedly and ends seriously. It is a contemporary satire of the business of Eastern religions, particularly the Western fascination with them. A British family, made up of an aging hippie mother and her two cynical children, travel to the fictional holy city of Malomba, so that the mother might engage a psychic healer to heal her bad back. There they are taken in hand, more or less, by Laki, the bell-boy at their seedy hotel, who sees the British family as his ticket out of a life of indentured servitude. It's the least substantial of Hamilton-Paterson's novels, though still very entertaining, and perfectly constructed, with echoes of Waugh and Forster.

Ghosts of Manila is Hamilton-Paterson's fourth novel, but his third to be published in the United States. It is his most ambitious novel yet, a dense, layered, angry, comic work focused on the lives of the desperately poor squatter population in present-day Manila. In some respects it is an ungainly book, lacking the formal perfection of The Bell-Boy, and without the finely drawn characterizations of Gerontius. But reading it is a transforming experience nonetheless. It is one of those rare novels by a Westerner about the Third World in which the point of view of the Western characters is not privileged; indeed, apart from providing a window into Philippine culture for the Western reader, the White characters are not particularly interesting. The Filipino characters, however, are real and tremendously appealing, presented unsentimentally and without a trace of condescension. Particularly fascinating is Inspector Dingca, a Filipino police officer, a fundamentally decent and hardworking cop who is nevertheless tainted by the corruption endemic to Philippine political culture.

Though the book builds to a powerful and even lurid conclusion, as the squatters are driven off their land by corrupt developers, it works best as a series of dramatic and polemical set pieces. The novel's opening is a good example: it is a beautifully written account of a sort of chop shop near Manila's international airport, where the corpses of murdered political prisoners and ordinary criminals are rendered down to their bones, which are then reassembled and sold to medical schools around the world:
    The men wore gauze masks soaked in cheap cologne which, even with lysol and alum crystals crunching underfoot, did little to sweeten the task. They were carried through more by things such as Madonna and gallows humour. Had they been apprentices thirty years younger they would have held maggot races in their lunch breaks. The irony was that now they had their business well established and could afford to deal almost exclusively with fresh bodies in reasonable condition, the end of the trade was in sight. The good old honest materials would no longer do, apparently. Everything nowadays was a substitute, a fake, phony. Plastic was on -- and in the case of dentures, between -- everybody's lips. Plastic was replacing cash. Plastic was replacing bone.
It is about as perfect a metaphor as one could wish for, encompassing both the brutal exploitation and internal corruption of a culture at the mercy of forces outside of its control.

Griefwork, Hamilton-Paterson's third novel, has just been published in the States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. More carefully crafted than Gerontius and Ghosts of Manila, it is a more serious book than The Bell-Boy (though not without a good deal of wit), and much more meditative than any of his other novels. Set immediately after the Second World War, Griefwork is a detailed and lyrical character study of Leon, the brilliant, self-taught curator of the Palm House, a large greenhouse in the botanic gardens of the capital city of an unnamed Northern European country. Having preserved the Palm House against all odds throughout the Nazi occupation of the city, Leon is struggling now to keep the institution from being shut down by the authorities, who would like to develop the land it sits on.

Against this backdrop, Hamilton-Paterson tells in flashback the story of Leon's life, and the loss that defines it. The son of North Sea fishermen, Leon is irrevocably changed when, as a teenager, he spends a summer as the assistant to a visiting naturalist, who recognizes Leon's talents and encourages him to pursue them. More importantly, Leon falls obsessively in love with Cou Min, the young daughter of the scientist's Asian servant. Though he never sees her again after that summer, the loss of her rings down his life like the tolling of a great bell, becoming the background and reason for everything he does thereafter. This obsession of Leon's is complicated by the events of WWII, during which he hides a young gypsy whom he has rescued from a fascist mob and nursed back to health. After the war, he enters into an equivocal relationship with a beautiful Asian princess who wants to hire him away to start a botanical project in her country, and who may or may not be interested in him personally.

All of this comes together in a way that leads to disaster for everyone involved, and is told in a carefully crafted (though sometimes too self-consciously literary) prose . It is the conceit of the novel that Leon is unusually intuitively attuned to the plants of the Palm House, to the point of hearing them speak to him, which they do to the reader as well, as a sort of Greek chorus at the end of each chapter. This takes some getting used to, because the plants turn out to be chattier and funnier than anybody else in the book -- certainly more so than Leon, who has the grimness of obsession. But after a chapter or two of being scolded for our pig-headed human ways by a palm tree or a tamarind, the device actually works, leavening the dourness and violence of the rest of the novel, and adding an extra level of common sense -- albeit from an unusual source -- to a tale of gothic darkness. "Wars?" harumphs one old cycad:
    I've seen them come and go. This last has been the worst so far. All that banging and crashing at night with great flashes of light and what happens? Draughts. Holes in the roof and damn great draughts cutting through the House at every angle. If it hadn't been for that new gardener's boy they've brought in -- what's his name? Leon? -- we'd have all of us frozen in our beds.
In all of his books, Hamilton-Paterson writes beautifully about the natural world, and this is especially true of Griefwork, where the tragic Leon turns his thwarted love into a passion for exotic plants, and in which the author himself is keenly aware of the irony of evoking a "natural" world that exists only under glass.

As it stands now, Hamilton-Paterson has a larger reputation in the UK, where Gerontius won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for first fiction in 1989, than here in the States. We live at a time in America's literary history when passion and eloquence have to be justified to the reading public, even apologized for. We like our popular fiction brutal and fast paced, and our literary fiction cool, ironic, and postmodern. Even our serious writers are divided into the celebrities, whose personal lives, outrageous advances, and expensive dental work often get as much press as their books, and the tenured or tenure-track professors, whose author biographies list only where they went to school, where they teach now, and what grants they have won. Against this backdrop, Hamilton-Paterson -- a fiftyish man with no institutional affiliation, whose private life is just that, private -- is fighting an uphill battle. Hamilton-Paterson is almost too artistically ambitious for his own good; all of his novels, while sharing certain stylistic and thematic concerns, are wildly different from each other, making it hard for him to develop the sort of brand name recognition publishers like to cultivate. In a time that may not appreciate such virtues, James Hamilton-Paterson suffers under the appalling handicap of being a wonderfully versatile and -- judging from his books -- unabashedly passionate writer, who writes richly imagined narratives about big, odd, knotty topics, full of subtle, compassionately rendered characters, all of it in gorgeously precise prose.

Originally published in the December 1995/January 1996 issue of Boston Review



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