Salman Rushdie did not ask to become the free-speech hero to the literary world; he is too complex a writer to wave any flags. Rushdie was transformed into the world's most famous living author by the Ayatolla Khomeini's 1989 fatwah, a chilling text, and perhaps a more revolutionary piece of writing than Rushdie's novel.
The Moor's Last Sigh, Rushdie's first novel since the cataclysmic Satanic Verses, has been much anticpated as the exiled author's rebuttal of tyranny. But we must be careful to separate Rushdie's predicament (an accident, really, a grotesque ordering of political events) from Rushdie's product. That Rushdie is still alive seven years after the fatwah and that he is still able to write such fabulous tales is his response. The novel can and perhaps must be read as independent of the political issues.
The Moor's Last Sigh is a stunning novel. It is the story of four generations of a Portuguese family in India, as told by its last surviving progeny. The Da Gama-Zogoibys are rendered in full Rushdie relief. The Da Gamas are Catholic, the Zogoibys Jewish. Their combustible union is further complicated by issues of waning colonialism; family politics are intricately woven in with global politics to form a dizzying portrait of people handcuffed to time and place.
The novel is set against a larger historical metaphor: the expulsion of the Moors from Muslim Spain in 1492. Thus, the Moor's last sigh belongs both to this earlier displaced people and to the narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, nicknamed 'The Moor'. The family spice business, nearly destroyed by the bitter squabbles of one generation, is rescued by the next and eventually transformed into a fantastic and far-reaching crime syndicate. Moraes is betrayed by a beautiful vixen, imprisoned, and then released on the condition that he go to work as a goon for his father's rival crime boss. Aurora Zogoiby, mother to Moraes, becomes a celebrated painter, her paintings stolen, burned, hidden, fought over.
As with Midnight's Children, Rushdie's second novel, The Moor's Last Sigh feels rather like magic realism, Indian style. There are curses and prophecies and general supernatural occurences, but these are offered with something that feels like scepticism: the magical may also be coincidental. This sophisticated, even jaded approach to the exotic, the "Oriental", is Rushdie's singular gift. The novel's narrator, Moraes, shares this detachment: "Christians, Portuguese and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns...can this really be India?"
The Moor's Last Sigh is a reaching, rickety palace of a narrative, sprawling in historical scope and capped everywhere with poetic minarets. The whole affair is held together by Rushdie's swift, lyrical, humorous style--or, mostly held together. The novel lacks the brilliant closure of Midnight's Children. Some avenues end artlessly, while others take too many twists. But the story never slows down long enough to get stuck. The crescendo, the penultimate action of the novel, is a manic and violent script worthy of John Woo direction.
It may now be impossible to read Rushdie without reading into Rushdie, that is, without reading his work as a veiled response to the Ayatollah's threat. Certainly, The Moor's Last Sigh deals with flight and exile, but these themes have surfaced in the author's pre-fatwah work. Rushdie has always been something of an exile; as a British-educated Indian Muslim he must make his home by force of will.
Rushdie's more explicit answer to the Ayatollah can be found in his children's story Haroun and the Sea of Stories, published soon after The Satanic Verses. In this story, a renowned and persecuted story-teller is given two opposing nicknames: some call him the Ocean of Notions, others the Shah of Blah. The same dichotomy can be seen in Rushdie. His political significance has less to do with his writing than it does with his continued existence, the living hero of a sometimes abstract cause. We read Rushdie, though, because in his work larger forces--the forces we imagine to be somehow always operating in this world-- are brought to bear on lives that are rendered exquisitely, fantastically, and with a keen sense for the sublime within the mundane.