If history creates complexities, let us not try to simplify them.
-Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands
Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh tells the complicated story of four generations of a Christian-Jewish family involved in the spice trade in India.(1) The political, financial, romantic, sexual, and emotional entanglements of the da Gama-Zogoiby family easily fill the 400 or so pages of the novel. But as if the Indian narrative were not complex enough, Rushdie creates a frame tale for the novel. The narrator and central character, Moraes Zogoiby, has composed most of the story while imprisoned by a madman named Vasco Miranda in a mock-up of the Alhambra Palace built in a remote village in Spain called Benengeli. The name of the village, of course, alludes to the fictional Arabic narrator of Cervantes' Don Quixote, Cide Hamete Benengeli. Rushdie refers to the great Spanish novel several times in The Moor's Last Sigh,(2) and indeed as a narrative involving Christians, Moors, and Jews, it serves as a literary precursor of his work.
In general, Spanish history hovers in the background of The Moor's Last Sigh. The Moor of the title is Boabdil, the last Moorish monarch of Granada, itself the last stronghold of Moorish rule in Spain. The last sigh refers to Boabdil's reaction when in 1492 he was forced to leave the seat of his power, the Alhambra, by the conquering armies of the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. "The Moor's Last Sigh" is not simply the title of Rushdie's novel; it is also the title of a painting that plays a crucial role in the narrative, or rather two paintings with the same name, one done by Vasco Miranda and the other by Moraes' mother, Aurora da Gama Zogoiby. From the first page to the last of The Moor's Last Sigh Rushdie interweaves Indian and Spanish history. Moraes' grandmother Isabella Souza is nicknamed Queen Isabella and even credited with her own form of "reconquista" (pp. 43-44). The Jewish ancestors of the businessman Abraham Zogoiby are said to have come to India as a result of the same Christianization of Spain that led to the expulsion of the Moors, and, according to family legend, the Indian Zogoibys are descended from Boabdil himself, who, after his loss of Granada, purportedly had an interracial romance with a Spanish Jewess (pp. 82-83).
Why this new fascination with Spain and Spanish history in Rushdie's latest novel?(3) He seems to be turning to Moorish Spain as a model of a multicultural society--"the fabulous multiple culture of ancient al-Andalus" (p. 398)--a world in which the tolerance of the Muslim rulers for Christian and Jewish citizens led to the flourishing of a highly complex and productive culture.(4) Rushdie provides a clue to his own project when he describes a series of so-called Moor paintings by Aurora as "an attempt to create a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation; she was using Arab Spain to reimagine India" (p. 227). Rushdie's emphasis falls on the particular issue of religious toleration: "Aurora Zogoiby was seeking to paint a golden age. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Parsis, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains crowded into her paint-Boabdil's fancy-dress balls" (p. 227). Indeed Aurora tries to create a superhybrid of Moorish Spain and Mughal India, as the architectural styles of the two cultures fuse in her artistic vision:
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 splendours with the Spanish building's Moorish grace.
In this dream of different cultures merging into a larger unity, one can see what attracts Rushdie to Spanish history. Moorish Spain appears to have solved the problem that has figuratively and literally torn India apart in the twentieth century. Religious conflicts between Hindus and Muslims led to the division of the subcontinent into India and Pakistan (and later to the splitting off of Bangladesh), but even within contemporary India profound tensions remain between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority, tensions that periodically erupt into murderous violence. …