The Moor's Last Sigh | Interview by John Blades

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
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Interview by John Blades

SOURCE: An interview with Salman Rushdie, in Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1996, p. 3.

In the following interview, Blades queries Rushdie on religion and the effect of the Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on his writing.

Name: Salman Rushdie

Job: Subversive novelist

Seven years after Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini sentenced him to death for blaspheming the prophet Mohammed in "The Satanic Verses," Salman Rushdie recently emerged from deep cover in England to launch his latest novel, The Moor's Last Sigh. Born in India but now a British citizen, Rushdie managed to greatly offend "Mother India" with his new book, a dysfunctional family saga that's a savage satire of Hindu fundamentalism and a cruel and inhuman comedy best exemplified by his joke about "kebabed saints and tandooried martyrs".

[Blades:] Considering the evidence in The Moor's Last Sigh, you do seem genuinely disturbed about the more extreme forms of Hinduism in India.

[Rushdie:] I'm by no means the only person who feels that Hindu fundamentalism is the greatest single danger to India's democracy. Millions upon millions think as I do. When I was in India last, I traveled around the country for months making a documentary, and I interviewed a number of extremist politicians, who are the scariest people in the world. "Yes," they say, "we're fascists. Of course we're racists." They tell you how Adolf Hitler was an excellent leader and how India could do with his kind of strong leadership.

As an admitted provocateur, do you take a perverse satisfaction in having the distribution of The Moor's Last Sigh greatly curtailed—"blockaded," as you put it—by the Indian government?

How could I? It's always been colossally important to me that my books should be well received in India. It's where I come from. But I think it's a very important function of art to challenge accepted reality, especially when that reality is created by powerful interest groups.

Feeling about India as you do, the death decree must be a source of even more profound grief because it has prevented you from returning to your homeland?

To have to go seven years without spending any time in India, when I would normally go there most years, has been a colossal deprivation, like losing a leg. And reading The Moor's Last Sigh, seven or eight months after I finished it, it does seem there's an emotion and a longing that come from being physically removed from the place for so long.

Do you feel this deprivation might have hurt the novel?

I'm not the first writer to have been obliged to do his work from the condition of exile. Many writers have surmounted that and produced exceptional work and I took courage from them. The most famous case of the 20th Century was that of (James) Joyce, who wrote "Ulysses" without ever visiting Dublin, the greatest novel written about anything. Dostoevsky faced a firing squad, which was worse than anything that happened to me. I didn't spend half my life in a labor camp, as many Soviet writers were obliged to do. I wasn't in jail like Jean Genet. So it's comforting to realize that other writers have had problems that were at least as bad as mine.

Will you eventually write a factual book describing what it's like to live under sentence of death?

I've kept a journal of those seven years, and I very much want to write one. It'll have comedic stuff in it, but it's black comedy. There's a strange aspect to this whole experience that would be extremely funny if it weren't so unfunny.

I'll give you one example. I was told that soon after the Iranian threat the response of one of my European publishers was threefold: He refused to go out to lunch in case somebody would attack him in a restaurant; he rearranged his office furniture so his desk wasn't near the window; and he unscrewed the company's nameplate from the front door. This is a funny image, but the reason it's not funny is because another publisher of "The Satanic Verses" was shot in the back and, fortunately, survived.

Even though The Moor's Last Sigh is fiction, aren't there passages that speak directly to readers about the physical and psychological effects of the death sentence and your "awful incarceration," as the Moor calls his own plight?

Clearly, there is material in the book that would not be there except for what happened to me. But I'm using my experiences to enliven the fictional world and the fictional characters, as writers always do, rather than to simply write about myself in code.

But isn't that Salman Rushdie speaking through his narrator when he describes fear as a "bullying tyrant (that) rules your life" and wonders, "Will (I) still be here tomorrow?"

It's inevitable that the writer's feelings do occasionally come through the lips of a first-person narrator…. And certainly, seven years ago, it was quite clear to me that I might have a few days to live. That's a very strange feeling. But this is not a novel about me. It's a novel about history, about painting, about pepper, and above all, about love, all sorts of love: the love of lovers, the love of parents and children, the love of country, the love of God.

Speaking of the "love of God," was your public embrace of Islam, two years after Khomeini's decree, a genuine and lasting religious conversion or an expedient attempt to subvert the fatwa?

That was a depressed and despairing moment for me. I rapidly understood that it was a very foolish attempt at appeasing the opposition. I proceeded to admit that, and I've been admitting it ever since. I have no problem with people's religious beliefs. I just don't happen to have any.

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This section contains 943 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by John Blades