More on the Moor

I hang Post-It notes of words and their definitions on the bookshelf that sits on my desk at work.  If I come across an unfamiliar word in my reading, I record it and post it there so I can continually but casually read and reread its definition - memorizing almost subconsciously.  I also post words that I think convey a particular idea well or that cause me to explore an issue in a different manner.  They are just triggers, prompts.  Sometimes, they become such an ready part of my vernacular that I take them down; other times, they linger until I use them in some piece of writing.  They remind me of all the beautiful words out there that speak better for me than my everyday speech can manage.  Palimpsest has been hanging from that shelf for quite a long while.  It is one of my favorite words, both for its somehow appropriate mouthiness and for the language-awe it causes me.  How amazing is it that we have a word that conveys the idea of a piece of writing material that has been written on and erased many times over?

My dictionary tells me that it comes from the Greek palimpsestos, which means scraped again.  A secondary definition provided goes beyond the literal: something having diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.  Rushdie has employed both meanings throughout this great novel.  Vasco Miranda paints over a portrait of Aurora early in the tale, and from there, we continue to delve into and dance around the hidden layers, the visible and the invisible worlds, the multifaceted nature of life and living.  And, of course, all these layers refer back to India.

The city itself, perhaps the whole country, was a palimpsest.  Under World beneath Over World, black market beneath white; when the whole of life was like this, when an invisible reality moved phantomwise beneath a visible fiction, subverting all its meanings, how then could Abraham's career have been any different?  How could any of us have escaped that deadly layering?  How, trapped as we were in the hundred per cent fakery of the real, in fancy-dress, weeping-Arab kitsch of the superficial, could we have penetrated to the full, sensual truth of the lost mother below?  How could we have lived authentic lives?  How could we have failed to be grotesque? (184-185)

Miranda disguised his true feelings (as portrayed in the portrait of Aurora) beneath a fictionalized self-portrait.  Miranda's new work, subtitled The Moor's Last Sigh, puts himself into the role of the last Sultan of Granada.  This is the same role Aurora paints her son into in her later works, the last of which takes the same title.  The other-world she paints into these works she calls "Palimpstine."

She was using Arab Spain to re-imagine India, and this land-sea-scape was her metaphor - idealised? sentimental? probably - of the present, and the future, that she hoped would evolve. (227)

So, which of these palimpsest visions would Rushdie have us accept?  The one that makes a fiction out of reality and results in the grotesque?  Or the one that rejoices in the plural (which certainly resonates with the Hindu traditions) and considers all layers true?

For me, the fascination with the word is born out of a feeling more like the second vision.  The very existence of the word indicates a desire to keep alive the versions of truth that had gone before.  Otherwise, would it not merely be called a piece of paper?  To preserve the awareness of the words that have since been erased is to preserve their truth and their reality.


  1. Palimpsest! One of my favorites, as well. I had forgotten about all of the paintings, re-paintings and un-paintings that play such a pivotal role in this novel & the head-games it plays. I'm loving revisiting it through your posts. :-)

    And love your gradual-memorization technique.

  2. The mother/artist element has continued to intrigue me. I wish I knew more about art - especially Indian art from the time. In fact, this book has regularly reminded me of the many things I don't know enough about. I'm sure the whole reading experience would be better if I knew the history and culture more intimately. It would be interesting to read it again (as well as Mistry's A Fine Balance, which I loved) after doing some more comprehensive research on the Emergency and the culture surrounding that era.