Right now, near millennium's end, looking back is hardly surprising, and the novel's means and purposes in fictionalising the past are manifold. Salman Rushdie refuses to divide past and present. In The Moor's Last Sigh (Jonathan Cape #163;15.99) his characters are born in this century but are products of time which is not tidily linear, and of a history which advances through a mulch of different cultures.
His starting date is 1492, Spain's triple legacy: Columbus's "discovery" of the New World, the expulsion of the Jews, and the fall of Granada, when the Moors were finally driven out. The triumph of the One over the Many represented by these last two events is a central theme of this splendidly prodigal novel.
Rushdie's narrative of the Da Gama-Zogoiby clan loops the loop chronologically. A dynasty whose wealth is built on pepper in Cochin, now a Bombay mafia empire. A tale full of separations and lost loves told by the dying Moraes, the Moor, breathless, running out of time, his allotted span halved by a freakish biology whereby he grew and aged at double speed.Looming large in life and death are his parents, the majestic Aurora, a painter, and Adam, ruthless business wizard. Characters crowd in, allegories and jokes abound in a carnival of poly-cultural inventiveness.
Amid India's diversity the idea of any founding right to ethnic or religious dominance does violence. Rushdie counters it by plundering the cultural resources of centuries: the mutations of art and language, the stories of the Bible and the Iliad, of Hindu polytheism and colonial strife, of the movies, be they Hollywood or Bollywood, Disneyland or Oz. Everything that has shaped identity and gripped imagination.
Barry Unsworth's Morality Play (Hamish Hamilton #163;14.99) gives a theatrically atmospheric medieval backdrop to a parable of art and its truths. A troupe of travelling players are heading for Durham to perform a play at Christmas but hunger compels them to stop and find a paying audience in a small market town where a young boy has been murdered and a woman sentenced to hang for the crime. The narrator is a young runaway priest who has replaced a player dead of the plague. Disaffection with the strictly ordered design of feudal society appears elsewhere, and emblematically in the players' playing, through which masks can transform as well as hide those behind them.
Things truly change at the point when the players decide to break with traditional liturgical themes and make a play about the murder. This leads to their hazardous questioning of the official version of events and, with each day's fresh evidence, the play is remade. Unsworth describes this process vividly. Inquiry and independent thought, the self-probing demands of creating fictions through which new truths emerge. Acts that are risky and necessary if a society is to make sense of its values. A morality play for today.
The failures of the past, the need for faith and hope against the odds, the gamble of utopianism - these are the themes of Jane Rogers' Promised Lands (Faber #163;14.99). Her milestone year is 1788, when Sydney was first settled with convict transports and marooned for two years from a Europe echoing with revolution. Everything is seen through the watchful eyes of the astronomer William Dawes. An upright Christian, Dawes finds his certainties shaken as the settlement grows and the Aboriginal peop1e are stalked by dispossession and disease. Meanwhile, back in the 20th century, his story's creator, Stephen, laments the wreck of his own ideals,while his wife invests desperate hope in the fate of their disabled baby. These are the interior monologues of two estranged people in a flat, grey present.