That The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie’s sixth novel, did not win Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize, is both unfortunate and understandable. It is unfortunate because The Moor’s Last Sigh is a remarkable book that rises far above the difficult conditions under which it was written and to which it obliquely refers. Indeed, this post-fatwā Rushdie fiction clearly does deserve the kind of praise that reviewers, mindful of the author’s plight, lavished on his two previous books. This is not to suggest that Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) and East, West (1994) necessarily represented a decline in Rushdie’s formidable talent, understandable as such a decline would be in the wake of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s condemnation of The Satanic Verses (1988) and its author on February 14, 1989. It is simply that Rushdie’s sprawling art requires considerably more narrative space than is available in a short story or novella.
Yet the novel’s failure to win the Booker is also understandable, for while it is certainly good, it does not best Midnight’s Children (1981), the Rushdie novel that not only won a Booker but also brought about the most momentous change in the “English” novel since that earlier master of the hybrid, James Joyce, published Ulysses in 1922. Thus, having helped open up the English novel, making it less insular and more international, Rushdie ends up trapped between the unsurpassable brilliance and ambition of Midnight’s Children and the Kafkaesque absurdity of Khomeini’s fatwā.
The Moor’s Last Sigh begins not as The Satanic Verses does, with a sudden and literal as well as fantastical descent from a sky strewn with the wreckage of a jumbo jet, but, like Midnight’s Children, with a line of descent, a less explosive fall. There is a family tree followed by a family history, a leisurely (to the extent that anything in Rushdie’s hyperkinetic fiction can be called leisurely) century-long look back “to the root of the whole matter of family rifts and premature deaths and thwarted loves and mad passions and weak chests and power and money and the more morally dubious seductions and mysteries of art.” The Moor’s Last Sigh is all this and more: a tale of two cities (both on India’s western coast), Cochin and Bombay, and two families, each with Western roots. The well-to-do da Gamas wistfully trace their ancestral line back to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who reached Cochin in 1498. The Zogoibys, poor and Jewish, on equally scant evidence find their secret pride and shame in another impromptu coupling, this one involving a Jewish girl and the last Moorish king of Granada, Boabdil (abu Abdullah, el Zogoybi, “the unfortunate”), around the same time, which is to say shortly after he was driven out of Spain in 1492. The two families and their individual members constitute a study in hybrid identities and divided loyalties (political, economic, cultural, sexual): British/Portuguese/Indian, capitalism/communism, business/art, fidelity/adultery, heterosexuality/homosexuality, immigrant/native, Mother India/Jewish patriarch, Cochin/Bombay, North/South, East/West. One person’s (Rushdie’s) hybridity is another person’s disintegration—thus the curse the dying matriarch Epifania da Gama calls down on her granddaughter Aurora, in which she harks back to Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War and looks ahead to the price of Indian independence, the subcontinent’s dismemberment: “a house divided against itself cannot stand, may your house be forever partitioned, may its foundations turn to dust, may your children rise up against you, and may your fall be hard.”
One year later, fifteen-year-old Aurora and thirty-six-year-old Abraham Zogoiby, duty manager at her father’s spice warehouse, meet by chance, fall in love, or lust, and live not quite happily ever after, their union about as fragile as India’s. Neither family will approve the marriage; no priest or rabbi will perform the ceremony. Aurora’s subsequent artistic career follows—in typical Rushdie fashion—an up-and-down course: a highly introspective painter one moment, a prominent figure in the nationalist movement the next, jailed by the British, adored by her compatriots, for a time. Her not-quite-husband Abraham’s career follows a different course. Willing to do whatever it takes to keep the family business afloat during World War II, he sells his soul by selling his as yet unconceived son to his mother. When...
(The entire section is 1894 words.)