The Moor's Last Sigh

by Salman Rushdie

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The emphasis placed on the political component of Rushdie's writing, due to the intense scrutiny of his controversial ideas resulting from the protests that culminated in the issuance of the fatwa, has tended to distract attention from other, equally important elements. As Rushdie himself observed, while he regarded Midnight's Children and Shame as "in some ways quite directly political," he thought The Satanic Verses "was the least political novel I had ever written." He explained that the "engine" of the novel was "not public affairs but other kinds of more personal and political affairs." Similarly, in discussing The Moor's Last Sigh, he responded to an interviewer's suggestion that the central theme of the novel is love by agreeing: "Yes, love. The love of nation, love of parents, love of child, erotic love, romantic love."

This is something of an abstraction, but it is a revealing indication of how Rushdie approached the main themes of the book: The tangle of emotional responses to a country as a kind of home; the clash of positive and negative feelings engendered by a difficult relationship with a heterogeneous family, particularly the problems of dealing with a powerful, controlling father; the ways in which a creative imagination—here expressed through an exhibition of the myriad delights of language and the revelatory capacity of painting—can provide both insight and consolation as the loss of home leads to perpetual migration; and as Rushdie's response to the interviewer indicates, the force of love in the course of human affairs, perhaps the most primal energy source in the cosmos as Rushdie sees it.

The Moor's Last Sigh is written in the tradition of the great nineteenth-century novels that combined the fate of a family with the flow of a nation's history. Rushdie makes this explicit by including a diagram of the Da Gama/Zogoiby Family Tree before the Contents page, and then, as Coetzee points out, beginning the novel with the "dynastic prelude" that establishes the character( s), direction(s), source of income and general attitude(s) of Moraes's forebears. The plurality of this family history is crucial because there is a clash of ideas and positions from the start. The narrative begins in Cochin (now Kerala) as this is the place where the West (Europe) and the East (the Indian Subcontinent) first interacted, and it is the location of the spice trade which led to the relative affluence of the Da Gama line. Rushdie equates pepper with passion (especially in the rush of love the overcomes Abraham Zogoiby and Aurora Da Gama), and draws a distinction between the origins of both love and material success in the realm of a natural resource, and their corruption in the realms of commerce and politics, areas that are debased by their removal from the natural world. Moraes's family is torn by more than the gulf between an agricultural economy and the techno-financial manipulations of the modern world, however. Differences in temperament, demeanor, and desire stem from a more personal, internal matrix of motives that supersede the changes in the social milieu but remain linked to it. The understandable rivalry of separate families forced together by a marriage is compounded by the inner conflicts assailing the main characters.

Camoens Da Gama flirts with communism, supports Jawaharlal Nehru's program for an independent India, yet makes a journey to hear Ghandi speak, writing in his journal, "I had seen India's beauty in that crowd." Moraes also admires Nehru's critique of colonialism, but a comic motif that runs throughout the novel involves a pet dog named Jawaharlal. Indira Ghandi, who is rarely shown in any positive way (she sued...

(This entire section contains 1564 words.)

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Rushdie about her depiction inMidnight's Children), appears as the negative shadow of Aurora's affirmative light, but Moraes is still deeply shaken by her assassination. These contradictory impulses are an aspect of a doubling, or layering that Aurora explains by saying "worlds collide, flow in and out of one another." Coetzee feels that this is the key pattern of the book, a palimpsest which places an alternative truth like a texture over a specific image, so that Moraes sees himself "neither as Catholic nor as jew ... a jewholic-anonymous." The historical universe of the novel is set in motion by the fall of Granada in 1492 which Rushdie views as "a rupture. One can see Moorish Spain as a fusion of cultures— Spanish, Moorish, Jewish.... In that fusion are ideas which have always appealed to me ... the complex, relativist, hybrid vision of things." Aurora's paintings, as Coetzee puts it, are an effort to overlay "tolerant Moorish Spain over India." Rushdie uses them to project her (and his own) "prophetic, even Cassandran fear for the nation," as his almost Utopian dream of the "plural, hybrid" independent India is distorted and repeatedly damaged by absolutist fanatics and zealots contending for power and influence. The paintings embody some of the spiritual qualities ("a sense of community, a sense of hope and comfort, and even a kind of moral structure in people's lives") that Rushdie sees as the beneficial side of religion, and often express Aurora's love and concern for her son, while at the same time, in a version of the doubling motif, are also a method for her ("my nemesis, my foe beyond the grave") to continue to influence his life after her death.

The idea of a family—and a country— torn by conflicting desires and beliefs is felt most fervently in the story of Moraes and his father, Abraham Zogoiby. "The reality of a father is a weight few sons can bear," Moraes observes, and throughout the narrative, Moraes's struggles with his urge for filial approval and support and his growing conviction that he must remove himself from his father's reach in order to form his own identity. This thread echoes the England/ India linkage, touching on tendencies of paternalism and rebellion as India responded to attitudes of imperialist derogation, while absorbing many facets of British social and cultural life. The authoritarian force Moraes faces is epitomized in his thoughts about a trashy film called Mr. India:

There he sits, like a dragon in his cave, like a thousand-fingered puppet-master, like the heart of the heart of darkness; commander of used legions, fingertip-controller of pillars of diabolic fire, orchestrator of all the secret music of the under-spheres.

After this amalgam of images from traditional Indian folklore and modern adventure films, Moraes goes on to compare this infernal Father to some of the more dire villains of recent times, "Blofelder than Blofeld, not just Godfather but Gone-farthest, the dada of all dadaism;" and he pointedly recalls "Luke Skywalker in his ultimate duel with Darth Vader, as champions of the light and dark sides of the force." Characteristically, though, Moraes does not associate himself with Luke—instead, there is the continuing suggestion that both Zogoibys contain the entire force within their natures.

Rushdie traces the beginning of his conflict with his own father, Anis, to his first trip to England, accompanied by his father, when he was about to enter the prestigious Rugby public school. Instead of the charming storyteller he knew, Rushdie became aware of a man "drunkenly abusive," and in The Satanic Verses tells of a son in a similar situation whose rage "would boil away his childhood father-worship." Until just before his father's death in 1987, they remained estranged, and at the close of The Satanic Verses, there is a scene of reconciliation that Rushdie decided to include partially as "an act of respect." The duality of his feelings occurs again in The Moor's Last Sigh and culminates in the sense of loss that pervades the novel—loss, as John Banville summarizes, "of parents, country, self, things which to a greater or lesser degree Rushdie himself has lost." But as some kind of compensation for the loss, Moraes has gained some understanding of the things which he held dear. "How easy was my scorn for him, how long it took me to understand his pain," Moraes reflects, and even when he calls his father "the most evil man that ever lived," he is still able to note that "my own deeds had taken from me the right to be my father's judge."

Moraes is both the voice of "history" and the focal point of the narrative. His highly personalized story is ostensibly a search for the self, a search which reflects a resistance to the entropic forces of disintegration that threaten to destroy the hybrid fusion Rushdie hopes for. The goal of Moraes's recounting (a meld of past/present/imaginative possibility) is to establish a kind of Truth which will resist tendencies toward fragmentation. The difficulty of the task is measured in Moraes's observation that "The truth is always exceptional, freakish, improbably, and almost never normative, almost never what cold calculation would suggest." When the task is successful, the central story of Aurora and Abraham (and of their son Moraes), "a story of what happens when love dies" (as Rushdie has described it), is also a story for people who desire to:

cling to the image of love as the blending of spirits, as melange, as the triumph of the impure, mongrel, conjoining the best of us over what there is in us of the solitary, the isolated, the dogmatic, the pure; of love as democracy, as the victory of the no-man-is-an-island, two's company Many over the clean, mean, apartheiding Ones.