The Moor's Last Sigh

by Salman Rushdie

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One of the signature features of Rushdie's exuberant approach to characterization is his choice of names. At the beginning of his career in 1983, two years after the publication of the ground-breaking Midnight's Children, Rushdie explained his interest by saying, "It is impossible to overestimate the importance of names. I think they affect us much, much more profoundly than we think . . . naming has always been understood as being absolutely crucial to perception. So that's why I'm very interested in naming and I take enormous amounts of care about naming." This total absorption in a process which Rushdie called "the thing I agonize over most" has, if anything, become even more intense in subsequent novels, and The Moor's Last Sigh illustrates how important it is as a means for introducing a character.

The "Moor" of the title, Moraes Zogoiby—a modern semi-replica of the last Moorish sultan of Granada—is nicknamed "The Moor" (or mor) by his mother as a recollection of the lost Moorish Spain which she recreates in her painting as the mythic "Mooristan." Since Moraes is a sort of descendant of Mohammad XI, variants of his nickname suggest his current condition, explicitly the pejorative "Mo" which implies a diminution (in stature, status) by recalling the stooge, "Moe"—a typical use of popular culture in Rushdie's work—and which also becomes Mo-Hammered, to suggest his club like, deformed hand, as well as a punning reference to Mohammad. The name Zogoiby means unlucky, or unfortunate in Arabic, and Moraes's father is Abraham, "not Moses . . . he would lead no people towards a promised land." His mother Aurora is an emblem of light and insight, her name conveying the suggestion of the sunrise or dawn. Their three daughters are Christina, Inamorata, and Philomina, but they are known as "Ina," "Mirmie," and "Mynah" with individual implications (Minnie = Mouse, another contemporary, cross-cultural reference) but together, the parts of the nursery rhyme ending with Moraes's Mo.

Reaching back toward the "dynastic prelude," the Da Gama name evokes an earlier time of exploration, while Camoens is meant to recall the great Portuguese lyrical poet of the fourteenth century, Luis Vaz de Camoens, who was born in the year that Vasco da Gama died, the year that Portugal was incorporated into the Spanish empire. The poet spent years of exile in Goa and Cochin, and his poetic tribute to da Gama is a meditation on empire. Not every reader of The Moor's Last Sigh will understand each reference but these cultural/historical items contribute to the dense texture of the novel. The prime villain of the book, Raman Fielding, is called Mainduck and is likened to a frog; the maniac who imprisons Moraes in the Alhambra is named Vasco Miranda; the woman who betrays Moraes's love is called Uma Sarasvati, a name with numerous resonances in Indian theology; the social climber who becomes Abraham Zogoiby's adoptive son was formerly Adam Braganza, before that Adam Sinai, and is seen as "Dumbo," "Goofo," "Mutto," "Crooko," and "Sabu" in Moraes's snide catalogue of comic book appellations. Many minor characters have names that effectively substitute for any character development in Rushdie's continuously suggestive narrative (the Larios sisters, Felicitas and Renegada), other names are commentaries on character (Nadia Wadia, the well-meaning airhead who represents India in the Miss Universe contest) and some are symbolic, like the Japanese woman Aoi Ue— Moraes's soul mate and fellow prisoner— whose name is "a miracle of vowels" that suggests her very basic grounding in humane values.

When Rushdie develops a character beyond a vivid surface, which in The Moor's Last Sigh essentially means only...

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Moraes's immediate family, and more particularly, Moraes and Aurora, he uses patterns of speech to illuminate patterns of thought and feeling. "What I wanted," Rushdie points out, was "to create a family and its verbal habit. I wanted to create a family verbal tic." This is most apparent in Aurora's use of verbs, as in: "Takes longer to gettofy to this Lord's house," or "But as for my son, I will feed-o him myself," and numerous other similar examples. Camoens uses partial constructions, omitting articles, and Epifania's speech alters syntax without sacrificing meaning. Moraes's sisters do not appear in many chapters, but their speech is consistent with the dominant traits that characterize them. Abraham mixes tough talk with the erudition of a well-educated man, but he is not explored in much depth and Coetzee calls him "little more than a comic-book villain." Aurora is striking from the start—bold, audacious, committed, creative—and although Rushdie does not produce a picture of her inner deliberations, her actions are sufficient to make her motives clear. Moraes is the only character who is rendered from within, and in effect, the entire novel—his narrative—is a continuous revelation of the processes of his mind. It is not surprising that Rushdie, in discussing his influences, says, "There's Joyce for a start . . . because Joyce shows you that you can do anything if you do it properly." Joyce's extraordinary verbal invention, his ear for the associative correspondence of sounds, his delight in song, his flair for comedy and his fascination with the minutiae of everyday life are all traits that Rushdie shares. The technical virtuosity apparent in Rushdie's work from the start is at the core of his characterization of Moraes, who is able to find a home in language when his other "homes" (family, country, romance) are no longer available. Moraes lives in the linguistic universe, and his narrative is an expression of just how much at home he is there.




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