The Moor's Last Sigh

by Salman Rushdie

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The Moor’s Last Sigh

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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...

(This entire section contains 1894 words.)

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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 selling spices does not prove sufficiently profitable, he diversifies, adding heroin smuggling and prostitution to the company’s portfolio. Thanks to a journalist’s linguistic slip, Zogoiby becomes Siodicorp, a caricature of deracinated multinational greed, and helps secretly to finance the manufacture of nuclear weapons for “certain” Arab countries: “the Islamic bomb.”

Against the backdrop of this grotesque retelling of Romeo and Juliet set in a doubly unfamiliar India (“Christians, Portuguese and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns . . . can this really be India?”), Rushdie’s narrator tells his autobiographical “story of the fall from grace of a high-born cross-breed,” the “cathjew nut” and “mongrel cur,” Moraes Zogoiby. At thirty-six (or seventy-two: an unknown medical condition, or his mother’s inadvertent curse, causes him to live his life at double speed), Moraes, nicknamed the Moor, is Adam expelled from Eden, Moses at the end of the road, Dante lost in a dark wood, Christ on the Mount of Olives, Luther nailing his scandalous story to doors. As much confession as family saga, his portrait of the artist, or artist’s son and model, is an attempt to “peel off history.”

Born on New Year’s Day, 1957 (just as Communists come to power in Kerala, as Jawaharlal Nehru’s second five-year plan gets under way, and as the immensely popular Hindi film Mother India is released), Moraes is his parents’ fourth child and sole son and heir. After three daughters—Eeeny, Meeny, Miney—he is Moraes, or Mo, the Moor, Hindi mor, the peacock, his feathers more than a little ruffled in times that are clearly out of joint. No Hamlet he, Moraes is the Stooge of slapstick comedy, Moe, and thanks to his deformed right hand, Hammer, as in the detective Mike Hammer (investigating the circumstances of both his own conception and his mother’s death) and Moe-Hammered (Mohammed) of The Satanic Verses. He is the pound of flesh his mother saves from maternal grandmother Flory Zogoiby’s clutches by not conceiving—that is, by abstaining from sex until Flory is dead—but whom she then transforms into the object of her obsessive love and nominal subject of her protean art.

When Moraes falls in love with the woman who becomes Aurora’s chief rival in Indian art and in her son’s life, the novel’s aesthetic and amatory themes collide. Even though he resists Uma’s siren song to join her in a double suicide, his situation worsens, and his life becomes a series of further betrayals, proof of his “true inheritance: rage” as he plays his part in the “epidemic of getting even [that] runs throughout my tale.”

Moraes rather understates things when he uses the word “tale” to describe what is in fact a narrative extravaganza that successfully combines fact, fiction, and fantasy in one comically extravagant yet oddly elegiac whole. Not the least of the novel’s many delights is its vast intertextual range, which includes the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Mother Goose and Brothers Grimm, Don Quixote and The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, R. K. Narayan’s Malgudi and Gabriel García Márquez’s Macondo, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce, Sherlock Holmes and his Indian counterpart Dom Minto, the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog, and William Shakespeare (not only Othello and The Merchant of Venice but also Macbeth, Hamlet, and the Tempest, filtered through a decidedly postcolonial perspective). Rushdie even recycles some of his own earlier characters, including Zeenat Vakil from The Satanic Verses and Adam Braganza from Midnight’s Children, Shiva and Parvati’s son who becomes Siodicorp’s vice president for technological innovation and corporate behavior and subsequently Abraham’s adopted son, late capitalist Sabu to the impotent Moor’s Mowgli.

What makes this kind of postmodern play especially interesting is Rushdie’s wedding it—Abraham-to-Aurora style—to a no less richly woven historical frame of reference. Moraes travels all the way back to the arrival in Kerala of the Apostle Thomas in 52 c.e. and later of Jewish exiles and Portuguese colonizers before situating the bulk of his tale against the backdrop of two “world” wars, the struggle for Indian independence, and the partition and its often bloody aftermath, with particular emphasis on the rise of the fundamentalist Hindu party Shiv Sena.

As Moraes remarks,

So was this a Mahabharat-style conflict, then, a Trojan war, in which the gods took sides and played their part? No, sir. No, sirree. No old-time deities here, but johnny-come-latelies, the lot of us. . . . We were not, did not deserve to be thought of as being, of tragic status. . . . Tragedy was not in our natures. A tragedy was taking place all right, a national tragedy on a grand scale, but those of us who played our parts were . . . clowns. Clowns! Burlesque buffoons, drafted into history’s theatre on account of the lack of greater men. Once, indeed, there were giants on our stage; but at the fag-end of an age, Madam History must make do with what she can get. Jawaharlal, in these latter days, was just the name of a stuffed dog.

In this remark, one hears the echo of Karl Marx’s witty reply to G. W. F. Hegel, on history occurring twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Yet one also detects a certain sadness, a sense of disappointment that Rushdie seems to share despite his and his narrator’s refusal “to allow our captivity to define us” and despite their desire

to cling to the image of love as the blending of spirits, as mélange, as the triumph of the impure, mongrel, conjoining best of us over what there is in us of the solitary, the isolated, the austere, 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.

Asthmatic Moraes ends his remembrance of things past by doing what many family members did before him, “falling asleep in times of trouble . . . hop[ing] to awaken, renewed and joyful, into a better time.” Apparently Alexander Pope was right: Hope does spring eternal in the human breast, even in one so battered as Rushdie’s. Most readers will take heart (and there should be plenty of them; The Moor’s Last Sigh is a much more accessible novel than The Satanic Verses). Many, though, will not; they will be the ones who recall the problem with the security system that was supposed to protect the Zogoiby Bequest, its having been “hopelessly inadequate.”

Sources for Further Study

The Christian Science Monitor. October 10, 1995, p. 7.

The Economist. CCCXXXVI, September 9, 1995, p. 88.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLVIII, October 5, 1995, p. 64.

London Review of Books. XVII, September 7, 1995, p. 3.

Los Angeles Times. September 14, 1995, p. E1.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, September 8, 1995, p. 39.

The New York Times. December 28, 1995, p. C13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, October 2, 1995, p. 52.

The Spectator. CCLXXV, November 18, 1995, p. 47.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 8, 1995, p. 3.

Literary Techniques

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"When I was growing up," Rushdie told an interviewer who asked about his facility with words, "everyone around me was fond of fooling around with words. It was certainly common in my family, but I think it is typical of Bombay, maybe India, that there is a sense of play in the way people use language." This language play is one of the most compelling parts of Rushdie's writing, so much so that he tends to follow a kind of linguistic logic beyond the requirements of either plot or character, but these verbal digressions or extensions often have their own appeal. In The Moor's Last Sigh, since the narrative is a continuing expression of the protagonist's thoughts and emotional responses, nothing is ultimately irrelevant to an understanding of Moraes. In addition, one of the peculiarities of Moraes's character is the interesting conceit that he is living at a sort of double time. That is, he is aging twice as fast as his chronological growth, so that he is already relatively mature at the age of seven (which is effectively fourteen physically). Rushdie says that this is a result of his consciousness of mortality, as well as his own peril, during the fatwa, when "quite a few of the people I care about died during this period." He felt that he should convey a sense of urgency in the novel since "we may not have as much time as we think." The rush of images and ideas in Moraes's mind reflects his hyper-awareness, as well as Rushdie's sense of a general "acceleration of things" toward the end of the twentieth century.

Due to the location of the narrative, Rushdie uses extended descriptive passages reflecting Moraes's responses to various stimuli written in long breath-lines akin to some poems of Alan Ginsberg, skillfully employing vivid images—especially sensual ones—to (as Ginsberg had it) "put iron poetry back into the line." Cochin harbor comes to life as a collage of imagery:

the horns of freighters and tugboat chugs, the fishermen's dirty jokes and the throb of their jellyfish stings, the sunlight sharp as a knife, the heat that could choke you like a damp cloth pulled tightly around your head, the calls of floating hawkers, the wafting sadness of the unmarried Jews across the water in Mattancherri, the menace of emerald smugglers, the machinations of business rivals, the growing nervousness of the British colony in Fort Cochin, the cash demands of the staff and of the plantation workers in the Spice Mountains, the tales of Communist troublemaking and Congresswallah politics, the names Ghandi and Nehru, the rumors of famine in the east and hunger strikes in the north, the songs and drumbeats of the oral storytellers, and the heavy rolling sound (as they broke against Cabral Island's rickety jetty) of the incoming tides of history.

Beginning with sensory detail (sound, sight, touch), then proceeding toward psychological mood, then providing political perspective, and then moving back toward auditory impulse before concluding with a metaphysical statement, this passage is one among many similarly dazzling presentations, a product of Rushdie's desire to make The Moor's Last Sigh "linguistically very bright."

Confident that his descriptions provide a sound foundation for other types of writing, Rushdie moves beyond the traditional to indulge his proclivity for punning to show the associative links among words, occasionally indulges in postmodern asides and quips to the reader, yokes items from popular (especially American) culture with moderately esoteric accounts of incidents in subcontinental history, exhibits his scholarly erudition with the entire panoply of literature in English, and summarizes motifs with aphorisms that are designed, as much to provoke as enlighten ("Vasco had said it years ago: corruption was the only force we had that could defeat fanaticism"). Rushdie also writes graphically clear scenes of violent action that may owe something to his evident interest in films and uses the same visual skills to make Aurora's paintings visible. "I came around to Aurora after becoming friendly with a whole bunch of contemporary Indian painters. In them, I found affinities to my own ideas and work." Aurora's paintings are a continuing commentary on Indian politics and are a way of placing her family into history. By concentrating on shape and color, as well as content, Rushdie gradually makes his descriptions of the paintings another form of reality, an equal element in what Robert Morace has called the "narrative extravaganza" of "hyperkinetic fiction."

Social Concerns

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The proclamation of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, urging all "zealous muslitns" to execute Rushdie, indelibly inscribed on public consciousness an image of Rushdie as a writer inextricably involved with the political issues his work addressed. While The Satanic Verses (1988) was the proximate cause for the fatwa, all of Rushdie's novels have contained material that some people found offensive, and as he himself has often reiterated, he is a "fairly political animal" who has observed about Midnight's Children (1981) and Shame (1983) "that everything in both books has had to do with politics and with the relationship of the individuals and history." This continuing concern was concentrated for Rushdie by the necessity of concealment caused by the fatwa, and when he resumed writing in 1990, he reaffirmed his political position, saying, "If I can't write, then, in a way, the attack has been successful."

The Moor's Last Sigh, which Rushdie spent five years writing, follows the life of Moraes ("Moor") Zogoiby from his birth in 1957 to the "present" in the mid-1990s, preceded by what J. W. Coetzee calls "a dynastic prelude" reaching back to the birth of Moraes's great-grandfather, Francisco da Gama (1876), who began the spice trade in the province of Cochin that led to the family's rise to moderate affluence. Da Gama is a social progressive and Indian nationalist whose differences with his wife Epifania Menezes—a traditionalist described as believing in "England, God, philistinism, the old ways"—sets the terms of a schism that eventually splits the family and which parallels the divisions in the country at large. Their son Camoens has a vision of an independent India which he hopes will be "above religion because secular, above class because socialist, above caste because enlightened." Rushdie's knowledge of history and his personal experiences as an inhabitant of India, Pakistan, and the United Kingdom prevent him from sharing this idealistic conception, but Rushdie's social vision includes, as Moraes puts it in describing some of the paintings of his mother Aurora Da Gama, "a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation."

The story that Moraes tells of his family's origins and circumstances before his birth, and then of his own upbringing and eventual estrangement from the family, is designed to parallel and comment on the course of the history of the Indian subcontinent and to illustrate how difficult it has been to actualize this romantic myth. Living as a Muslim and Jew (from his father Abraham Zogoiby) in a country with a Hindu majority, and as an Indian citizen in a land recently part of the British Empire, Moraes has the historical perspective of a marginalized semi-outcast who feels he must challenge and subvert the official voice of authority and counteract the official version of the historical record with his own narrative. Rushdie's treatment of religion, language, and the indigenous culture of the subcontinent in The Moor's Last Sigh stems from his contention that there were "three pillars of independent India" which he lists as "democracy,.. . a protectionist economy,. .. [and] a secularism" which he defines as no single religion having a constitutional advantage. The concern which he expresses and examines in The Moor's Last Sigh is that his generation "grew up buying that India and liking it and feeling its air free to breathe," and that in the fifty years since the founding of the state in 1947, all of these "pillars [are] tottering." His intent through the course of Moraes's narrative is to locate and castigate the people and philosophies responsible for this reversal, and to set against the forces of totalitarian repression a liberating vision of artistic creativity.

Specifically, he finds religious tolerance under attack from what he calls "Hindufundamentalist triumphalism." This is part of a larger organized ecclesiastical tyranny that he attacked in The Satanic Verses. He finds the values of a democratic state endangered by politicians like Raman Fielding, a figure based on Bal Thackeray, the Bombay leader of the Shiv Sena Party which Rushdie describes as being in collaboration with the Bombay criminal underworld "against unions ... against working women, in favor of sati, against poverty and in favor of wealth." This organization has similarities to the military mob that was responsible for the shameless behavior of the government of Pakistan in Shame. Rushdie does not underestimate the power of these people, but his depiction of "India" in The Moor's Last Sigh is informed by an exhilarating portrayal of a place that can be psychologically energizing and spiritually sustaining. The ethos of the land—the homeland that he has carried and cultivated in his imagination while in exile—enables him to regard India with a degree of hope for an enlightened future. As he expressed his intention:

The character in The Moor's Last Sigh who says motherness is our biggest idea certainly speaks what I consider to be the truth. But I wanted a different sort of Mother India ... I wanted my own sort of Mother India. This Mother India is metropolitan, sophisticated, noisy, angry and different.

This conception is developed through the character and paintings of Moraes's mother Aurora, a heroic exemplar of resistance to oppression, the "outlaw bandit queen" of Bombay. And it is Bombay itself, the city of Rushdie's youth, that provides the "metropolitan" component—an endlessly fascinating, diverse fusion of disparate elements that he knows as "Bombay of my joys and sorrows," and recalls in rapture:

Bombay was central, had been so from the moment of its creation. The bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities. In Bombay, all India met and merged. In Bombay, all-India met what-was-not-India ... Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once.

Literary Precedents

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Rushdie's work draws some of its greatest strength from his ability to join the structure and scope of the "classic" novels of the nineteenth century with attributes of the comic picaresques that preceded them and modernist experiments in narrative form stemming from the ground-breaking work of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. In discussing his own influences, he has said that the three novels "lying behind Midnight's Children are Tristram Shandy, The Tin Drum and One Hundred Years of Solitude." These landmark fictions are also clearly predecessors for The Moor's Last Sigh in terms of Laurence Sterne's comic outlook, Gunter Grass's use of a narrative voice, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's employment of magical realism. Rushdie considers the eighteenth century a "great century" in literature, and mentions Henry Fielding's apparently rambling plot in Tom Jones as an example of a book (like The Moor's Last Sigh) in which everything is there for a purpose, where the patterns of organization are not like a straitjacket but permit a more subtle series of connective devices. Although he does not emphasize Charles Dickens, a fascination with family, the social milieu, and a larger historical context are crucial features of The Moor's Last Sigh, which are also very prevalent in Dickens's works, and the way in which a family saga parallels and informs a nation's destiny has some significant affinities with the way Tolstoy worked in War and Peace. And in concert with his admiration for Joyce's ability to "do anything," Rushdie's construction of an elaborate narrative ranging from the past to the present to the imaginary—primarily in his protagonist's differing moods and voices—reaches back to the mind of Leopold Bloom in Ulysses.

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