The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Jessica Hagedorn

This literature criticism consists of approximately 6 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 1,790 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jessica Hagedorn

Critical Review by Jessica Hagedorn

SOURCE: "They Came for the Hot Stuff," in Nation, Vol. 262, No. 1, January 1, 1996, pp. 25-7.

Below, Hagedorn offers a positive review of The Moor's Last Sigh.

I don't review books as a rule, but could not resist the opportunity to speak up for Salman Rushdie's astonishing new work. Midnight's Children opened up the world for me as a first-time novelist struggling to find my way. How to tell the story of a young postcolonial nation like the Philippines? How to capture its chaos, humor and beauty? How to convey the heat and music of its many languages, and the wit and innovations of its hybrid English? How to portray the complex, unpredictable nature of its people? How to be fearless? Rushdie, the passionate subversive obsessed with history, language and moral ambiguity, the grand and mythic storyteller, showed me how.

The Moor's Last Sigh is Rushdie's first novel in seven years. The intricate, gorgeous tapestry of a plot takes off on a tragic riff in 1492 when the Arab sultan Boabdil gives up his beloved Alhambra to Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of Spain. Observed by none other than a contemptuous Christopher Columbus, Boabdil's humiliating surrender puts an end to centuries of Moorish rule in Europe. In one of the novel's many haunting passages, the grieving Boabdil rides off into exile, turning "to look for one last time upon his loss, upon the palace and the fertile plains and all the concluded glory of al-Andalus … at which sight the Sultan sighed, and hotly wept." Ayxa the Virtuous, his tough-cookie-of-a-mother, has no patience for such tears, sneering, "Well may you weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man."

There are actually two "Moors" and two mothers in Rushdie's multilayered story—the fifteenth-century Boabdil and his mother, Ayxa, and their fictional twentieth-century descendants, the bohemian diva Aurora da Gama Zogoiby and her son, Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby. Aurora is lovingly described by her son as "most illustrious of our modern artists, a great beauty who was also the most sharp-tongued woman of her generation, handing out the hot stuff to anybody who came within range. Her children were shown no mercy." Like Ayxa before her, Aurora can be hard and unforgiving, unwilling to tolerate her son's weakness. Moor Zogoiby, Rushdie's doomed narrator, is born with a stump for a right hand, after only four and a half months' gestation. He is afflicted with a disease that accelerates aging. Bizarrely handsome and compelling to women, Moor soars to a height of six foot six "in a country where the average male rarely grows above five foot five." At age 10, he looks 20; at age 32, a dying man in his seventies. The knowledge that time is literally flying by him brings a heightened urgency to his daily life. A man capable of both tenderness and murder, Moor Zogoiby—whose last name means "The Misfortunate"—makes an eloquent, ironic and moving protagonist. And then there's the antagonist. In the vengeful Vasco Miranda, Rushdie has created a memorable and flamboyant villain—an embittered, heartbroken, commercially successful, has-been artist clearly modeled after Salvador Dali. When Vasco aims a gun at Moor Zogoiby, they strike a bargain: As long as Moor keeps talking, Vasco will let him live. The allusions to Scheherazade and Rushdie's own predicament are unmistakable, but I am happy to say this big-hearted novel is all that and more.

Set primarily in the Bombay of Rushdie's birth and ending up in the arid landscape of southern Spain, The Moor's Last Sigh nevertheless feels and reads as if it were taking place everywhere in the world. Ancient cultures and spirits collide constantly with our confusing, cynical, violent, jet-set present. In Rushdie's dizzying, inclusive universe, the dispossessed, the exiled, the colonizers and the colonized clash, multiply and miscegenate. A lilting, playful rhyme asks a deadly serious question: "Christians, Portuguese, and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns … can this really be India?" And of course, it is.

Rushdie once wrote: "What seems to me to be happening is that those peoples who were once colonized by the language are now rapidly remaking it, domesticating it, becoming more and more relaxed about the way they use it." He claims English is an "Indian literary language," and rightly so. In this new novel, Rushdie the linguistic acrobat has the time of his life, and his text resonates with vibrant energy and music. English becomes magical and fluid—at times florid and ornate, at times funky and rhythmic, at times a mournful, lyrical lament, echoing Shakespeare: "O, I am deep in blood. There is blood on my shaking hands, and on my clothes. Blood smudges these words as I set them down. O the vulgarity, the garish un-ambiguity of blood. How tawdry it is, how thin." There are puns galore, highbrow and lowbrow asides, rhymes and ditties, tongue twisters and homages to Looney Tunes, Hollywood and Bollywood. A spectacular cast of characters includes the sisters Ina, Minnie and Mynah, the "Country and Eastern" singer Jimmy Cash, the Bombay mega-corporation House of Cashondeliveri, a nasty right-wing Hindu politician called Mainduck Fielding and a stuffed dog named Nehru.

The book bursts with glorious female characters—the fierce and sensual mothers of Rushdie's Mother India—powerful women capable of great courage, cruelty, greed and love. The men are often devious, smarmy, weak and dishonorable—never quite as much fun as Rushdie's women. After all, even Moor Zogoiby must wryly admit, "Nobody ever made a movie called Father India."

Art and commerce, sex and family, politics, religious fanaticism, ethnic cleansing and empire building—Rushdie examines all with razor wit and profound intelligence. The connections he makes are audacious, wickedly funny and right on target: "English and French sailed in the wake of that first-arrived Portugee, so that in the period called Discovery-of-India—but how could we be discovered when we were not covered before?—we were 'not so much sub-continent as subcondiment,' as my distinguished mother had it. 'From the beginning, what the world wanted from bloody mother India was daylight-clear,' she'd say. 'They came for the hot stuff, like any man calling on a tart.'" I didn't get a sense this time—as I sometimes did wending my way through the labyrinthine maze of The Satanic Verses—that Rushdie was being self-indulgent or "showing off" his cleverness. His verbal pyrotechnics in The Moor's Last Sigh are delightful and never gratuitous. The novel is fabulous and timely, contemporary in spirit yet crammed with historicalhighjinks and melodrama.

History repeats itself through exile and loss, love and betrayal. "The dispossessed Spanish Arab" Boabdil is betrayed by his "ejected Spanish Jewish" mistress, who steals his crown and flees to India. Moor Zogoiby is betrayed by both his father, Abraham, and the love of his life, a sly, conniving fox named Uma. Aurora, merciless mother and artist, "rosary crucifixion beatnik chick" and true star of Rushdie's epic, a woman who boasts of red chili peppers in her veins instead of blood, is both betrayed and betrayer. Out of all this pain, beauty and deceit, the exotic da Gama Zogoiby dynasty flourishes. Aurora paints her surreal masterpiece, The Moor's Last Sigh, in partial response to her tainted, convoluted legacy: "There was no stopping her. Around and about the figure of the Moor in his hybrid fortress she wove her vision…. In a way these were polemical pictures, in a way they were an attempt to create a romantic myth of the plural, hybrid nation; she was using Arab Spain to re-imagine India." The painting may (or may not) solve one of many ongoing mysteries in Rushdie's wise and compassionate book—"Who betrayed whom?" or "What's in a name?" The answers often lie in the questions themselves, and the terms palimpsest and hybrid are ubiquitous. Things are never what they seem at even a second glance. Just when you think you've uncovered the identity of the killer … surprise, surprise!

At novel's end, Moor Zogoiby returns to the site of his ancestor's rude downfall and experiences a final epiphany: "The Alhambra, Europe's red fort, sister to Delhi's and Agra's—the palace of interlocking forms and secret wisdom, of pleasure-courts and water-gardens, that monument to a lost possibility that nevertheless has gone on standing, long after its conquerors have fallen; like a testament to lost but sweetest love, to the love that endures beyond defeat, beyond annihilation, beyond despair; to the defeated love that is greater than what defeats it, to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of boundaries of the self."

In an eerie replay of his recent troubles, Rushdie's latest work has been attacked by ultra-conservative extremists, this time back "home" in Bombay. Through sheer intimidation and pressure by the powerful Hindu nationalist political party, Shiv Sena, The Moor's Last Sigh has been made "unavailable" in bookstores. The alarming Shiv Sena is led by 68-year-old Balasaheb Thackeray, staunch admirer of Hitler and obviously Rushdie's inspiration for the creepy and vicious Mainduck Fielding of the novel. Thackeray and his Shiv Sena followers have been accused of inciting anti-Muslim violence and causing the deaths of over a thousand Muslims. The New York Times quoted Thackeray dismissing Rushdie as "a man with no homeland." He was also quoted as saying, "I do not like people living in foreign countries criticizing us." Of course, Thackeray hasn't even bothered to read the novel—which may be just as well. The Moor's Last Sigh would probably confirm Thackeray and his cronies' worst expectations. They may not be the only ones in India outraged by the many parodies contained in this dangerous book. There is, after all, that stuffed dog.

Rushdie is at the peak of his form, writing as if a gun were pointed at him, performing for his life like narrator Moor:

"By embracing the inescapable, I lost my fear of it. I'll tell you a secret about fear: it's an absolutist. With fear, it's all or nothing. Either, like a bullying tyrant, it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes in a puff of smoke. And another secret: the revolution against fear, the engendering of that tawdry despot's fall, has more or less nothing to do with 'courage.' It is driven by something much more straightforward: the simple need to get on with your life. I stopped being afraid because, if my time on earth was limited, I didn't have seconds to spare for funk."

Shameless, innovative, irreverent, difficult, visionary, hilarious, accessible. Call it what you will—futuristic-contemporary-historical-postcolonial-multiculti thriller, spicy potboiler, slapstick, arty mystery, steamy love story, sudsy soap opera, moral fable, exhilarating adventure, tragicomedy—Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh is a great mother of a book.

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This section contains 1,790 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jessica Hagedorn