The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Michael Dirda

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 1,436 words
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Critical Review by Michael Dirda

SOURCE: "Where the Wonders Never Cease," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 7, 1996, pp. 1-2.

In the following review, Dirda finds The Moor's Last Sigh further evidence of his contention that Rushdie is among the world's greatest writers.

Over the past several years Salman Rushdie has become, to his sorrow, such a symbolic figure that it is easy to lose sight of the most important fact about him: He really is one of the world's great writers. One need only read the first sentence of this wondrous new novel—a book comparable, it seems to me, to Robertson Davies' masterpiece, What's Bred in the Bone, even, at times, to Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude—to feel its irresistible narrative pace, its openly melodramatic panache:

"I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda's mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door."

Only those without a smidgen of Gothic romance in their souls could possibly set down The Moor's Last Sigh at this point. Or at any other point, for that matter. "Just a few more pages," you will think to yourself at 2 a.m., or as your Metro stop whizzes by. Throughout his book Rushdie sustains an altogether breathtaking riot of marvels, grotesques and horrors. On their wedding night a handsome young groom enters his trembling wife's bedroom, slips into her virginal white dress, and steals away to the arms of a sailor nicknamed Prince Henry the Navigator. A wealthy Indian communist expends a fortune to organize a troupe of Lenin lookalikes. At one point our narrator-hero—Moraes Zagoiby—even takes up with a tin man, a scarecrow and a cowardly frog. Another character acquires a British bulldog which he names Jawaharlal; after the animal dies, his old master pulls its stuffed body around on wheels. A desperately poor boy discovers a king's crown, set with emeralds, in an old wooden chest. A Jewish criminal mastermind actually agrees to steal a doomsday weapon for "certain oil-rich countries and their ideological allies."

Basically a generational saga, The Moor's Last Sigh traces the history of the da Gama-Zogoiby family over three generations, from the late 1800s to 1993. Most of the action takes place in India, in either Cochin or Bombay, though the plot comes to its dying fall in Spain, near the Alhambra, that ancient fortress of the Moors. The main characters are Aurora da Gama, beautiful, willful and perhaps the greatest artist of modern India; her husband, Abraham Zagoiby, a mere clerk in the da Gama family's spice business, 20 years her elder, whom Aurora loves at first sight and who proves to possess unsuspected gifts for commerce and other matters; and their son, Moraes, burdened with a curse: Because his mother longed for a child who would grow up quickly, Moraes soon finds that he is going through time faster than he should. He is born after only four and a half months' gestation; at 20 he looks like a man of 40.

Around these central figures swarm dozens of subsidiary characters: an artist who starts his career by painting cartoons on the walls of a nursery and ends by earning a fortune with his airport murals; a young beauty who can make herself all things to all men—and women—but who just might be a vampiric Lamia; Ina, Minnie and Mynah, the three doomed Zagoiby girls, whose nicknames partially explain their brother's—"the Moor"; a museum curator who has authored "Imperso-Nation and Dis/Semi/Nations: Dialogics of Eclecticism and Interrogations of Authenticity in A.Z." (that is, Aurora Zagoiby); Nadia Wadia, Miss World, "who has a walk like a warrior and a voice like a dirty phone call"; a young Indian who changes his name to Jimmy Cash and travels to Nashville with his "Country and Eastern" music; and even a mother who demands her own son's first-born in exchange for a desperately needed loan.

Supporting these amazing characters is Rushdie's equally amazing language, sliding effortlessly from Indian slang to Joycean self-interrogation to Oxonian English; peppered with puns and wordplay; quickened with allusions to literature, pop culture (Vito Corleone, Bugs Bunny), contemporary history (the deaths of Indira, Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi), and, inevitably, movies like that Rushdie favorite, "The Wizard of Oz," and the surrealist masterpiece "Un Chien Andalou": In Spain, for instance, while on a visit to a Dali-like painter, the Moor notices that "the region was full of starving, disappointed Andalusian dogs."

On almost any page of The Moor's Last Sigh, one may light on sentences as taut as aphorisms or as shrewd as folk wisdom: "'A bad mistake, Abie,' old Moshe Cohen commented. 'To make an enemy of your mother; for enemies are plentiful, but mothers are hard to find.' "One ancient crone tellingly skewers nursery rhymes and songs: "What shall we do with the shrunken tailor?" and "Morally, morally, morally, morally … wife is not a queen." There are puns, blatant and buried, on Moors and last sighs: the Ultimo Suspiro gas station, "a Moor in love," the Last Gasp Saloon, a supper falsely Frenchified as a "dernier soupir," the sighs of asthma, procreation and death. Outrageous names proliferate with Pynchonian abandon, my favorite being Sir Duljee Duljeebhoy Cashondeliveri (whose scion becomes Jimmy Cash). Why, you may ask, do Popeye and Jehovah resemble each other? Because, as we unforgettably learn here, both exclaim "I yam what I yam." Then there is the Indian version of Einstein's famous theory: "Everything is for relative. Not only light bends but everything. For relative we can bend a point, bend the truth, bend employment criteria, bend the law … "A man who is severely beaten, we are informed by a dread enforcer known as the Hammer, will be irreversibly changed: "To be beaten for a long time upon the soles of the feet, for example, affects laughter. Those who are so beaten never laugh again." And there is this nonpareil description of passionate lovemaking:

"He came to her as a man goes to his doom, trembling but resolute, and it is around here that my words run out, so you will not learn from me the bloody details of what happened when she, and then he, and then they, and after that she, and at which he, and in response to that she, and with that, and in addition, and for a while, and then for a long time, and quietly, and noisily, and at the end of their endurance, and at last, and after that, until … phew!"

The Moor's Last Sigh opens like an adventure story, soon metamorphoses into a kind of fairy-tale romance (at times a Freudian family romance) and then, in its last third, grows significantly darker, more Gothic and finally violent and bloody. I'm not sure that the Grand Guignol of these concluding pages, with their demonizing of various characters, doesn't weaken the book slightly. But everyone in this superb novel is so greedy for success and self-fulfillment, so lustful and flamboyant and larger-than-life that one ultimately accepts every excess, from sophomoric puns to foreshadowing to the unexpected volte-face that certain key players undergo.

Like the window that Aurora throws open early in the novel, the 448 pages of The Moor's Last Sigh may let in almost anything: "the dust and tumult of boats in Cochin harbour, the horns of freighters and tugboat chugs, the fishermen's dirty jokes and the throb of their jellyfish stings, the sunlight as 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 Gandhi and Nehru, the rumours 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."

And more. This is a novel about love, identity, art, ambition, religion, politics and death. Above all, about modern India and a family that "just didn't know how to be calm." As her wonderstruck father says to the young Aurora Zagoiby when he glimpses her first great masterpiece, and as this similarly wonderstruck reviewer must now repeat: Here "is the great swarm of being itself."

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This section contains 1,436 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michael Dirda