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Critical Review by Richard Eder
SOURCE: "English as a Wicked Weapon," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 7, 1996, pp. 3, 13.
Below, Eder presents a mixed review of The Moor's Last Sigh.
Why is Moraes Zogoiby, disinherited scion of twin artistic and financial dynasties in Bombay, cowering in a graveyard across from Granada's Alhambra, having escaped from a mad compatriot intent on murdering him? Or, to transmute fiction back into reality, why is Salman Rushdie, twin scion of literature and of a wealthy Indian Muslim family, hiding from a different form of coreligionary murderousness (except when he ventures out for a reception or a ceremony)?
The Moor's Last Sigh is not Rushdie's first fictional reflection on the extremist Muslim death sentence imposed on him for The Satanic Verses. His first effort was a children's tale, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a whimsical allegory in which good adventures magically defeat evil necromancers. No such victory takes place in the painful chaos of his new full-length novel. There is whimsy in it—Rushdie cannot bare his teeth without grinning to mock the gesture—but it is mainly at the level of language.
Rushdie is wickedly adept at English: It is his tongue of upbringing and art, and yet he employs it as if it oppressed him. Language is power; English was the language of his forebears' colonizers. Today, in the Indian subcontinent it is the language of those who, like Rushdie, inherited English culture and position and who now are threatened by fundamentalisms voiced in Hindi, Urdu and a half-dozen other languages.
English is all Rushdie has got, and it goads him continually. And he goads back: punning, mocking, exaggerating its possibilities, impersonating it with comic absurdity. He is not so much an artist of the English language as its brilliant—and sometimes intolerable—cartoonist. Moraes, his narrator and symbolic alter ego, is grotesquely wordy, as if he did not own his story but only the words he uses to tell it. He uses English not to commune but to estrange; not as "Come close and see' but a more ornate "Stand back and behold."
The Moor's Last Sigh is a four-generation roman-fleuve about the Vasco da Gama family, whose patriarch, Francisco, established a flourishing spice empire in Cochin on India's Malabar coast. Of Portuguese Christian descent, Francisco married a woman of Indian, Jewish and Christian lineage. The family fortunes survived choppily amid murderous family feuds and splits, the jailing of Francisco's two sons—one pro-British and one pro-independence—a flourishing reign by his daughter-in-law, Belle, and the marriage of Belle's daughter, Aurora, to Abraham Zogoiby, a member of Cochin's ancient Jewish community.
Abraham and Aurora move to Bombay after World War II. He expands the family business, by hook and corrupt crook, into a multibillion-dollar banking, real estate, trading and, eventually, drug and arms-smuggling conglomerate. He becomes a brilliant painter and a social and political celebrity. Aurora's connections include all of India's top political personages, among them Jawaharlal Nehru, one of her lovers.
The first part of this family saga, in the languorous plantation atmosphere of Cochin, has an intimate and sensual humanity along with its violence and odd, displacing prodigies. There is, in fact, a suggestion of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's sweet magical rigor. The subsequent career of Aurora and Zogoiby in Bombay is all the opposite.
The two figures, who start out appealingly human, become constructs of passion, power and greed. Eventually, Abraham's empire collapses in scandal, and Aurora dies when an "accident" arranged by her husband sends her hurtling from the roof of her mansion. Rushdie makes their rise to godlike heights and their separate godlike falls a symbol of the corruption and ruthless hypertrophy of postwar India's political and financial circles.
"Corruption was the only force we had that could defeat fanaticism," was the pronouncement of Vasco Miranda, a painter protégé of Aurora's, her would-be lover and eventually, after she banishes him, the family's bitterest enemy. It is the grim double chokehold in which young Moraes grows up, as well as Rushdie's dark verdict not only on India but on a wider emerging world.
Moraes is the family's only son. He is born with two flaws, both glaringly symbolic. His right hand ends in a hammerlike claw. At one point he will become a hired thug and use the claw to beat people up. It is the writer's hammer, of course, and the writer's estranging deformity.
Moraes's second twist is that he ages twice as fast as other people. Born 4 1/2 months after conception, he cries inside the womb and his passage down the birth canal is impeded by a precocious erection. By the book's end, having escaped from the Spanish tower where Vasco Miranda was about to kill him, he will be in his mid-70s without having reached 40. The modern world not only deforms and debases, it does so faster and faster.
The Moor's Last Sigh is laden with action, incident and a steady production of new characters. It is dense, rich, sometimes entrancing, always frenetic and oddly static. The activity is that of a frieze, rather like the elaborate and static ornamentation of the Moorish Alhambra, to which I will return. After they leave Cochin, the characters no longer really live—the emblematic, speeded-up Moraes least of all—but depict, instead.
What they depict is not always clear. Aurora, virtually a goddess, is worshiped by her son, who tries unsuccessfully to win her favor and whom she eventually banishes. The agent of banishment is Uma, virtually an Aurora replica. She seduces Moraes, estranges him from his family by means of vile calumnies and eventually dies by grotesquely comic mistake while trying to poison him.
I am not sure what the role of these witchy women is, apart from adding to Moraes' prodigious misery. There have been suggestions that they reflect Rushdie's own feelings about women he has known. Neither of them helps the novel—quite the opposite. Nor does Zogoiby as bloodless, ancient, capitalist spider add much, except a cliché.
A much more interesting figure is the man for whom Moraes goes to work as an enforcer. Maidenduck is the political boss of Bombay, a right-wing Hindu nationalist demagogue with strong-arm bands that go around instigating the burning of mosques, breaking the legs of strikers and compelling reluctant Hindu widows to climb onto their husbands' funeralpyres. Based on a real Bombay politician who is so recognizable that The Moor's Last Sigh has undergone an unofficial ban in India—a less violent counterpart, of course, to Muslim anger at Satanic Verses—Maidenduck represents the destructive violence of fundamentalist demagogy. On the other hand, Rushdie portrays him with subtlety and even a trace of appalled sympathy.
The book works trenchantly as a dark and sardonic message, and this alone would give it value. Sometimes it works as symbol, as well. The title, for instance, refers to the legend of Boabdil, the last Moorish king of Granada. Defeated by the Spaniards, he paused weeping for one last look at his beloved city. Scornfully, his mother cried out: "Weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man." Rushdie's target is the world's privileged—the rich, the intellectuals, the political leaders—who, failing to take action against the dark forces of history, will not be worth saving.
Message and symbol shine out here and there. Rarely, though, do they work by means of the novel itself. Despite its agitated plotting (the war between capitalists, fundamentalists and plain criminal gangs ends in a twilight-of-the-gods-style bombing orgy) and Rushdie's febrile way with words, the book remains an enclosed, even a solipsistic work.
If The Satanic Verses was a splendid explosion sometimes out of control, The Moor's Last Sigh is an implosion only partly achieved.
This section contains 1,267 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)