The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Gail Caldwell

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
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Critical Review by Gail Caldwell

SOURCE: "For Love of Mother," in The Boston Globe, January 14, 1996, p. B43.

In the following review, Caldwell describes The Moor's Last Sigh as "a parable of modern India."

In Salman Rushdie's vast, torrential ode to modern India, the streets are filled with the smells of history: spices and blood and yesterday's tragedies, mingled with the sweet promise of tomorrow's lies. The Moor's Last Sigh is a prodigiously realized, sometimes exhausting novel, cloaked in an elegant satire that barely masks the moral conviction at its center. Its story roams from Bombay to Spain over most of the 20th century, and though its panoply of characters focuses chiefly upon four generations of one Jewish-Christian family, its real protagonist is Mother India. Wrought with passion and anger and a fierce lampoonery that only history's agonies can evoke, The Moor's Last Sigh trains its rapid-fire intelligence on anything that moves.

Conceived with the same blast of momentum that drove Rushdie's 1982 novel, Midnight's Children, this epochal work has as its narrator Moor (christened Moraes) Zogoiby—the only son of Aurora and Abraham, a man born with a marked right hand and the biological condition of premature aging, or living his life on double time. (His mother's pregnancy was complete at 4 1/2 months; at 30, he has the body and fatigue of a 60-year-old.) Oedipal subject of his mother's paintings, lover to a traitor of monstrous proportions, ambivalent prodigal son to his family's bloody legacy—Moor's first lessons, he tells us, were of "metamorphosis and disguise"; he has been forced, by the curse of his body, "to live out the literal truth of the metaphors." Banished from his own narrative, he has chosen to spill the family secrets: those of the wealthy da Gamas, rich beyond measure from the spice trade, with their decades of perverse betrayals, hidden desires and hellish misunderstandings. Moor is the only one left standing now, and he has nearly lost his life more than once in this telling of the tale. So sing, Scheherazade, and save us all

Certainly he has plenty of material from which to spin his stories: a patrilineal line of suicides, a mother who, as a young girl, watched her grandmother die without going for help. The old matriarch cursed the child before she died: "May your house be for ever partitioned, may its foundations, may your children rise up against you, and may your fall be hard." The trials of the next half-century would only prove how fully that wish came true.

Rife with political deceits and emotional tyrannies, The Moor's Last Sigh is a parable of modern India, but it also contains treatises on art and modernity, speculations on Dante and Milton, references to Indian film and "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Lone Ranger." It is a paean to living at the end of the 20th century: to having survived the 20th century, with all its pain and vulgarity and bloody rivers of violent conflict. We are given, wholesale, an "inexhaustible Bombay of excess," but also a tale of familial destruction and a son's desperate obsession to capture the story of the dead: "the giant dead whom we cannot tie down, though we grasp at their hair, though we rope them while they sleep." The task in this novel is huge, and the fact that it is even partly achieved seems more than admirable.

Throughout The Moor's Last Sigh are the kind of intricate stories that saved Scheherazade's life: a house divided between families, down to counting the lizards on the walls; a woman who takes in her husband's male (and syphilitic) lover, then beats him at cards; a young nun who sees into the future. But the crux of the tale is the stormy, sometimes treacherous love of Moor and Aurora. "We loved her even as she destroyed us," he admits, and that obsessive tension—between mother and son, between the promise of India and its individual dramas—is what propels this novel to its triumphant final pages.

In a move that only served to underscore its authenticity, The Moor's Last Sigh was promptly condemned in India upon its publication there last year, partly owing to Rushdie's demonic depiction in the novel of a Hindu nationalist leader who greatly resembles a real political figure, Balasaheb K. Thackeray. (The author has also named a stuffed bulldog Jawaharlal Nehru, after India's first prime minister.) And certainly Rushdie's own plight—he has been under an edict of death from the late Ayatollah Khomeini since 1989, accused of blasphemy in "The Satanic Verses"—provides a shadowy aura to his story, which is weighted with the notion of exile. Still, these external realities inform rather than dictate the novel. Its chief concern is wider than that in all directions, for Rushdie knows that one of the fiercest ways to dismantle a monster is to render it absurd.

That's partly why the rare sorrowful writing within The Moor's Last Sigh feels so abruptly powerful; when Moor confesses his role in "the ruin of our great house," his family's plight resounds with Faulknerian doom. But mostly Rushdie hedges on any empathic contact with his characters. As artist, mother and infidel, Aurora is a stunning figure, but she never elicits the human sympathy from the reader on which most fiction is fueled. Rushdie has sacrificed emotional identification for metaphor and wit—he has served up his characters with such wicked force that they're stand-ins for entire cultures, for whole sweepstakes of human affairs, rather than simply being fully themselves. This choice—and one assumes it was a choice—is by no means lethal, but it is limiting. Awed by the reach and propulsion of The Moor's Last Sigh, I was never as engaged as I wanted to be. The novel is cool as a diamond. Sharp and brilliant and unquestionably valuable, but a diamond, nonetheless.

What I am offering, of course, is a decidedly Western and bourgeois bias: a viewpoint with room (and preference) for the individual and the emotional. And Rushdie's may be the grander vista. "A tragedy was taking place all right," Moor tells us, "a national tragedy on a grand scale, but those of us who played our parts were—let me put it bluntly—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."

So the defeat in The Moor's Last Sigh is mythic as well as personal; if its story overwhelms at times, it is, like Moor's beloved Bombay, a world of passionate excess. The ironic distance that sometimes drives the novel may be a fortunate byproduct of biculturalism; Rushdie—born in India, relocated to England—knows that "civilisation is the sleight of hand that conceals our natures from ourselves." Teeming with both civilization and the abominable, global lack of it, The Moor's Last Sigh is a novel of great intelligence and noble moral suasion.

India was uncertainty. It was deception and illusion. Here at Fort Cochin the English had striven mightily to construct a mirage of Englishness, where English bungalows clustered around an English green, where there were Rotarians and golfers and tea-dances and cricket and a Masonic Lodge. But D'Aeth could not help seeing through the conjuring trick, couldn't help hearing the false vowels of the coir traders lying about their education, or wincing at the coarse dancing of their to-tell-the-truth-mostly-rather-common wives, or seeing the bloodsucker lizards beneath the English hedges, the parrots flying over the rather un-Home-Counties jacaranda trees. And when he looked out to sea the illusion of England vanished entirely; for the harbour could not be disguised, and no matter how Anglicised the land might be, it was contradicted by the water; as if England were being washed by an alien sea. Alien, and encroaching; for Oliver D'Aeth knew enough to be sure that the frontier between the English enclaves and the surrounding foreignness had become permeable, was beginning to dissolve. India would reclaim it all.

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This section contains 1,330 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Gail Caldwell