This section contains 1,555 words
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Critical Review by Norman Rush
SOURCE: "Doomed in Bombay," in The New York Times Book Review, January 14, 1996, p. 7.
In the following review, Rush praises The Moor's Last Sigh as an apt response to the tyrannical reaction to The Satanic Verses.
Salman Rushdie's new novel, his first since the infamous fatwa issued by the Iranian Government in 1989 as punishment for putatively blasphemous passages in his satire The Satanic Verses, comes heavily attended by certain inevitable questions. How is Mr. Rushdie holding up after six years in hiding? What kind of story is the world's most famous living author, in this extraordinary situation, going to tell us and, of course, himself? Is this another book that will give offense, and to whom? Will this book comment, directly or otherwise, on the dogma-driven expansion of censorship and persecution affecting writers in so many parts of the world? It's only when we've worked through this vanguard of questions that we're free to ask what we can take from this novel, as opposed to all the novels it competes with—serious novels whose ambitions are to show us what we urgently need to know or feel in this threatening moment, when alarms and grim forewarnings crowd in on us, making so many of our innocent pastimes feel difficult to justify, fiction reading itself not excepted.
It turns out that the topical questions are easily answered; and it turns out, also, that this novel, looked at as a work of literary art, is a triumph, an intricate and deceptive one. The evidence is that Mr. Rushdie is in good creative health, his imaginative powers undamaged. The story he tells deals analogically and subtly with the shaping of his predicament, and writing it must have been tonic, though not necessarily consoling. It's a work that honorably serves the republic of letters and in the process exposes its author to a new range of potential antagonists.
The Moor's Last Sigh is a picaresque recounting of the rise, decline and plunge to extinction of a Portuguese merchant family anciently established in southern India, focusing on the period from 1900 to the present. The hapless narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, born, like Mr. Rushdie, in Bombay (but in 1967, 10 years later), has composed these pages during exile and imprisonment in a replica of the Alhambra built and run by a madman (a former protégé of the family) in rural Andalusia Moraes, nicknamed the Moor, is the last living member of the da Gama-Zogoiby line. Throughout, echoes of Mr. Rushdie's own predicament are hard not to detect. "Here I stand; couldn't've done it differently" is one of the Moor's last thoughts as be roams the Andalusian countryside, following his doomed escape from captivity, annoyed that there are no church doors handy for nailing his screed to.
At the center of the chronicle is the demonically talented painter Aurora Zogoiby, whose career flourishes from the 1940's through the 1980's. Moraes is her son, one of four children who all achieve doom at young ages; he himself is a physical giant who was born with a deformed right hand and with a form of progeria that makes him appear to be twice his actual age. In the course of the novel, the action moves from the family estate on Cabral Island, in Cochin, the site of the family's spice business, to Malabar Hill, the wealthiest suburb of Bombay, where Aurora attains celebrity, and where the family business, under the direction of her common-law Jewish band, Abraham, grows to fantastic success and exfoliates into the basest criminality. I will resist the temptation to summarize the kinks and jags in the family trajectory since they're too much fun to encounter the first time through, but the reader may be assured that all the weird fruit that family trees produce is here—betrayals, lunacies, failed crusades, venery, the lot. The watershed events of modern Indian history regularly protrude into the tale—the independence struggle, partition, the emergency, the B.C.C.I. scandal, the rise of Hindu fundamentalism. There is a pyrotechnical denouement. And the story plays out through an elegant double metaphor twinning the expulsion of the Moors from Spain with the symbolic expulsion from India of our set of Iberian colonizers.
The grand deception in this book is to conceal a bitter cautionary tale within bright, carnivalesque wrappings. Mr. Rushdie, defiant, plays a dire light on the evil consequences, for the religiously indifferent but nominally Christian da Gama-Zogoiby clan, of militant religion in various guises. The recent de facto banning of The Moor's Last Sigh by the Indian Government may not be so surprising. (The Government cut off imports of the book after just 4,000 copies had come into the country.) In addition to a few offhand scurrilisms about Pandit Nehru's private life (and the naming of a dog after him), the book contains a devastating portrait of a Hindu political boss, Raman Fielding, who brings unfavorably to mind the powerful Hindu nationalist leader Bal Thackeray. There's much to offend here, and all along the spectrum of belief. At the heart of the plot, for example, is a satanic Jew (more about this later), and all the outright believers in the cast of characters—the pious self-immolator who inadvertently burns the Moor's grandmother to death, the interfering Anglican priest …, the Moor's multiple-personality-disorder afflicted Hindu lover—are odious in some strong way. Which is not to say that this tale should be taken merely as a broadly anti-creedal parable. Mr. Rushdie's subject is subtler than that. What results in cataclysm is the interaction of the reflexive, undefined, pooped-out unreligion of the da Gama-Zogoibys with the absolutist forms of religious identification taking hold in India.
What else does this antic tragedy provide, along the way? At a minimum, the following: (1) a parody of the family saga novel so acute that the genre can never look quite the same; (2) acerbic snapshots of the colonialist mentalité in various stages of defeat; (3) a celebration of the city of Bombay and a lament for its decosmopolitanization; (4) an affectionate and masterly representation of Indian English, with all the jokes, puns and quiddities the dialect encourages; (5) a mordant reflection on the final outlook for religious nationalism in India, whose most cheering conclusion is that any hope for the downfall of that institution lies in the infinite mercenary corruptibility of the human species; (6) an equally mordant rumination on the future of serious art, featuring set-piece descriptions of the paintings of Aurora Zogolby so vivid that the reader is convinced her works are indeed brilliant creations.
As always, Mr. Rushdie writes with brio, vigor and wit. Here, for example, is an offhand, parenthetical characterization—of a Bombay restaurant, an Iranian restaurant, the Sorryno: "(so called because of the huge blackboard at the entrance reading Sorry, No Liquor, No Answer Given Regarding Addresses in Locality, No Combing of Hair, No Beef, No Haggle, No Water Unless Food Taken, No News or Movie Magazine, No Sharing of Liquid Sustenances, No Taking Smoke, No Match, No Feletone Calls, No Incoming With Own Comestible, No Speaking of Horses, No Sigret, No Taking of Long Time on Premises, No Raising of Voice, No Change, and a crucial last pair, No Turning Down of Volume—It is How We Like, and No Musical Request—All Melodies Selected Are to Taste of Prop)."
The resonances in this adroit aside will not escape most readers.
A novel, as Randall Jarrell put it, is a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it. And there are some imperfections in The Moor's Last Sigh. Even granting that a point being made in the unscrolling of the family history is that religious identity seems to make not much difference when it encounters the underlying human propensity to do wrong, there's still something off-putting about the casting of Abraham Zogoiby, the patriarch, as a kind of Jewish Professor Moriarty of subcontinental crime, a controller of Muslim gangs, a drug kingpin, a plotter involved in creating the Islamic Bomb, a procurer of little girls. His Jewishness is repeatedly referred to, even though he's not observant and has in the past been blocked in an attempt to convert to Christianity. Maybe this piece of portraiture could have been painted less hyperbolically, in cognizance of the paranoid mythologies of secret Jewish power so widely current.
This could be an overreaction on my part, stemming from awareness that "The Turner Diaries" and "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" are underground best sellers in this country and that there is a peculiar general relish in our Christian culture for images of the flamboyantly transgressive Jew, from Howard Stern to Philip Roth's Mickoy Sabbath. I do understand the requirements of symmetry Mr. Rushdie faced in the peopling of this novel—moral unattractiveness is everywhere (all the native Indian characters are morally challenged, except for the family cook)—so I suppose my question should be taken more as venting than as literary criticism. That said, there's not much else to note in a critical way, other than that the ending of the book has a certain dashed-together feel to it, and that there are occasional curlicues here and there, minor instances of ornament overextended.
So, another brave and dazzling fable from Salman Rushdie, one that meets the test of civic usefulness—broadly conceived—as certainly as it fulfills the requirements of true art. No retort to tyranny could be more eloquent.
This section contains 1,555 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)