The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Paul Gray

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 866 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Paul Gray

SOURCE: "Writing to Save His Life," in Time, Vol. 147, No. 3, January 15, 1996, pp. 70-1.

In the following review, Gray finds The Moor's Last Sigh's "leisurely wordiness is a mark of Rushdie's mastery."

Near the end of The Moor's Last Sigh, a madman holds the novel's narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, prisoner. The captor, an old but rejected friend of Zogoiby's late, flamboyant mother, demands a history of her family before killing its teller. "He had made a Scheherazade of me," Moraes writes. "As long as my tale held his interest he would let me live."

Coming from Salman Rushdie, the notion of a man writing under a death sentence takes on a certain poignance. And the temptation exists, since he is the West's most prominent enforced recluse, to read everything he has written since the Ayatullah Khomeini's infamous fatwa in 1988 as a comment on his personal dilemma. But The Moor's Last Sigh—Rushdie's first novel since The Satanic Verses—should not be taken only, or even principally, as veiled autobiography. It is much too teeming and turbulent, too crammed with history and dreams, to fit into any imaginable category, except that of the magically comic and sad.

The story that Moraes—nicknamedthe Moor by his parents—most urgently wants to tell is how his "happy childhood in Paradise" ended in a bitter exile decreed by his mother Aurora da Gama Zogoiby, a famous painter and one of India's most controversial women. But since he is literally writing for time, the Moor throws in a whole lot more: everything he has heard or can remember or dream up about his mother's family. The eccentric and marvelously fractious Da Gamas trace their lineage, perhaps incorrectly, to the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who was the first European to reach India, thereby launching the spice trade that made the Moor's forebears wealthy. "Mine is the story of the fall from grace of a high-born crossbreed," the Moor notes, although the past "grace" he mentions consists largely of Da Gama insanities, grudges and general bad behavior. "What an epidemic of getting-even runs through my tale, what a malaria cholera typhoid of eye-for-tooth and tit-for-tat! No wonder I have ended up …"

He pauses, of course; revealing things too early is not in his best interests. But eventually he gets to the love-at-first-sight meeting of his future parents and the births of his three elder sisters and finally his own, which is unusual in that his mother carried him only 4 1/2 months. He calls himself "a man living double quick." For every year he lives he ages two. "No need for supernatural explanations; some cock-up in the DNA will do."

Readers of Rushdie's earlier novels will recognize the Moor's unusual affliction as a typical ambushing of the real by the preposterous. In his speeded-up growth, which makes him bigger than everyone else his age—"I was a skyscraper freed of all legal restraints, a one-man population explosion, a megalopolis"—the Moor can stand as an embodiment of India itself. The link is underscored by the pulls and tugs on his loyalties, the presumptive European strain in his ancestry and the transreligion union between his Christian mother and Jewish father: "I, however, was raised neither as Catholic nor as Jew. I was both, and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. I was—what's the word these days?—atomised. Yessir: a real Bombay mix."

But Rushdie, speaking through the Moor, is not writing an allegory or a political tract about recent Indian history, although elements of both are undeniably present. And when his narrator gets a bit preachy, he quickly cuts himself off: "Enough, enough: away with this soapbox! Unplug this loud-hailer, and be still, my wagging finger!" The true subject of The Moor's Last Sigh is language in all its uninhibited and unpredictable power to go reality one better and rescue humans from the fate of suffering in silence.

The Moor's deft way with words seems to be an inheritance from his mother, whose odd way of speaking he lovingly records. Here she instructs an artist to paint her children's nursery with episodes drawn from Hollywood cartoons: "Give me boulders that only temporarily flattofy you when they drop down on your head, bombs that give black faces only, and running-over-empty-air-until-you-looko down. Give me knottofied-up rifle barrels, and bathfuls of big gold coins. Never mind about harps and angels, forget all those stinking gardens; for my kiddies, this is the Paradise I want."

And that is the paradise from which the Moor is eventually ejected. But he holds on to its entertaining, eclectic energy in the telling of his sad tale. Puns and allusions—to everything from Shakespeare and Joyce to Bombay "Bollywood" movies—abound on nearly every page. Proper names hide tricks that only sounding them out against the inner ear will reveal; the Moor's businessman father takes over a failing firm called the House of Cashondeliveri.

Those who read novels as pale substitutes for movies—no pictures, no sound track—may find The Moor's Last Sigh tough sledding. But its leisurely wordiness is a mark of Rushdie's mastery. "In the end, stories are what's left of us," says the Moor. To tell and to read them here is to celebrate life.

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This section contains 866 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Paul Gray