The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by James Wood

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 2,873 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by James Wood

SOURCE: "Salaam Bombay!," in New Republic, Vol. 214, No. 12, March 18, 1996, pp. 38-41.

In the following review, Wood offers a mixed assessment of The Moor's Last Sigh.

In 1835, Macaulay threw out one of those phrasal boomerangs that returns not to arm but to maim its sender: "A single shelf of a good European library is worth the whole native literature of India." In this century, Macaulay has been paid back by Indian literature for that untruth: he has been pelted with masterpieces. The two most significant novelists working in England—V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie—are Indian in origin. Both have made comic war on English condescension, and both have made peace with their now enriched victim. Rushdie in particular has seemed to want to tip a shelf of European books into his novels in reply to Macaulay, to want to make his books costive and prodigal and bursting, and with a decidedly un-English philosophical rasp. His new novel is calmer and more elegiac than anything he has yet written, but with its allusions to Kipling, Conrad and Shakespeare, it nevertheless overflows with ambiguous gratitude.

Although Rushdie once referred to India's literary revenge on its former colonizers as "the Empire striking back," the parties were only at familial war, since Rushdie's comedy is highly indebted to English comic ancestors such as Sterne and Dickens. Indeed, The Moor's Last Sigh, a rich saga of four generations of a doomed twentieth-century Portuguese-Spanish-Indian trading family, whose wealth has been based on the export of pepper, has a madcap English tilt, recalling the tottering empire raised on quack medicine in H.G. Wells's Tono-Bungay. As in Wells, there is a certain crudity: comic energy tends to be vulgar.

Moraes Zogoiby, the novel's narrator, praises and struggles against what he calls "the ridiculous and ludicrous perversity of my family." Rushdie's characters talk like Wodehouse characters playing with Hobson-Jobson: "In this God-fearing Christian house, British still is best, madder-moyselle…. If you have ambitions in our boy's direction, then please to mindofy your mouth. You want dark or white meat? Speak up. Glass of imported Dão wine, nice cold? You can have. Pudding-shudding? Why not. These are Christmas topics, frawline. You want stuffing?" This is not always delightful. Since Rushdie's narrator tells his story with a similar jauntiness, he sometimes leaves the impression of a novel without internal borders, a wheel of hilarity turning gritlessly fast.

The perversity of Moraes Zogoiby's family is more than incidental. Its statelessness and its manic irreligiousness represent for Rushdie a secular, postmodern virtue: the family madness is the carnival that overflows the liturgy. Moraes is of mixed Jewish, Arab and Christian descent, and is proudly dissolved: "I was a nobody from nowhere, like no-one, belonging to nothing." He rejoices in his family's secularism, and Rushdie cannot resist, it seems, inserting an autobiographical splinter: "somehow, by some great fluke that seemed at the time the most ordinary thing in the world, my parents had been cured of religion. (Where's their medicine, their priest-poison-beating anti-venene? Bottle it, for pity's sake, and send it round the world!)"

Moraes's family line is a fuse of lost causes, with Moraes its explosive issue. He tells us first about his great-grandfather Francisco da Gama, of Portuguese descent, who at the end of the nineteenth century established the Indian spice dynasty in Cochin. Francisco was soon lost to theosophy and modernism. With a precocious 20-year-old French architect (the young Le Corbusier, we discover) he builds two zany houses on his new plot of Indian ground, anointing them "East" and "West." From time to time, he informs his family at breakfast that today they are "going East" or "moving West"—"whereupon the whole household had no choice but to move lock, stock, and barrel into one or another of the Frenchman's follies."

Francisco's son, Camoens, weds his soul to English poetry and to the Russian Revolution. He manages a troupe of actors who specialize in looking like and impersonating Lenin. When a Lenin lookalike from Russia arrives to inspect the Indian pretenders, he is appalled by their amateurish approximations. Camoens turns his flailing ardor on Nehru and the independence movement, but he resists the country's growing Hindu zeal. He complains that the movement is trying to make Hinduism monotheistic by elevating the God Ram, whom he nicknames "Battering Ram." "With that God stuff I got scared," he tells his family. "In the city we are for secular India but the village is for Ram." His brother, Aires, is a pro-British conservative who retaliates by naming his British bull-dog after Nehru.

At the heart of the book is a thriving portrait of a woman, Aurora da Gama, Moraes's capricious mother. Beautiful, negligent, she is a torment and a lure. At 15, she chooses Abraham Zogoiby as her consort, in defiance of family wisdom. Abraham is a lowly manager at the company's warehouse. He is a Jew with an oddly Arabic name (he finds out that he is the bastard off-spring of a Jewish-Arabic dalliance). Abraham and Aurora never marry, but they live as if they are married. Aurora becomes a celebrated painter, while Abraham builds the da Gama empire into a feared conglomerate. Their fine house on Malabar Hill, overlooking the sea outside Bombay, hosts painters, radicals and dandies.

This exuberance finds its match in Rushdie's language. All of Rushdie's novels have been attempts to explode the literary past. Newness is Rushdie's subject and his procedure. Midnight's Children was about India's birth into partition, and it created a new style to grease this passage into life. Rushdie's is a mutant language, made up of Anglo-Indian compounds, plush puns (a man with cold balls is "freezing his assets") and a jumble of high and low registers. Rushdie has always shopped around for his effects and has found the bargain-basementas interesting as the top floor. His new novel makes reference to The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Blade Runner. Indian writing in English has tended to enjoy the grind of high against low, particularly the swoop from high culture to lowly brand name. Naipaul's early novels generate mock-heroic pathos this way: "When he [Mr. Biswas] got home, he mixed and drank some Maclean's Brand Stomach Powder, undressed, got into bed and read some Epictetus." Rushdie's sentences have a similar comic quiver: "It seems that in the late summer of that year, my grandfather, Dr. Aadam Aziz, contracted a highly dangerous form of optimism." Rushdie takes pleasure in transcribing spoken Indian English onto the page, with its characteristic speed and jumpiness: "Proper London itself, Bigben Nelsoncolumn Lordstavern Bloodytower Queen."

Rushdie will happily sacrifice a page for an excruciating pun. In his new novel, we encounter the Parsi financial house, Cashondeliveri, and its three eligible sons: Lowjee Lowerjee Cashondeliveri, Jamibhoy Lifebhoy Cashondeliveri and Jamsheed Cashondeliveri. This last, who marries one of Moraes's sisters, has his name shortened to "Jimmy Cash." Delightfully, one has the suspicion that Rushdie created the Cashondeliveri clan merely so as to get to the joke of "Jimmy Cash."

In this mode, Rushdie has tremendous world-making powers. His animism is quite strong enough to resist the welfare of magical realism. His sprinkle of tales covers a real land; his new book is a vast narrative noticeboard, ploughed with the handprints of its irregular messengers. In addition to Moraes's family, we encounter Vasco Miranda, the embittered hack postmodernist artist; Lambajan Chandiwalla, the one-legged doorman of the Zogoiby household, and Dilly Hormuz, Moraes's studious and bespectacled first love. All of these characters are Dickensian balloons, inflated with fantasy. Unlike the somewhat geometric heroes of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie's previous novel, who were angled into narrow postures (one was the devil, another was the angel Gabriel), these creations escape into life.

Where The Satanic Verses was angry, The Moor's Last Sigh is wise, seasoned, mild. Still, this new novel is not without its own petition, and Rushdie often breaks into Moraes's narrative to deliver it. The petition resembles that of The Satanic Verses: the importance of hybridization over tyrannical sameness; the persuasions of secularism over the enforcement of religion; the bustle of words over the frieze of the Word; history's flow over God's arrest. The difference between the two books is that the post-colonial plea was made with rage in the earlier book but is made benignly here.

Not unobtrusively, however. From the outset, it is clear that Rushdie's chosen family represents what he has called else-where "the India-idea"—a family drunk on gods, not sober on religion. Characters warn us that contemporary Hindu politics is making "a single martial deity" of its "many-headed beauty." Moraes celebrates his grandfather Camoens's "doublenesses … his willingness to permit the coexistence within himself of conflicting impulses is the source of his full, gentle humaneness." Moraes likens this to "that historical generosity of spirit, which is one of the true wonders of India." It seems somewhat too convenient that Moraes combines within him the major religions (Jew, Muslim, Christian); and, near the end of the book, he plays at being a Hindu fundamentalist gangster. (There is an amusing lampoon of the real-life Bombay Hindu leader Bal Thackeray, whom Rushdie turns into Ramon Fielding, who uses his "fist-clenched saffron-headbanded young thugs to put on a show of Hindu-fundamentalist triumphalism.")

Moraes delights in his salad of inheritances: he 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." The frailty of the prose here is telling. Few readers will be convinced by the faked lexical grope: "what's the word these days?" For the word "atomised" belongs to post-colonial theory rather than to post-colonial life; this is an academicism trying to lose itself in the demotic. Elsewhere Rushdie reminds us of art's subversions: "The sheer strangeness of the activity of art," says Moraes of his mother, "made her a questionable figure; as it does everywhere; as it always has and perhaps always will."

This lecturing is much gentler than that of The Satanic Verses, which forced all its characters to sit and take notes. Indeed, the earlier novel's narrative explosiveness—men falling out of planes and turning into cloven-hoofed devils or into haloed angels having blasphemous visions in contemporary London—was a programmatic hysteria whose design was to daunt us with its anarchy. The novel strove to dissolve religion's boundaries in the wash of the modern; and to show that Islam, like all other major religions, has had to make uncomfortable accounting for the existence of evil in the world. Rushdie's acute point is that religion, forced to dramatize the origin of this evil, becomes its producer, and is thus entwined with the foe it exists to fight. Alas, almost every page taught this, and taught the need to get beyond narrow boundaries, religious or otherwise. Agencies that help free one from these small cordons, such as the modern city, were cherished. As one character puts it: "The modern city … is the locus classicus of incompatible realities. Lives that have no business mingling with one another sit side by side upon the omnibus." The novel piled up its oppositions: immigration, since it encourages metamorphosis and mix, is a necessary if difficult novelty; religious tradition, since it strangles metamorphosis, is an antique torture. And so on.

Readers have noticed that Midnight's Children, Shame and The Satanic Verses prefigure the destiny that later befell their author. All of them hint at the scourge awaiting he who blasphemes. Saleem Sinai, the narrator of Midnight's Children, hears voices and thinks that he might be a twentieth-century Muhammed. He is forced by his father to wash his mouth out with coal-tar soap for blaspheming against Allah. "At least the boy has the grace to admit he's gone too far," says his father. But Saleem, writes Rushdie, "was forever tainted with Bombayness, his head was full of all sorts of religions apart from Allah's." Rushdie's novels have this power of prolepsis precisely because they have such a strong sense of what they are about, such a strong urge to self-description.

In good and bad ways, then, Rushdie produces themed novels. This visible intellectual armature is what makes him one of the few English novelists with any philosophical seriousness. He is certainly one of the few English-language novelists interested in questions of faith and doubt. But there is a cost. These lectures or incursions of explicitness are stolen from their novels' drama. Rushdie's novels stint their own flexibility. One of the unintended ironies of The Satanic Verses is that it preaches its lesson of multivocality with such univocal doggedness. Its pluralities are so raucous that its tolerance toward "incompatiblerealities" begins to seem rather dogmatic.

More importantly, without dramatization and groundedness, Rushdie's secular warfare becomes abstract. Blasphemy is not an argument to be won; it is an anguish to be endured. And such a struggle cannot be a struggle if it is an abstraction, a matter of "atomisation" versus "fixity." Sometimes Rushdie's fiction behaves, formally and intellectually, as if ideas are battling in flaming skies high above real lives. Its supernatural artillery encourages this impression. The most affecting moments of Shame and The Satanic Verses were the most real—when the flying carpets and six-fingered mutations were silent. After all, the "incompatible realities" that a great city like London or Bombay contains are made up of millions of individualities, many of them rigidly unitary. As a group, they perhaps form a post-colonial or postmodern theory—a theory of crowds, in effect; as people, as individuals, they form obstacles to that theory, and should do so.

Rushdie seems to know this, to judge from his new novel. Though it carries a certain smugness about the superiority of "Bombayness" over fixity, it does not bully its characters into schema. Interestingly, this new ideological softening is accompanied by a muting of the writer's magical realism. The Zogoiby family lives comically, not unreally; it is as if Rushdie has discovered that comic inflation is magical anyway. The novel's realist energy burns off the occasional application of magic ointments. Moraes, for instance, tells us that he is monstrously tall, that he was born with a club hand—Naipaul's Mr. Biswas was born with six fingers: Indian magical realists have had a faiblesse for mangled or augmented digits—and that he is doomed to live his life at double speed. At 36, the age at which he narrates this novel, he looks like a man of 72. Unconvincingly, Rushdie wants to make his narrator as capacious as Bombay: "Like the city itself, Bombay of my joys and sorrows, I mushroomed into a huge urbane sprawl of a fellow." For most of his story, however, Moraes's fate is entirely irrelevant, and unless we are reminded, we forget about his freakishness. Rushdie makes his case for Bombayness not by means of sorcery but by means of realist evocation.

This is new in his work. Instead of the swoop of metamorphosis, Rushdie sparks memory's telepathy. This makes The Moor's Last Sigh an important departure for its author. Bombay is not forced to represent a virtue, but asked to live a condition. Moraes narrates his tale from Spain. He is in exile from the city of his birth. Rushdie has said that the most painful product of the fatwa has been that he cannot return to India, and to Bombay, his birthplace. Through Moraes, Rushdie tenderly revisits the city. Bombay shimmers in Moraes's mind as a citadel of ideal tolerance, an Indian Alhambra:

Am I sentimentalising? Now that I have left it all behind, have I, among my many losses, also lost clear sight?—It may be said I have; but still I stand by my words. O Beautifiers of the City, did you not see that what was beautiful in Bombay was that it belonged to nobody, and to all? Did you not see the everyday live-and-let-live miracles thronging its overcrowded streets?

Rushdie's apostrophizing comes near the end of his novel. It moves us not just because we can detect its gentle autobiographical watermark, but because so much of the novel has brought Bombay's solidities, rather than its symbols, onto the page. On Bombay, Rushdie has lavished all his singing powers of description. Moraes shows us "the gracious old pharmacy at Kemp's Corner—this was long before it turned into the flyover-and-boutique spiritual wasteland it is today—and the Royal Barber Shop (where a master barber with a cleft palate offered a circumcision service as a sideline)." We move through old Parsi buildings, "all balconies and curlicues," and pass by Vijay Stores, "that numinous mixed business where you could buy both Time, with which you could polish your wooden furniture, and Hope, with which you could wipe your bum." Elsewhere, we visit "the fabulous turbulence of Crawford Market with its frieze by Kipling's dad, with its vendors of chickens both live and plastic," and the Zaveri Bazaar, "where jewellers sat like wise monkeys in tiny shops that were all mirrors and glass."

When Moraes, and so also Rushdie, celebrates what he calls "my inexhaustible Bombay of excess," he is not fighting a battle on behalf of pluralism so much as hurling us, and himself, into the combat of life. For this battle, the writer can arm us only with his richly abandoned details. It is all we deserve, and all this fine novel needs.

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This section contains 2,873 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Wood