The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Orhan Pamuk

This literature criticism consists of approximately 8 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 2,341 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Orhan Pamuk

SOURCE: "Salaam Bombay!," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4823, September 9, 1995, p. 3.

In the following review, Pamuk considers Rushdie's treatment of his homeland in his fiction, most recently in The Moor's Last Sigh.

Peppered with politics and betrayal, sugared with art and love, well spiced with pimps, beauty queens, gangsters, freaks, fanatics and lunatics, The Moor's Last Sigh is a grand family chronicle of the passionate love and business affairs of four generations of a grotesque and rich Indian family. This book, in its scope, its ambition, and its magic, most resembles Midnight's Children, the best of Salman Rushdie's previous novels. The fact that The Moor's Last Sigh is a lesser performance is nothing to do with Rushdie's creative powers as a verbal illusionist. Filled with puns and verbal games, buffoonery and scenes of slapstick comedy, it proves that Rushdie is one of the most brilliant magicians of the English language writing now. The problem, however, is that Salman the narrator, the verbal innovator, too often rushes to offer help, to save the day when Salman the fabulator, like his hero Moraes Zogoiby, loses his breath.

The Moor's Last Sigh is an incestuous family saga, and like two other great incestuous family sagas before it—Nabokov's Ada (which is also filled with bilingual puns and arabesques of verbal games) and García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude (which set the standard for the magic realism Rushdie is so fruitfully and effortlessly inspired by)—there is a family chart at the beginning of this novel marking birth and death dates and relations of the members of the Da Gama and Zogoiby families. This is useful, for the book is crammed with intrusive outsiders (as well as members of four generations of the family), some of whom stay around so long as to become a part of the already overcrowded family, some of whom leave the stage as abruptly as they appear.

The narrator of this richly textured, densely allusive tale is Moraes Zogoiby, but the true protagonist is his mother, Aurora Da Gama, "a crazy woman" according to her husband, a famous painter and a beautiful society woman, a giant public personality, a heroine of the nationalist movement, "a legendary lady". She is the great creative mother figure of this novel, which, perhaps to give us a total image of itself, consistently alludes to an image of Mother India (also the title of a film) who "with her garishness and inexhaustible motion loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children and with whom the children's passionate conjoining an eternal quarrel stretched long beyond the grave". This image, which Rushdie makes sure that even the least attentive reader will be aware of, might equally apply to Aurora. She is the daughter of a Catholic who runs a pepper business and claims to be descended from no less a figure than Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer who discovered India. The story of Aurora's extravagant life—starting with tables of her grandfather Francisco da Gama, who was "incapable of living a settled life," and her down-to-earth grandmother Epifania Menezes—until her marriage to Abraham Zogoiby, a Cochin Jew from a family descended from Spanish Jews expelled by the Catholics after the fall of the last Andalusian sultan, begins the novel; it is affectionately delineated, with an eye for traditional narrative detail, although—or perhaps because—these pages constitute the most magic-realist sections of the novel.

Here, as in Rushdie's earlier book, East, West, R. K. Narayan's fictional South Indian town, Malgudi, is alluded to, and Narayan's spirit hovers over the twists of unhappy arranged marriages, impossible love affairs and family secrets and scandals, tales of mothers who will be dependent on the good will of their sons, and young sons who easily fall into radical politics; these tales are told as part of simple scenes of daily life, although with a certain magic touch and some verbal abracadabra:

It was the simplicity of rising late to a strong, sweet bed-tea, of clapping her hands for the cook and ordering the day's repasts, of having a maid come in to oil and brush her still-long but quickly greying and thinning hair, and of being able to blame the maid for the increasing quantities left each morning in the brush; the simplicity of long mornings scolding the tailor who came over to the house with new dresses, and knelt at her feet with mouthfuls of pins which he removed from time to time to unloose his flatterer's tongue….

These days of simplicity, which compared to the rest of the book read like a lost idyll, end abruptly, and the pace of the narrative changes as soon as the family, together with the expanding business, leaves provincial Cochin to settle in metropolitan Bombay, Rushdie's beloved city. Here, too many characters are suddenly introduced: Kekoo Mody the art dealer, Lambajan the pirate, who loses his leg when Aurora drives a car over it during a strike, Vasco Miranda, a young ambitious painter who in future will become "the darling of the international moneyed establishment", Raman Fielding a political cartoonist who will become a vicious, ugly, right-wing propagator of Hindu nationalism, Uma Sarasvati, another artist, with a growing reputation, Jamshed Cashondeliveri, a Johnny-Cash-like "Country and Eastern" music star of Bombay's night clubs who marries one of the Zogoiby daughters, and the likes of Sunil Dutt, star of the "all-conquering movie Mother India". They are all—at least for a while—rich, famous, successful, and "of course" friends of the family. Almost all of these "luminaries" (including even Pandit Nehru) are also lovers of members of the Da Gama-Zogoiby family, the most ambitious being Uma, who manages to sleep with the mother, the father, the son and, it is hinted, with one of the sisters as well.

This overabundance of fame, money, sex and glamour sometimes gives the book the aura of a grotesque jet-set novel located in Bombay. And, in spite of Rushdie's radiant humour, his characters often seem loveless because of their cynical self-interest. The rich father seduces, among others, his son's lover; the mother betrays her husband so often as to confuse the reader more than her husband; the son, when allowed to marry the girl of his dreams, too easily joins the ranks of the enemy. These tales of betrayal, deception and murder which seem more and more implausible, one surprising twist after another, do not add up to pathos. Instead, such a callous version of life emerges that halfway through the book one begins to lose interest in the "over-accelerated lives" of the characters, and to wonder only who will next betray whom. To some extent, Rushdie's powers of narration, and the highly entertaining quality of his glittery prose, help to avoid this danger of lapsing into an "old-style Indian melodrama", which perhaps may not be completely unintentional. "How could we have lived authentic lives?" asks the narrator Moraes Zogoiby, when he is informed about one of his father's many "casual" deceptions of his wife (though this time it is only drug-trafficking). "How could we have failed to be grotesque?" This sense of the grotesque qualities of reality, woven with what the narrator calls "flamboyant cynicism", form the texture of life in contemporary Bombay as well as the bleak vision of Rushdie's fabulation.

Here, Rushdie's love-hate relationship with Bombay is crucial. For him, and for his narrator as well, one feels that this "super epic motion picture of a city" has two sides. One is the "improper Bombay", the many-headed cosmopolis of diverse cultures; this is Moraes Zogoiby's "inexhaustible city of excess" with which, he tells us, he is deeply and for ever in love. The other one, the new Bombay of religious and nationalistic fanaticism, is the city of "senseless" bombings and the egoistic cynicism of post-colonial intellectuals and the new power elite. The heartfelt political message of The Moor's Last Sigh is to defend the richness and multiplicity of the first Bombay against the assaults of the second, against the imposition of Hindu language, art and gods as "authentic", Indian culture, against fundamentalist Hindu triumphalism. The tone of the novel becomes elegiac when the minorities of Bombay begin to feel that they do not belong "here" any more, or when the narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, who can neither be a Jew nor a Catholic, reminisces about his walks with the housekeeper Miss Jaya in the streets of the old Bombay:

So it was with Miss Jaya that I rode the B.E.S.T. trams and buses, and while she disapproved of their overcrowding I was secretly rejoicing in all that compacted humanity, in being pushed so tightly together that privacy ceased to exist and the boundaries of your self began to dissolve, that feeling which we only get when we are in crowds, or in love. And it was with Miss Jaya that I ventured into that fabulous turbulence of Crawford Market with its frieze by Kipling's dad, with its vendors of chicken both live and plastic, and it was with Miss Jaya that I penetrated the rum dens of Dhobi Talao and ventured into the chawls, the tenements of Byculla (where she took me to visit her poor—I should say her poorer—relations, who with yet-more-impoverishing offers of cold drinks and cakes treated her arrival like the visit of a queen)….

When a writer writes so well and so tenderly about his city, the reviewer feels an urge to look closely at his moments of loss of breath, his apparent shortcomings which perhaps are glories in disguise. In The Moor's Last Sigh, scattered here and there, is a theory of art camouflaged as Moraes Zogoiby's comments on his mother's paintings. The most important of these pictures has the same title as the novel, a palimpsest in a series called "the Moor sequence". The painting of these pictures one by one, Moraes Zogoiby's (nicknamed "Moor") posing for his mother for some of them, and the secret beneath the layers of the most mysterious one, the "Moor's Last Sigh", constitute a frame story for the whole novel, and add one final twist of cynical betrayal and murder at the end. But what matters here is Moraes's understanding of these paintings, for they could equally be read as Rushdie's tongue-in-cheek comments on the making of his own novel, The Moor's Last Sigh.

Zogoiby consistently remarks on the impurity of life and objects and, like his mother, recalls palimpsest art as a "vision of weaving or more accurately interweaving". And one understands the aesthetic and political vision behind Rushdie's ambitious attempt to produce a hybrid text composed of, among other things, "tropicalized Victorian drama", Indian melodrama, kitsch sentimentality, history and gangster films. "The city itself, perhaps the whole country, was a palimpsest", writes Zogoiby elsewhere, hinting at the eclecticism of the book we are reading. His celebration of impurity, hybridity and intermingling reads like Rushdie's own comment on his book. But when he remarks that "the truth is almost always exceptional, freakish, improbable", one does not read this as another layer of a palimpsest, but as a defence of the weirdly exceptional qualities of all the events in this book, as an excuse for the freakishness of almost all of its characters, and a pretext for the improbability of the twists of its too surprising tale—all of which would have made this novel too wearisome had it not been written by such a master juggler of words who often exhibits a wonderful eye for detail.

Here I should make a confession: I don't like magic realism. Derived from Rabelais's "demons of excess" (at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the young members of the Buendia family carries a volume of Rabelais in hand), this vision of fabulating has over the years and in popularized versions lost its demons. And now, what quite often seems to be "imaginative", "fantastic", and "funny" is plain excess. This new mode of telling stories through mellowing Rabelaisian humour has become a convenient and sugary way of presenting the Other, reducing "otherness" to tolerable proportions, softening its edges and threat for a comfortable read, giving the reader cute, lovable characters moving in situations which seem merely folkloric, no matter how horrific they really are. It is not coincidental that the best examples of magic realism (which is perhaps a way of communicating between cultures rather than within a culture), say, One Hundred Years of Solitude or Midnight's Children, are read as experiences of "entire other" continents, be it Latin America or India.

This time Salman Rushdie should be congratulated for neither creating cute and lovable characters nor giving us "the entire India". However, the latter may not be intentional, since Aurora compellingly demands to be read as a symbol for the story of modern India. Her son Moraes, who insistently speculates on the image of Mother India, once describes his mother "the great painter" among "the crowds of the devout" as she dances her contempt for the perversity of "humankind". On the dust jacket, Aurora's very same dance is described as her rebellion against the perversity of "India". I wonder whether this replacement of humankind with India is an intentional editorial misquotation or a sign of the ambiguity of the overall effect of this book, torn between the ambition to represent India and to tell grotesque and humane stories.

One sympathizes with Salman Rushdie's desire to "embrace all", his rejection of the mimetic, his love for the diversity and richness of life. Even more, one admires his brave attempt to find the new, his courageous determination to devote his amazing talents to create "harmony" from "cacophony". But, more intentionally disorganized than complex, more funny than compassionate, more bitter than moving, The Moor's Last Sigh lacks a central logic. Somewhere in the novel, Moraes Zogoiby tells us that if he "were forced to choose between logic and childhood memory", he'd go along with the tale. Valid for every imaginative writer of Salman Rushdie's calibre, this remark provokes the reader of The Moor's Last Sigh to reply: but magic should also have its logic.

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This section contains 2,341 words
(approx. 8 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Orhan Pamuk