The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by John Bemrose

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 797 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by John Bemrose

SOURCE: "Tower of Babble," in Maclean's, Vol. 108, No. 41, October 9, 1995, p. 85.

In the following negative review of The Moor's Last Sigh, Bemrose remarks that "most of the novel reads like the vision of a harried mind that has lost touch with the pace and amplitude of ordinary life."

It would seem that Salman Rushdie simply does not know how to play it safe. The Anglo-Indian novelist has been in hiding in Britain for six years, ever since Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini condemned him to death for alleged anti-Muslim sentiments in his 1989 novel, The Satanic Verses. Now, his new novel, The Moor's Last Sigh—nominated for Britain's prestigious Booker Prize last week—has angered many Hindus. The Indian distributor of the book has refused to release it in Bombay, where a radical Hindu political party, Shiv Sena, has deemed it offensive. The trouble stems from a character in the novel called Raman Fielding, who apparently satirizes Shiv Sena's leader, Bal Thackeray. His party has been accused of fomenting conflict between Bombay's Muslims and Hindus, which has killed more than 800 people since 1992. Rushdie has recreated that religious strife in his novel, suggesting that one of its main causes is Fielding's hate campaign against Muslim culture. The rest of the subcontinent, however, seems to be taking Rushdie's novel in stride: it has been released in other Indian cities without incident.

Whatever the shortcomings of Shin Sena's intellectual thought police, they must at least be congratulated for having plowed their way through The Moor's Last Sigh. This tedious and frenetically overwritten novel all but suffocates under its own weight until—about two thirds of the way through—it finally develops some narrative momentum. That, of course, will be much too late for most readers who, having no political agenda to spur them on, will long before have flung the book at the wall.

The narrator of The Moor's Last Sigh is a familiar figure from Rushdie's fiction: an outsider struggling to make sense of a life torn by the anarchic currents of history. By his own admission, Moraes Zogoiby—nicknamed "The Moor"—is something of a freak. To begin with, he is growing old at twice the normal rate, so that in his late 30s, his age as he begins his memoir, he looks and acts like an old man. His fingerless, club-like right hand, deformed from birth, is only good for knocking other men down—an activity he has pursued with relish. As well, errant genes from his family's racially chequered past have made him a six-foot-six giant with black skin and white hair.

It is tempting to see elements of Rushdie himself in this portrait. Not that the writer physically resembles Moraes, but Rushdie has had to endure the freakishness of enforced isolation, with his ability to live a normal writer's life maimed (that club hand) by the threat of assassination. Like Moraes, Rushdie is also of mixed cultural background, although his fictional character is more exotic, with Spanish, Portuguese and Moorish bloodlines complicated by a Jewish and Christian religious inheritance.

Moraes is haunted by his ancestors. Evoked in the novel's opening chapters, they are an excessive bunch given to romantically flamboyant behavior in love and hatred. Moraes inherits their grandiosity: indeed, The Moor's Last Sigh is an exercise in nonstop melodrama, much of it centred on the Moor's relations with his mother, Aurora, a famous painter. She is both a nourishing and destructive force in his life, and by the time he realizes her essential love for him, she is dead—in, of course, melodramatic and mysterious circumstances. Her last, posthumous gift to him is a painting, The Moor's Last Sigh, which shows mother and son in the forgiving light of reconciliation.

Such a brief summary can hardly convey the tortuous elaborations of Rushdie's plot: involving dozens of minor characters, it becomes as crazily detailed as the facade of some Hindu temple, where hordes of mythological figures endlessly proliferate. There is nothing wrong with his approach except that, in his manic invention, Rushdie rarely settles into an event long enough to make it satisfying. As well, his characters—for all the hyperbolic romance of their lives—are hardly ever sympathetic. The Moor's Last Sigh is a novel about big feelings that cannot generate even little ones. Its flashes of humor cannot make up for its coldness.

Rushdie, even in his captivity in British safe houses, has written much better than this. His recent story collection, East, West, contains several tales that manage to balance exaggerated characters with a human warmth. The Moor's Last Sigh does contain a little evidence of the old Rushdie, including his affecting evocations of Bombay's horribleprison. But most of the novel reads like the vision of a harried mind that has lost touch with the pace and amplitude of ordinary life.

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This section contains 797 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by John Bemrose