The Moor's Last Sigh | Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 1,182 words
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Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

SOURCE: "Rushdie on India: Serious, Crammed Yet Light," in The New York Times, December 28, 1995, pp. C13, C20.

In the following review, Kakutani describes the ways in which the story and characters of The Moor's Last Sigh relate the author's own views of his native country.

In Salman Rushdie's remarkable new novel, the narrator describes the astonishing paintings created by his mother: paintings teeming with the life of Bombay's streets, paintings that capture "the face-slapping quarrels of naked children at a tenement standpipe," "the elated tension of the striking sailors at the gates to the naval yards" and the "shipwrecked arrogance of the English officers from whom power was ebbing like the waves," paintings layered upon older paintings and concealing untold secrets of the past.

Behind all this, the narrator observes, was his mother's "sense of the inadequacy of the world, of its failure to live up to her expectations, so that her own disappointment with reality, her anger at its wrongness, mirrored her subjects, and made her sketches not merely reportorial but personal, with a violent, breakneck passion of line that had the force of a physical assault."

This description, of course, also applies perfectly to Mr. Rushdie's own fierce, phantasmagorical writing, especially as practiced in The Moor's Last Sigh, a huge, sprawling exuberant novel. Filled with allusions to everything from "Tristram Shandy" to "The Lone Ranger," from "Paradise Lost" to "Alice in Wonderland," and crammed full with puns, wordplay, vulgar jokes and lyrical asides, The Moor's Last Sigh is many books at the same time: a demented family saga, a twisted Bildungsroman, an exploration of the uses and misuses of art and a dark historical parable that rivals Mr. Rushdie's 1981 masterpiece, Midnight's Children, in scope, inventiveness and ambition.

Like Midnight's Children, The Moor's Last Sigh traces the downward spiral of expectations experienced by India as postindependence hopes for democracy crumbled during the emergency rule declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, and early dreams of pluralism gave way to sectarian violence and political corruption. In Midnight's Children, India's fate was incarnated in the lives of '1,001 children born during the first hour of Indian independence, magically gifted children whose talents and hopes would later be cruelly destroyed. In The Moor's Last Sigh, India's fate is similarly embodied in the ups and downs of the da Gama-Zogoiby family, and more specifically in the raucous adventures of the clan's last surviving member, Moraes Zogoiby, otherwise known as Moor.

As the narrator of this rude-noisy-poetic free-for-all, Moor proves himself a high-spirited if sometimes long-winded Scheherazade, a spinner of tales and ancestral legends, whose life—we later learn—literally depends upon his singing the saga of his family's past.

Certainly Moor has a lot in common with his own creator, Mr. Rushdie. To begin with, Mr. Rushdie's own unhappy fate—his last full-length novel, The Satanic Verses, enraged Muslim fundamentalists and prompted Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to issue a "death sentence" against him in 1989—is alluded to in Moor's story. Not only does Moor find himself imprisoned (and put under sentence of death) by a zealot who likes to dress up as a Sultan, but he is also condemned to live out his days in exile, an unmoored Moor, "a nobody from nowhere, like no-one, belonging to nothing."

This is the fate of the emigré, those migrants without a home whom Mr. Rushdie depicted so tellingly in The Satanic Verses. It is also the fate of the artist, who by temperament and vocation stands at a slight angle apart from his fellow human beings.

The reader may also notice certain parallels between Mr. Rushdie's story and the story of Moor's mother, Aurora, whose playful painting of a kiss between a Muslim cricket player and a pretty Hindu girl elicits a political firestorm. "I witnessed both her ennui at having endlessly to defend it," Moor recalls, "and her fury at the ease with which this 'teapot monsoon' had distracted attention from the body of her real work. She was required by the public prints to speak ponderously of 'underlying motives' when she had had only whims, to make moral statements where there had been only, ('only' I) play, and feeling, and the unfolding inexorable logic of brush and light."

Mr. Rushdie, however, does not belabor his own story in The Moor's Last Sigh. Rather, he turns Moor—a bastard child who suffers from a rare genetic disorder that causes him to age at twice the usual rate—into an emblematic figure who shares India's plight, the plight of a country forced to grow up too quickly, "without time for proper planning," without time to learn from experience, "without time for reflection."

In fact, Moor's entire family seems like a dysfunctional mess, what with its bloody history of schisms and betrayals, great passions and terrible acts of vengeance. Two sides of his mother's family battled each other for years before a division of the house and family business was decreed; another family standoff pitted a brother who was a committed nationalist against a brother who was pro-British. The romance between Moor's Catholic mother and Jewish father nearly ended in a Romeo-Juliet debacle. His grandfather and great-grandfather both ended their lives by walking into the sea. And his great-grandmother died with a curse on her lips: "May your house be forever partitioned, may its foundations turn to dust, may your children rise up against you, and may your fall be hard."

It is a curse that Moor will live to see fulfilled, as he is forced to choose between his possessive mother's love and the love of his passionate girlfriend; between his mother's dream of a pluralistic India and his girl-friend's vision of religious absolutism; between his father's world of violence and money and his own world of writing and words and magic. By the end of the book, after many murders, many fights, many tirades and schemes and disasters, the da Gama-Zogoiby family is in ruins, as is Bombay, leaving Moor, after his fall from grace and banishment, alone to tell the tale.

While this story may sound in summary like a portentous parody of a Greek tragedy, the effect is very different given Mr. Rushdie's manic sense of humor and rich, improvisatory zeal. It's as though he had, decided to cast the House of Atreus saga with vaudevillians, clowns and Lear-like fools, players whose story, however tragic, is also funny, tender and sad. The didacticism of the novel's overarching theme—the fate of modern India as illustrated by the da Gama-Zogoiby clan—is similarly disguised by Mr. Rushdie's ability to conjure up Borgesian images and Marquezian diversions out of thin air: a series of enchanted tiles that foretell the future; a stuffed dog that houses the ghost of Jawaharlal Nehru; a group of actors all dressed up like Lenin; a magical, painting Invested with the secrets of the past.

Such surreal images, combined with the author's fecund language and slashing sleight of hand make it easy, in Mr. Rushdie's words, "not to feel preached at, to revel in the carnival without listening to the barker, to dance to the music" without seeming to hear the message in the glorious song.

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This section contains 1,182 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani