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

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of The Moor's Last Sigh.
This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Bowman

Critical Review by James Bowman

SOURCE: "Absolutely Fabulist," in National Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 25, December 31, 1995, pp. 46-7.

In the following mixed review, Bowman asserts that The Moor's Last Sigh reads as if the author wrote it simply to prove that he could, and predicts that the book will offend Hindus as The Satanic Verses offended Muslims.

Salman Rushdie's first novel since The Satanic Verses reveals once again that he is a writer with an astounding fertility of imagination. But it is hard not to come away with the sense that all this story-telling and linguistic invention is only for showing off and that Rushdie has written the book in order to demonstrate that he can write it. His subject, in the end, is his own cleverness, and the one illusion he has no interest in creating is the illusion of reality. Back in the Middle Ages, a fabulist like him would have gone to considerable lengths to convince us that the marvelous tales he was about to relate were true by citing some well-respected auctor as their source. Rushdie, by contrast, glories in the fact that he made it all up himself. If you were to start to believe that it was real, you might get into trouble.

And, in fact, he has got into trouble—big trouble—from religious people. First the Ayatollah. Now, with The Moor's Last Sigh, he seems to have put his books and perhaps himself in danger again by offending a number of Hindus with his portrait of a monstrously corrupt leader of an oxymoronically fundamentalist Hindu sect. Small wonder that the only parts of the novel that read as if there is anything genuine about them are the parts in which he is mercilessly satirizing religion. Perhaps since he sees himself as being in the same line of business as the religious storytellers, it is to Rushdie almost a sort of blasphemy against the sacredness of Art to take one's stories as in any literal sense representative of reality.

Certainly the theme of Art is important in the novel, which tells a story of enormous complexity about the rise and fall of a part-Jewish, part-Christiandynasty of Indian merchants from the early years of this century down to the present. It is narrated by the family's last scion, Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby, a deformed creature who suffers from the family's tendency to respiratory problems and who is also doomed to age at twice the normal rate. The central character, however, is the narrator's mother, née Aurora Da Gama, who is not only an artist of world renown but the lover of Nehru and a symbol of Mother India herself, a magic land made for the magical realism that shimmers like a mirage throughout the book. A film actor once says to her: "Auroraji, you are mixing truth and make-believe," at which her only son scoffs: "as if it were a sin."

In the middle of her artistic career, Aurora "fell into deep creative confusion, a semi-paralysis born of an uncertainty not merely about realism but about the nature of the real itself." Eventually, she remained (like her creator, we are tempted to say), "more and more, inside the walls of her personal Paradise, and turned, once and for all, in the direction … of her heart: that is to say, inwards, to the reality of dreams." Her son too, who posed as her model, began to feel that "the story unfolding on her canvases seemed more like my autobiography than the real story of my life." Art here is also associated with prophecy from the time that Aurora decorates her bedroom walls as a teenager to the time when she conceals the portrait of her killer within one of her paintings.

It is partly the destructive power of the female, related to Hinduism through dreams and visions and art, that the book is about. The Moor's mother and his lover, Uma Saravati, another celebrated artist, are deadly rivals for his affections and for power over him. Uma especially is invested with the protean powers of femininity to be what everyone imagines her and wants her to be. She becomes a fiend in human form who is instrumental in the destruction of the Zogoiby family.

Perhaps even more sinister is the masculine corruption and violence and power of the patriarchal monotheisms—especially as they are represented by the Moor's father, Abraham Zogoiby, an Arabic Jew but purportedly also descended from the last Moorish sultans of Granada. Both mother and father are associated with a series of sacrifices of their son, the Moor, who is thus a version of Isaac, but it is Abraham the patriarch who says: "I am a business person. What there is to do, I do"—words that, to Rushdie, recall God's own name, I am that I am. The son of such parents is thankful (to whom?) that they "had been cured of religion" and, like them, specializes in blasphemy. Aurora paints "religious pictures for people who have no god" and delights in her paradoxical iconoclasm as much as Rushdie himself delights to take on those rival storytellers who claim a revelatory privilege for their products.

Art for him is like the cartoons with which Aurora has the Goan painter Vasco Miranda decorate her children's nursery. In their world, playful children are relieved of the iron logic of causation. "Give me boulders," Aurora says in her comic, Babu English, "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." To the ever-playful Rushdie, it is this trivial popular culture—Popeye, too, says "I am what I am"—which is the salvation of the world.

The "leftish" Dr. Zeenat Vakil, Aurora's biographer and academic proprietor and the author of the monograph, Imperso-Nation and Dis/Semi/Nation: Dialogics of Eclecticism and Interrogations of Authenticity in A.Z., says it best: "I blame fiction. The followers of one fiction knock down another popular piece of make-believe, and bingo! It's war." She refers, of course, not to the comfortable fictions of cartoons but to the kinds of fiction that people are apt to take too seriously—which makes it particularly poignant that so many religious people the world over have taken the tedious fantasies that make up Rushdie's fictions so much more seriously than they deserve.

(read more)

This section contains 1,072 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by James Bowman