Okay, so I’m a Rushdie fan since Midnight’s Children and totally fell in love with The Satanic Verses (the first book I ever read twice in back-to-back sessions). But I missed The Moor’s Last Sigh – for no good reason except the hack-kneed “so many books, so little time.” (sigh)
But I read Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton not too long ago and was taken with the idea that I should really read The Moor’s Last Sigh which was written his exile due to the Fatwa (Joseph Anton was the name Rushdie used while in exile). So because this was a Booker short-lister I nominated it over at the Booker Prize Reading Group and here I am.
Sad to say it took me a bit to get into this possibly because I’ve been reading so many top-notch books lately, but finally, about 50 pages in, it felt like Rushdie at his finest and for the most part very, very satisfying. And then I got lost again. What is this book about??? And then I was disappointed.
The setting of the tale is mostly Bombay but the family moved there from Goa when the protagonist was 5 years old. Goa remained a Portuguese territory until 1961 when it was taken militarily by India – India had only been independent for 13 years at the time. This is perfect for Rushdie’s celebration of the mongrel which he elaborated on in The Satanic Verses which put him in exile. But this time his “celebration” does not have a happy ending.
Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Mélange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world, and I have tried to embrace it. The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love-song to our mongrel selves. (Rushdie, 1991, p. 394)
In The Moor’s Last Sigh, he has a mad villain denounce “rubbish about unity in diversity,” while the largely sympathetic protagonist laments “the tragedy of multiplicity destroyed by singularity, the defeat of Many by One” and pays tribute “to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers” (1995, pp. 412, 408, and 433). Rushdie paper
From The Moor’s Last Sigh:
Mine is the story of a highborn cross-breed. [p. 5].
Christians, Portuguese and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crowns, can this really be India? [p. 87].
The story is told in the first person by Moraes (or Moor or Mo) Zogoiby who on the opening pages is in exile in a graveyard somewhere in Spain. He is the last of four children, and the only male, from the union of the beautiful Catholic heiress and painter Aurora de Gama and the Jewish Abraham Zogoiby, her husband, an ex-warehouse supervisor. The history of their families takes up the first third or so of the book and is worth the time. There’s a short but very helpful family tree for the families in the front pages – the family says their genealogy goes back to Vasco de Gama. It’s a tale of ethnic and religious differences, heritage, and wealth.
Moraes is born in 1957 in full development after only 4 1/2 months in the womb. He also has a deformed right hand at his birth. His size and rapid aging are because Aurura mentioned in front of a witch that she needed a child who would grow up fast. So he’s in a time-travel warp or something and he’s very large and aging rapidly – he ages at twice the speed of normal humans.
On the down-side, the frequently non-linear sequencing (lots of backstory) can be quite confusing, but there is a loose linear sequencing in general terms. And the book is basically episodic, a picaresque and this complicates any kind of over-arching plot or theme.
But the real problem, I think, is there is a whole lot of satire and “statement” which is just flying way over my radar. For instance, what does the Moor’s whole existence as a “speeded-up” person mean? And prior to Moses’ birth a certain Vasco Miranda was hired as a painter for the family but he left people out and painted over the originals. I suspect this means something in a metaphorical way but how am I supposed to know what? Later, Aurora’s paintings do similar things and more surrealistic things with the people in the family but again, why?
So I’m lost although I did read it. I think I know that it’s about ethnic and cultural mongrelism, losing your identity and then finding it in the mass of others who have also lost theirs. It’s not a happy book.
I think I may have to read what some of the better reviewers have to say.
This one is by JM Coetzee and it’s not a positive review although it is knowledgable – at least more knowledgeable than I, especially on the historical elements: NY Review of Books
Norman Rush’s review in the NY Times is more positive but he also has some less than glowing things to say.
Finally, on a more academic note, John Clement Ball, University of New Brunswick, analyzes the satire which is at the heart of The Moor’s Last Sigh. In this way it’s a kind of sequel to Midnight’s Children and the peaceful cosmopolitan hopes of nation as evidenced by one family in Bombay.
Nicholas Pallfy examines the aesthetics in The Moor’s Last Sigh: http://www.paradigme.ch/pages/rushdie.html