Visions of Paradise

Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Moor’s Last Sigh

Think quickly now: what is the very first thing you think of when you see the name Salman Rushdie? Undoubtedly the most common impression is the fact that he was sentenced to death by the Ayatollah of Iran. Perhaps of you thought of The Satanic Verses, the book he was condemned for. A smaller minority might have thought that he is a writer more famous for the fatwa declared against him than for any particular writing talent he has ever displayed.

Any of those impressions is a damned shame, the last one even more so, because Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest contemporary writers. His 1980 novel Midnight’s Children was awarded the Booker-of-Bookers as the single best novel to have won the award given annually to the best novel published in Great Britain. So dispel any doubts that Salman Rushdie is a fortunate amateur achieving literary fame purely for his death sentence rather than for his writing talent. However, the novel I wish to discuss here is a more recent classic, The Moor’s Last Sigh, which was itself published to near unanimous acclaim, and deservedly so.

It did not take me long into the book to realize two facts: Rushdie is an amazing writer whose words simply flow off the page like verbal honey and whose characters are totally delightful, chockful of quirks and eccentricities while still retaining strong measures of humanity; and Salman Rushdie is a pure science fiction writer.

I was not totally shocked by that latter discovery. Midnight’s Children is described as concerning both telepathy and a strange prescience-like sixth sense. The Moor’s Last Sigh features a tiled floor whose faces mysteriously change with the lives of the inhabitants of the room, and its main character, the moor, is living his physical life at precisely twice the speed of normal humans. At the age of four he precisely resembles an eight-year old, although both his emotional and mental development are still those of a four-year old. Imagine what that will do to your social development? As an eight year old he is shaving and having an affair with his tutor. At the time he is narrating the novel, he is thirty-five years old yet totally white-haired and stooped and expecting death from old age to assault him from around any corner.

What about the plot of The Moor’s Last Sigh? Well, there really is very little. It is more precisely a family saga, the tale of the moor’s rather eccentric family and their ever-changing cast of hangers-on. His mother is the sole heir of the Da Gama spice fortune, a very old Indian company supposedly founded by Vasco Da Gama himself. By the time Aurora Da Gama enters the novel though, the empire is tottering on the brink of dissolution (mirroring the British Empire in the early part of the novel’s setting in 1930s India). Not that she is much concerned with finances. Rather she is both an acclaimed artist and a renowned eccentric whose life is more concerned with the likes of fellow artists Vasco Miranda, who lives with her and her family for many years, and Mainduck, a political cartoonist and politician. Both of them react to Aurora’s personal and emotional excesses by growing from friends and lovers to eventually become bitter enemies.

At the age of 15, Aurora, who is a Christian, falls hopelessly in love with 36 year old Abraham Zogoiby, a Jewish employee of the spice company. Amidst much family and peer pressure, they marry, but it is certainly not a happily-ever-after marriage! Aurora continues her eccentric behavior, her affairs, and her high public profile, while Abraham settles into a very low-key, almost subservient life, so low-key that few people realize he is actually the mastermind behind the rebuilding of the spice company into one of the truly major industries in India, and perhaps the world, as well as one of the most powerful figures dominating India’s underworld. Oh, yes, in order to rebuild the spice company he needs to borrow a sum of money from his mother, who still resents him marrying a Christian, so she demands his first-born son as repayment, intending to bring him up as a good jew.

Numerous fascinating characters come and go into the lives of the Da Gama / Zoboiby’s with delightful regularity. Such as their one-legged doorman who was not one-legged until Aurora accidentally ran over the other leg while fleeing from a bitter demonstration. Or the mysterious Una, who becomes the moor’s lover at the same time she becomes Abraham’s paramour, and even makes a play for the moor’s politically-active sister. They all worship her, each seeing in her a delightfulness that is so irresistible and also totally different from what the others see in her. Except Aurora, however, who never warms to Una. In fact, she hires an eighty-something year old private detective to ferret out the truth of Una’s past which ultimately leads to disillusionment, a traumatic family split, eventually a dramatic murder/suicide attempt, only one of which actually succeeds (and that by pure accident)!

And the novel goes on and on, one delightful scene leapfrogging over another, all peopled by totally wonderful eccentric characters who somehow manage to become real people even while they are prancing around like figures out of Alice in Wonderland. At times I was so delighted I did not even mind that the novel was really not moving anywhere in particular, while at other times I was equally delighted at how nimbly Rushdie developed an entire family, three generations of it in fact, and that was much more delightful than let’s get from point A to point D in 435 pages could ever be.

The Moor’s Last Sigh actually has two climactic scenes although, truthfully, the book does not really build up to either one and they are probably the weakest parts of the book. They both arrive quite unexpectedly, as if Rushdie realized that at some point he had to resolve the wonderfully-complex familial relationships he had explored for several hundred pages. Both are violent, the first excessively so, seemingly Rushdie’s attempt to rid himself of all the unlikeable characters he could not eliminate any other way. The second climax is somewhat deus ex machina for no reason I can discern.

But keep in mind that plot is not the raison d’etre of The Moor’s Last Sigh, nor the reason I have remembered it long after I finished reading it. So while the twin climaxes are the least successful parts of the book, in no way do they detract from its overall success and wondrousness. I recommend this novel highly, especially for anybody who has never read anything by Salman Rushdie before. It is a wonderful introduction to a wonderful writer.


  • I had the same feeling about Rushdie after reading The Moor's Last Sigh, which is my favorite book by him. Now I'm just jealous I didn't write about it before you did.

    By Blogger Aydreeyin, At 12:53 PM  

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