The Moor's Last Sigh, by Salman Rushdie. Pantheon, 1995. 45 pp. $25.
Imagine having to describe human existence from as strange a remove as a guru on a mountain top or the Count of Monte Cristo in his cell. That's the task that Salman Rushdie, isolated from normal life ever since Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa or edict calling for his death in 1989, has set himself. What esoteric knowledge could he have gained by virtue of his death sentence, and what common knowledge has been denied him Where can he start to recapture reality, at what level, in which domain: theology, history, family, anatomy Written in hiding, Mr. Rushdie's new novel, The Moor's Last Sigh, touches all those levels, and becomes daunting for a critic; one feels blinded by the blazing illumination of its manifold visions from confinement.
Unlike most novelists who explore one single comer of the world, the world's most famous compulsory recluse has written a human forest of a book, and it's hard to see the whole for the multiplicity of the parts. The Moor's Last Sigh is a family saga...on the surface. And what a family the Da Gama/Zogoibys are: artists, exiles, financiers, politicians, mobsters. Our narrator is the Moor himself, Moraes, last of the line.
He commences the story with his maternal grandparents, Francisco Da Gama, 'hero material from the day he was born,' and the severe matriarch, Epifania Menezes. They have two sons who echo and extend their parents' dissension. Camoens, like his father, is a fervent "Congress" man in favor of independence, whereas Aires, like his mother, rather prefers Empire. The latter even names his pet bulldog Jawaharlal after Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. When this dog dies, it is stuffed and mounted upon casters, so as to be literally dragged through the rest of the novel. This witty metaphor for the uses to which history is put is just one of the elements of The Moor's Last Sigh that has recently appalled Indian society and led to the author's second book ban. For Rushdie, history is not imposed from above; it emerges from his characters' debates and actions. And those actions are twisted by internal desires. We see this in Aires who, on his wedding night, dresses in a gown and disappears in a rowboat with a young man nicknamed Prince Henry the Navigator, who ferries him to uncharted sexual shores.
This is Rushdie's basic technique in the novel; he creates loosely representational figures, allows them a kind of political/philosophical center, and compels them to live out the tainted gift of remarkable stories, sometimes explicitly fantastical, sometimes bluntly realistic.
Francisco, for example, does not live up to his promise. As Moraes says, "Stars can fall; heroes can fail; Francisco da Gama did not fulfill his destiny.' Anti-climax is a part of life, yet climax is too, so that as Francisco dies pathetically, his descendants triumph, abundantly if temporarily. A generation later, Camoens has one child, Aurora, the protagonist's mother. A bohemian genius, she paints a series of "Moor" paintings that simultaneously use and create her only begotten son. On canvas, she makes the Moor, and in his description of her burnt and scattered works, he remakes her. Still Aurora is more than a painter of mystically transmogrifying canvasses. As Moraes says, "
id I mention that she was irresistible Listen: she was the light of our lives, the excitement of our imaginations, the beloved of our dreams."
Note, this takes place in a country where motherhood is particularly freighted. "Motherness," Moraes says, "excuse me if I underline the point-is a big idea in India, maybe our biggest: the land as mother, the mother as land, as the firm ground beneath our feet."
Oh, there are other women, the household aide Dilly Hormuz who initiates the Moor into the physical side of his existence, the traitorous human chameleon, Uma Sarasvati, with 'her …