Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
The Moor’s Last Sigh
by Salman Rushdie
January 14, 1997, ISBN-13: 978-0679744665, 448 pages
Salmon Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh is a heady, sensual, wordy, moving, funny, wonderful book. It does for the English language what Joyce’s Ulysses did over a century ago, expanding our vocabulary and consequently our ability to perceive and describe the world and ourselves. It would be fair to call The Moor’s Last Sigh magical realism, as strange things take place in an otherwise detailed, realistic backdrop. The narrator, Moraes Zogoiby, called Moor for short, ages twice as rapidly as everyone else, his childlike perception hides behind a manly body; there are unexplained scratches on the back of Cameons’ neck; Aurora’s first work reveals a knowledge of her own and India’s history she couldn’t possibly have known, the canton tiles in Abraham Zogoiby’s little synagogue show him his missing father’s whereabouts, Moor’s birth is proceeded by a whispered curse from Abraham’s dead mother. Fairy tales, ancient and modern mythology mingle happily here: Bobby Shafto, Long John Silver, Snow White, the Disney cartoons of Moor’s bedroom, Rumpelstiltskin, Jack and the Beanstalk, Catch a tiger by the toe: here is a rich palette of imagery from everyone’s childhood. However, the well researched political backdrop of colonial India on the verge of independence mingle with the very human and moving story of family ties, love and hate in such a realistic way that the reader is prepared to suspend any belief.
The characters are all so interesting and the story of Moor’s life so good, that it propels the reader forward quickly towards the excellent ending, even while the wonderful writing forces you to stop and re-read, gasping at the beauty of a sentence, at the truth it reveals, for example: “Ah, the dead, the unended, endlessly ending dead: how long, how rich is their story. We, the living, must find what space we can alongside them; the giant dead whom we cannot tie down, though we grasp at their hair, though we rope them while they sleep” (136), or of his mother: “Confident of her genius, armed with a tongue as merciless as her beauty and as violent as her work, she excluded nobody from her colaratura damnations, from the hawk-swoops and rococo riffs and great set-piece ghazals of her cursing, all delivered with that cheery stone-hard smile that sought to anaesthetise her victims as she ripped out their innards.”
The language is wonderful, abundant, full of fun; with bits of hindi, spanish, and a vernacular which “ofies” (killofy, mindofy) everything, puns and rhymes in a playful, familiar way which engages the reader. To use the English language in such an inventive way, while creating a compelling family saga, with moving, funny characters, touching on the threads which bind families, love, hate, illuminating the whole of the human condition while stimulating all of the reader’s senses (for here is music – eastern tablas and sitars and western folk, country and rock, spice, perfume, incense smoke, sweat, blood and saliva, paint, light, darkness, beauty, ugliness, disability, love, death, passion, politics) is a great accomplishment. Rushdie is definitely one of the 20th Centuries best writers. This book reaches to the very heart of what the Moor calls: “the root of the whole matter of family rifts and premature deaths and thwarted loves and mad passions and weak chests and power and money and the even more morally dubious seductions and mysteries of art.” (14) Pass the Bringal.