Though he won the prestigious Booker Prize in 1981 for his second novel, Midnight’s Children, and the Whitbread Award for The Satanic Verses in 1988, Salman Rushdie didn’t become a household name until Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, incensed by the latter work’s irreverence toward Islam, put a $3 million bounty on the author’s head.
The edict, or fatwa, sent the novelist, a native of Bombay, India, raised as a Muslim, into hiding and made his name synonymous with Western freedom of expression in the face of fundamentalist tyranny. Only in the last year or so has Rushdie begun to appear in public with some frequency, participating in a London panel discussion last September and popping up on the Late Show with David Letterman to hand-deliver a “Top 10” list. In January, he raced around New York, turning up at dinners in public restaurants and even giving readings by invitation to publicize his new novel, The Moor’s Last Sigh (Pantheon, 435 pp).
In texture, tone and scale, The Moor’s Last Sigh feels very much like The Satanic Verses. It too is a work of “magic realism,” an improbable tale focusing on distinctive characteristics of Indian life and culture even as it self-consciously contemplates universal themes such as good and evil, love and hate, life and death.
“Mine is the story of the fall from grace of a high-born cross-breed ” announces the narrator, Morkes Zogoiby, nicknamed Moor.” Here, as in Othello (to which Rushdie alludes frequently), the Moor’s fall takes place in a context of love, jealousy, betrayal — and cultural diversity. Descended from Christians on one side and Jews on the other, Moraes is an Indian with a difference: He grows up, for reasons never explained, at twice the normal rate, attaining physical maturity in his early childhood and declining into old age in his 30s. He is also a giant of a man — a head taller than most of his countrymen.
Everything around him is equally strange and exceptional, bigger and more fascinating than real life. His father, Abraham Zogoiby, India’s richest businessman, is “the most handsome young man of his dwindling generation” and later, as godfather of the Bombay mafia, the “most malicious, coldest-hearted of old men.” Moraes’ mother, Aurora, executes a series of portraits of her son called “the Moor paintings” in which she depicts herself as Desdemona; she is “the most illustrious of our modern artists” and “the most sharp-tongued woman of her generation”
Describing his family as a dynasty and explaining that the name Zogoiby derives from the Arabic word for misfortunate, Moraes drives home the point that the currency of family, for good or ill, is love which, while having great power to destroy, is also the only thing that gives meaning. His bizarre picaresque narrative of family ardor, deception and disloyalty — and of the human perversity that Aurora says “is greater than human heroism … or cowardice … or art” — takes place against a colorful backdrop of modern Indian history and in settings that underline the subcontinent’s cultural complexity. Family is linked to nation — in this case, “Mother India,” which Moraes calls “this country of parental absolutism” and which, like his own mother, “loved and betrayed and ate and destroyed and again loved her children.”
Rushdie apparently believes that magic realism, in which characters, events and settings consistently are rendered exotic, extreme and exaggerated, is especially appropriate for novels about India. Certainly he seems to concur with an artist who writes to Aurora, apropos not of literature but of painting, “We are not a nation of ‘averages’ … but a magic race…. Forget those damnfool realists! The real is always hidden — isn’t it? — inside a miraculously burning bush! Life is fantastic!”
Yet a single page of a first-rate “realistic” novel such as Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, say, hits home more powerfully than 100 pages of The Moor’s Last Sigh. Connell attends to the subtle nuances that define human relationships in a way that Rushdie, drawn to the big picture, does not. The challenge of magic realism is to create a world that is at once magical and real, to speak to the way that ordinary readers process and ponder their daily experiences while credibly imbuing one’s fictional world with a sense of wonder; it captures the feeling that most readers have (if only rarely and fleetingly) that life is indeed somehow tinged with the miraculous. While a writer such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his seminal novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, makes his world feel truly magical and real, Rushdie does not.
Magic realism at its best comes off as an act of reverence for the world, an expression of awe at its beauty, richness and mystery; at its worst the effect is that of an overambitious writer straining for effect but failing to imagine his way into the heartbreaking silences and vulnerabilities of a solitary human heart. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, as in The Satanic Verses, alas, that failing is too often in evidence. For all its ambition, Rushdie’s new novel is likely to leave a reader’s deepest emotions almost completely untouched.
INSIGHT, February 12, 1996