The Moor's Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie, 1995
Booker Prize-winning author Salman Rushdie combines a ferociously witty family saga with a surreally imagined and sometimes blasphemous chronicle of modern India and flavors the mixture with peppery soliloquies on art, ethnicity, religious fanaticism, and the terrifying power of love. Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby, the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords, is also a compulsive storyteller and an exile. As he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he leaves behind a tale of mad passions and volcanic family hatreds, of titanic matriarchs and their mesmerized offspring, of premature deaths and curses that strike beyond the grave. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—June 19, 1947
• Where—Bombay, Maharashtra, India
• Education—M.A., King's College, Cambridge, UK
• Awards—Booker Prize, 1981 (named the best novel to win
the Booker Prize in its first twenty-five years in 1993);
Whitbread Prize, 1988 and 1995
• Currently—lives in New York, New York
Sir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a British Indian novelist and essayist. His second novel, Midnight's Children (1981), won the Booker Prize in 1981. Much of his fiction is set on the Indian subcontinent. He is said to combine magical realism with historical fiction; his work is concerned with the many connections, disruptions and migrations between East and West.
His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses (1988), was the centre of a major controversy, provoking protests from Muslims in several countries, some violent. Death threats were made against him, including a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, on February 14, 1989.
Rushdie was appointed Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France in January 1999. In June 2007, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him for his services to literature. In 2008, The Times ranked him thirteenth on its list of the fifty greatest British writers since 1945.
Since 2000, Rushdie has lived in the United States, where he has worked at the Emory University and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His most recent book is Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an account of his life in the wake of the Satanic Verses controversy.
Rushdie's first career was as a copywriter, working for the advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, where he came up with "irresistibubble" for Aero and "Naughty but Nice" for cream cakes, and for the agency Ayer Barker, for whom he wrote the memorable line "That'll do nicely" for American Express. It was while he was at Ogilvy that he wrote Midnight's Children, before becoming a full-time writer. John Hegarty of Bartle Bogle Hegarty has criticised Rushdie for not referring to his copywriting past frequently enough, although conceding: "He did write crap ads...admittedly."
His first novel, Grimus, a part-science fiction tale, was generally ignored by the public and literary critics. His next novel, Midnight's Children, catapulted him to literary notability. This work won the 1981 Booker Prize and, in 1993 and 2008, was awarded the Best of the Bookers as the best novel to have received the prize during its first 25 and 40 years. Midnight's Children follows the life of a child, born at the stroke of midnight as India gained its independence, who is endowed with special powers and a connection to other children born at the dawn of a new and tumultuous age in the history of the Indian sub-continent and the birth of the modern nation of India. The character of Saleem Sinai has been compared to Rushdie. However, the author has refuted the idea of having written any of his characters as autobiographical, stating...
People assume that because certain things in the character are drawn from your own experience, it just becomes you. In that sense, I’ve never felt that I’ve written an autobiographical character.
After Midnight's Children, Rushdie wrote Shame, in which he depicts the political turmoil in Pakistan, basing his characters on Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Shame won France's Prix du Meilleur Livre Étranger (Best Foreign Book) and was a close runner-up for the Booker Prize. Both these works of postcolonial literature are characterised by a style of magic realism and the immigrant outlook that Rushdie is very conscious of as a member of the Indian diaspora.
Rushdie wrote a non-fiction book about Nicaragua in 1987 called The Jaguar Smile. This book has a political focus and is based on his first-hand experiences and research at the scene of Sandinista political experiments.
His most controversial work, The Satanic Verses, was published in 1988 (see below). Rushdie has published many short stories, including those collected in East, West (1994). The Moor's Last Sigh, a family epic ranging over some 100 years of India's history was published in 1995. The Ground Beneath Her Feet presents an alternative history of modern rock music. The song of the same name by U2 is one of many song lyrics included in the book, hence Rushdie is credited as the lyricist. He also wrote Haroun and the Sea of Stories in 1990.
Rushdie has had a string of commercially successful and critically acclaimed novels. His 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown received, in India, the prestigious Hutch Crossword Book Award, and was, in Britain, a finalist for the Whitbread Book Awards. It was shortlisted for the 2007 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
In his 2002 non-fiction collection Step Across This Line, he professes his admiration for the Italian writer Italo Calvino and the American writer Thomas Pynchon, among others. His early influences included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Lewis Carroll. Rushdie was a personal friend of Angela Carter and praised her highly in the foreword for her collection Burning your Boats.
His latest novel is Luka and the Fire of Life, published in November 2010. Earlier in the same year, he announced that he was writing his memoirs, entitled Joseph Anton: A Memoir, which was published in September 2012.
In 2012, Salman Rushdie became one of the first major authors to embrace Booktrack (a company that synchronises ebooks with customised soundtracks) when he published his short story "In the South" on the platform.
Rushdie has quietly mentored younger Indian (and ethnic-Indian) writers, influenced an entire generation of Indo-Anglian writers, and is an influential writer in postcolonial literature in general. He has received many plaudits for his writings, including the European Union's Aristeion Prize for Literature, the Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy), and the Writer of the Year Award in Germany and many of literature's highest honours. Rushdie was the President of PEN American Center from 2004 to 2006 and founder of the PEN World Voices Festival.
He opposed the British government's introduction of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act, something he writes about in his contribution to Free Expression Is No Offence, a collection of essays by several writers.
In 2007 he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he has also deposited his archives.
In May 2008 he was elected a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Though he enjoys writing, Salman Rushdie says that he would have become an actor if his writing career had not been successful. Even from early childhood, he dreamed of appearing in Hollywood movies (which he later realised in his frequent cameo appearances).
Rushdie includes fictional television and movie characters in some of his writings. He had a cameo appearance in the film Bridget Jones's Diary based on the book of the same name, which is itself full of literary in-jokes. On May 12, 2006, Rushdie was a guest host on The Charlie Rose Show, where he interviewed Indo-Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, whose 2005 film, Water, faced violent protests. He appears in the role of Helen Hunt's obstetrician-gynecologist in the film adaptation of Elinor Lipman's novel Then She Found Me. In September 2008, and again in March 2009, he appeared as a panellist on the HBO program Real Time with Bill Maher.
Rushdie is currently collaborating on the screenplay for the cinematic adaptation of his novel Midnight's Children with director Deepa Mehta. The film will be released in October, 2012.
Rushdie is a member of the advisory board of The Lunchbox Fund, a non-profit organisation which provides daily meals to students of township schools in Soweto of South Africa. He is also a member of the advisory board of the Secular Coalition for America, an advocacy group representing the interests of atheistic and humanistic Americans in Washington, D.C. In November 2010 he became a founding patron of Ralston College, a new liberal arts college that has adopted as its motto a Latin translation of a phrase ("free speech is life itself") from an address he gave at Columbia University in 1991 to mark the two-hundredth anniversary of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The Satanic Verses and the fatwa
The publication of The Satanic Verses in September 1988 caused immediate controversy in the Islamic world because of what was perceived as an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad. The title refers to a disputed Muslim tradition that is related in the book. According to this tradition, Muhammad (Mahound in the book) added verses (sura) to the Qur'an accepting three goddesses who used to be worshipped in Mecca as divine beings. According to the legend, Muhammad later revoked the verses, saying the devil tempted him to utter these lines to appease the Meccans (hence the "Satanic" verses). However, the narrator reveals to the reader that these disputed verses were actually from the mouth of the Archangel Gibreel. The book was banned in many countries with large Muslim communities.
On February 14, 1989, a fatwa requiring Rushdie's execution was proclaimed on Radio Tehran by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of Iran at the time, calling the book "blasphemous against Islam." A bounty was offered for Rushdie's death, and he was thus forced to live under police protection for several years. On March 7, 1989, the United Kingdom and Iran broke diplomatic relations over the Rushdie controversy.
The publication of the book and the fatwa sparked violence around the world, with bookstores firebombed. Muslim communities in several nations in the West held public rallies, burning copies of the book. Several people associated with translating or publishing the book were attacked and even killed.
On September 24, 1998, as a precondition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Britain, the Iranian government gave a public commitment that it would "neither support nor hinder assassination operations on Rushdie."
Hardliners in Iran have continued to reaffirm the death sentence. In early 2005, Khomeini's fatwa was reaffirmed by Iran's current spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a message to Muslim pilgrims making the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. Additionally, the Revolutionary Guards have declared that the death sentence on him is still valid. Iran has rejected requests to withdraw the fatwa on the basis that only the person who issued it may withdraw it, and the person who issued it – Ayatollah Khomeini – has been dead since 1989.
Rushdie has reported that he still receives a "sort of Valentine's card" from Iran each year on February 14 letting him know the country has not forgotten the vow to kill him. He said, "It's reached the point where it's a piece of rhetoric rather than a real threat."
A memoir of his years of hiding, Joseph Anton, was published in 2012. Joseph Anton was Rushdie's secret alias.
In 2012, following uprisings over an anonymously posted YouTube video denigrating Muslims, a semi-official religious foundation in Iran increased the reward it had offered for the killing of Rushdie from $2.8 million to $3.3 million dollars. Their stated reason: "If the  fatwa had been carried out, later insults in the form of caricature, articles and films that have continued would have not happened."
Rushdie was knighted for services to literature in the Queen's Birthday Honours on June 16, 2007. He remarked, "I am thrilled and humbled to receive this great honour, and am very grateful that my work has been recognised in this way." In response to his knighthood, many nations with Muslim majorities protested. Several called publicly for his death. Some non-Muslims expressed disappointment at Rushdie's knighthood, claiming that the writer did not merit such an honour and there were several other writers who deserved the knighthood more than Rushdie.
Al-Qaeda has condemned the Rushdie honour. The Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is quoted as saying in an audio recording that Britain's award for Indian-born Rushdie was "an insult to Islam", and it was planning "a very precise response."
Rushdie came from a Muslim family though he is an atheist now. In 1990, in the "hope that it would reduce the threat of Muslims acting on the fatwa to kill him," he issued a statement claiming he had renewed his Muslim faith, had repudiated the attacks on Islam in his novel and was committed to working for better understanding of the religion across the world. However, Rushdie later said that he was only "pretending".
Rushdie has been married four times. He was married to his first wife Clarissa Luard from 1976 to 1987 and fathered a son, Zafar (born 1980). His second wife was the American novelist Marianne Wiggins; they were married in 1988 and divorced in 1993. His third wife, from 1997 to 2004, was Elizabeth West; they have a son, Milan (born 1999). In 2004, he married the Indian American actress and model Padma Lakshmi, the host of the American reality-television show Top Chef. The marriage ended on July 2, 2007, with Lakshmi indicating that it was her desire to end the marriage.
In 1999 Rushdie had an operation to correct ptosis, a tendon condition that causes drooping eyelids and that, according to him, was making it increasingly difficult for him to open his eyes. "If I hadn't had an operation, in a couple of years from now I wouldn't have been able to open my eyes at all," he said.
Since 2000, Rushdie has "lived mostly near Union Square" in New York City. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)
I was raised neither a Catholic nor a Jew. I was both and nothing: a jewholic-anonymous, a cathjew nut, a stewpot, a mongrel cur. I was—what's the word these days? atomized. Yessir: a real Bombay mix." So says Moraes Zogioby, known as Moor, the narrator of The Moor's Last Sigh. Salman Rushdie's first novel in seven years is his best work since 1980's brilliant Midnight's Children. Moor, who has a disorder that causes him to age at twice the normal speed, is the last surviving member of a crazy clan of wealthy South Indian spice merchants. He tells their insane, incestuous, violent domestic saga, which spans four generations. It centers on his beautiful mother, Aurora da Gama, a stubborn, passionate, Christian artist who, at 15, falls in love with the handsome Abraham Zogioby, a penniless, 35-year-old Jewish employee of her family. They marry and have four children: Ina, Minnie, Mynah and Moor. Betrayal, murder, and mayhem ensue.
Rushdie, the author of nine previous books—including The Satanic Verses, which prompted Ayatollah Khomeini to issue his death sentence in 1989—alludes often to his own exile, the story of modern India and the dangers of art. At first the hyperbole, didactic asides, verbal puns, lyrical and lewd jokes, and slapstick routines seem a bit much, but if you stick with it, a cumulative magic takes hold. Rushdie's satiric, hysterically funny, political family tragedy is a masterpiece.
Susan Shapiro - Salon
This novel, looked at as a work of literary art, is a triumph, an intricate and deceptive one.... The grand deception in this book is to conceal a bitter cautionary tale within bright, carnivalesque wrappings.
Norman Rush - New York Times
The most complete and gratifying work to emerge from Salman Rushdie's imagination.... The Moor's Last Sigh is an exotic story, in its setting, in its characters, in its punning extravagance, and in its deeply human core. It is an extraordinary family saga...full of wonderful characters, and the insight born of genuine reflection.... A remarkable spell of creativity.
One of the most wonderful works of political art I have encountered, a novel to rival Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, or Dante's Divine Comedy.... The Moor's Last Sigh is one of the most admirable novels I've ever read.
Moraes Zogoiby, the product of a mixed marriage, is a self-described "cathjew nut" living in the multicultural stewpot of Bombay. His freethinking mother, Aurora, heiress to a vast spice trade fortune and reputedly a descendant of Vasco da Gama, decorates his nursery with murals featuring American cartoon characters instead of the traditional Hindu deities. Young Moraes's cultural identity is so confused that his favorite Indian is Tonto, from The Lone Ranger. Aurora is also a renowned artist, and the book's title refers to her masterpiece, which has been stolen by a rival and smuggled out of the country. Moraes's frantic search for the painting is complicated by the fact that he ages at twice the normal speed and is quickly running out of time. This rich and very readable novel is filled with playful allusions to postwar Indian history, world literature, pop culture, and Rushdie's own recent travails. On a par with the marvelous Midnight's Children, this is Rushdie's best work in years. —Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
1. Why does Rushdie use the device of a "double-quick" [p. 143] life for the Moor? What does the idea of such speed add to the novel? What is the significance of the Moor's deformed right hand to his character and function within the story?
2. Rushdie has stated that the idea of a portrait of a mother painted over because the father did not like it—the "lost image"—was the original inspiration for this novel. The image of the "palimpsest, " a painting over which a second work has been superimposed, is central to The Moor's Last Sigh. How does the palimpsest become a metaphor for other of the novel's themes, i. e., love, God, the cultures of India?
3. Would you call Aurora a "good" mother? How directly is she responsible for the tragic lives of Ina, Minnie, Mynah, and the Moor? Why did Vasco Miranda paint Aurora without her children, and how does that image correspond with the picture of India painted by Rushdie?
4. Aurora's role as a mother is clearly central, but what about her role as wife and lover? What strategies does she use to deal with the men in her life, in particular Abraham, Vasco, and Raman Fielding? What do the notions of love, fidelity, and infidelity mean to her?
5. "Motherness—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" [p. 137]. In India, the mother is traditionally associated with the idea of the nation. How does Rushdie use the mythology of the mother goddess to depict his country? How did Indira Gandhi use it to propagandize her own national role, and what do you infer Rushdie's opinion of such mythmaking to be? How is Auroramade to represent the Indian nation itself in its maternal role?
6. What do the key historical events referred to by the narrator—the Spanish reconquista of Granada and the expulsion of the Moors, the founding of the spice trade between Europe and India, Portuguese colonial expansion, political events of twentieth-century India—have to do with the story of the Zogoiby and da Gama families? How do these references contribute to the story's impact?
7. "The family in the novel reflects a truth about Bombay society in the past thirty or so years, " Rushdie has said. "Which is that the rich have got very much richer and the poor very much poorer." How is this economic disparity dealt with in the novel? How do the changing fortunes of the da Gama-Zogoiby clan reflect the economic condition of India? Can you find parallels with the changes that have taken place in American society over the past twenty years?
8. Do you think that Rushdie's elegiac representation of Bombay owes something to his exile from his native city? Where else in the novel does the theme of exile arise? Which characters might be considered, at one time or another, exiles?
9. How does Rushdie depict Hinduism? How does Raman Fielding's Mumbai Axis distort the tenets of Hinduism [pp. 296-301], and to what purpose? Is his political/cultural agenda pure fascism, and how closely does it resemble the most famous fascist regime of the century, Adolf Hitler's? Are the Moor's reasons for joining Fielding convincing to you? Does Rushdie imply that religious fundamentalism is essentially inimical to democracy? Do you believe that Rushdie implies a link between religion and madness? Between religion and disease?
10. Rushdie has given his characters names that are resonant within Portuguese, Spanish, Jewish, and Indian culture: Abraham, Carmen, Camoens, da Gama, Prince Henry the Navigator, Isabella, Vasco, Adam Braganza, Castile, etc. What significance does each name carry within the narrative and within the thematic structure Rushdie has given his novel?
11. Over and over Rushdie stresses, through his narrator the Moor, the beauty of plurality. Speaking of his family's history, the Moor asks, "Christians, Portuguese and Jews; Chinese tiles promoting godless views; pushy ladies, skirts-not-saris, Spanish shenanigans, Moorish crownsÉcan this really be India?" [p. 87]. How does the narrator represent, in his own person, India's pluralism and the pluralism of the entire world? How does the golden age of Granada, as imagined by Aurora in her paintings, comment upon the Zogoibys' story and the political history of the late twentieth century? Is Aurora's vision confirmed or denied by the novel's events?
12. How do the changes and developments in Aurora's painting style comment upon the nature and function of the artist? What about her evolving subject matter—how does it reflect the events within her family, and the larger events occurring in the nation and the world? How does Vasco Miranda's second-rate, kitsch art contradict, or compliment, Aurora's vision?
13. Uma Sarasvati's is presented by the author and by Aurora herself as a foil to Aurora. Does her character—and the more theoretical, "post-modern" nature of her art [pp. 261-2]—function as the opposite of Aurora's, or as its compliment? Does Uma exist as a character in her own right, or purely as an incarnation of evil? Is Abraham, too, an incarnation of evil?
14. What does Rushdie imply about the position and role of women through female characters such as Aurora, Belle, Uma, Carmen, and Nadia Wadia, and what, if anything, do these women have in common? How do they use the force of their characters to redress any cultural disadvantages they might have as women? How might one describe Rushdie's vision of the balance between the sexes?
15. In his opening pages, the Moor presents himself as a variation on Dante, "without benefit or need of Virgils, in what ought to be the middle pathway of my life" [p. 4], and the structure of the book is guided in part by that of The Divine Comedy. What other works of literature—fairy tales, religious texts, mythologies, epics, plays—help to give The Moor's Last Sigh its shape? How do their themes contribute to and enrich Rushdie's own?
16. How does Rushdie use the Benengeli section of the novel to explore the theme of parasitism, and do you think that he intends Benengeli to represent the parasitism of the modern world? Rushdie equates Vasco Miranda with Bram Stoker's Dracula; with Helsing, the Larios sisters, and the Benengeli Parasites he makes other references to the Dracula tale. What does he achieve by making this comparison? What does the presence of Aoi U' within Vasco's nightmarish castle signify?
17. The Moor's Last Sigh can be seen as an argument for tolerance over dogmatism, educated scepticism over intractible zeal. How does Rushdie's imagined ideal of "Mooristan" encapsulate this interpretation? Do you believe that the novel delivers a message of pessimism or of optimism?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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