Salman Rushdie's 'The Moor's Last Sigh' -- immortal, essential pursuit of true fact

January 14, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

I hope you were cozy in the Blizzard of '96. Myself, I ventured outside only for moments. I spent the rest of the time in heaven, Bombay mostly, reading a book: "The Moor's Last Sigh," by Salman Rushdie (Random House. 448 pages. $25).

Any attempt to distill its action and events would be to slight and mislead. Cliffs Notes are not art. This is a work of art, complex yet brilliantly accessible, a saga of a brilliant, tragic family. Within its tale are many stories, dominated by an encounter of 36 or perhaps 72 years among a mother and a son and civilization.

Consider them The Mother and The Son, fated to distraction and destruction, caring and competition, passion and perversity, harmony and hate, mystery and misanthropy. Six centuries, or maybe 25, of interbreeding, physical and spiritual, conflate values that are Indian and European, Roman Catholic and

Muslim, Sephardic Jew and Moorish and Mughal Muslim, Hindu and Orthodox, Anglican and Buddhist and variations and sub persuasions within each and all, occasionally Singhed by a Sikh or two.

It is a story of four generations of a family whose last progeny is Moraes Zogoiby, nicknamed "Moor," one of many Moors whose spirits haunt the tale. The interwoven family is somehow descended from Vasco da Gama and from Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Spain and thus the original wistful Moor.

Family jewels

Today's Moor is the book's narrator, a miracle creature agonized by the fact that he is aging at twice the rate of everyone else. His very various elder sisters, Christina, Inamorata and Philomena, are invariably addressed and referred to as Ina, Minnie and Mynah. These four siblings together, with malice aforethought, are to their mother Eenie, Meenie, Minie and Mo.

That mother, Aurora da Gama Zogoiby, is blindingly magnificent, one of the most enchanting, maddening, fascinating, repellent, humane, inhuman, brilliant, delicious, evil, successful, failed heroines in contemporary literature.

Is it useful to ask a work of art for its purpose? Righteous bar brawls have been waged over that question, and should be again, this very night. Speak for yourself, and pitch a bottle for me. Meanwhile, among candidates for a central intent:

Civilization's core struggle: Arguably at the Aristotelian point of recognition, the book declares, "Civilization is the sleight of hand that conceals our natures from ourselves."

Concession of personal triviality: "Under versus Over, sacred versus profane, god versus mammon, past versus future, gutter versus sky: that struggle between two layers of power in which I, and Nadia Wadia, and Bombay, and even India itself would find ourselves trapped, like dust between coats of paint." (Don't ask about Ms. Wadia, I beg you.)

Social security: "[P]lace, language, people and customs . . . for most of us, are the four anchors of the soul." The tension of the book is driven by the frightful struggle to keep the soul snug.

Wildely Oscar: "Human perversity is greater than human heroism ... or cowardice ... or art. ... For there are limits to these things, there are points beyond which we will not go in their name; but to perversity there is no limit set, no frontier that anyone has found. Whatever today's excess, tomorrow's will exceed-o it."

So why does it work so well, this cavern-mouthed cornucopia of propositions and repudiations, this ultra-cosmopolitan teddy-bear philosophers' picnic?

From the beginning there is celebration of the miracle of language, the ecstasy of the day-to-dailiness of the characters. From page after page, the demand screams out: How many angles can be danced on the head of a pun?

Reading, an intransitive verb kept rushing up to me: The prose "gambols."

There is much chat about "Palimpstine," a land of the mind, of the spirit, hidden beneath another more immediate but perhaps less profound, less truthful landscape. As in over-painting, palimpsest, from which the pun of course in part is drawn, the contrivance suggests obscuring the old by the new, the ancient by the immediate.

Thus the book insistently and convincingly questions the validity of reality, raising and reraising that familiar, essential philosophical question: "What is true fact?"

Oh, mother!

That yields a book about motherhood: Mother India, Mother Europe, Mother Moor, Mother Zion, mother tongue, mother love, mother tyrant. Mother, mutha, muddah, murder! Motherhood: complex, maddening, nurturing, necessary, cruel in its very need to nourish a genius of its own, eating its young.

Mr. Rushdie's plight of mind and body is familiar to most readers. "The Satanic Verses" was published eight years ago. Soon afterward came forth Ayatollah Khomeini's "fatwa" that Mr. Rushdie must be slaughtered by the faithful to protect true believers from infestation by his free-thinking.

VTC He writes on, courage exemplary. Throughout this book, he explores lovingly, analytically, blissfully and with great personal culture matters of spirit, art, poetry, literature, matters of the mind as well as of the soul. Yet to the book's immense dignity it contains not a single phrase of culture-theory, not a word of the acadobabble that in America and much of Europe so constipates, paralyzes and terrorizes most academic and academy-poisoned writing about writing.

This is not one of those novels, perniciously common these days, contrived to placate the panjandrums of the litcrit lodges, those pallid second cousins to Khomeini's way of thinking.

Get the book. Witness valor. Laugh. Weep. Read genuine literature.

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