cover image The Moor's Last Sigh

The Moor's Last Sigh

Salman Rushdie. Pantheon Books, $25 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42049-1

Not since Midnight's Children has Rushdie produced such a dazzling novel. Nor has he curbed his urgent indignation or muffled his satiric tongue. In a spirited story related at a breakneck pace and crammed full of melodrama, slapstick, supple wordplay and literary allusions, Rushdie has again fashioned a biting parable of modern India. Telling his story ``with death at my heels,'' the eponymous narrator relates the saga of a family whose religious, political and cultural differences replicate the fault lines by which India is riven. The Moor tells of ``family rifts and premature deaths and thwarted loves and mad passions and weak chests and power and money and... the seductions and mysteries of art.'' He speculates on the duality of all things, the conflicting impulses of human nature and the clash between appearance and reality. Like the tale itself, the title has multiple layers of meaning. ``The Moor's Last Sigh'' refers to two paintings, one a masterpiece by the narrating Moor's mother, Aurora, the other a trashy work by her onetime protege and lover, and later implacable enemy, Vasco Miranda, who becomes the Moor's nemesis. The Moor was thus nicknamed at birth, the youngest child of Aurora, the heiress to the da Gama spice-trade dynasty, and Abraham Zogoiby, a penniless Jew who was her family's employee. Aurora has become one of India's most famous artists, even as her shadowy husband has metamorphosed into a power broker in the Bombay underworld. The narrator was born with a deformed right hand and a disease that ages him two years for every year he lives: ``Life had dealt me a bad hand, and a freak of nature was obliging me to play it out too fast.'' The woman he adores is a pathological liar who fools the Moor into making a fatally wrong choice. Rushdie's own plight informs these pages, but it is always integrated into plot and character. Already an outcast from society, the half-Jewish Moor is expelled from his family; when he leaves India, he becomes increasingly disoriented and is eventually imprisoned, awaiting a death that may strike at any time. Of another character, the Moor says: ``Thirty years in hiding! What a torment....'' Rushdie gives his linguistic virtuosity full play: his prose, as always, is energetic, jaunty and lyrical; the dialogue is truly ``lingo-garbling'' as characters speak in such suffix-burdened neologisms as ``you tormentofy me,'' and ``payofy us back.'' A series of indelible portraits evokes the greedy da Gama clan, who personify many of India's self-destructive traits. All too aware of the apocalyptic events toward which he is hurtling, the Moor yearns to ``wipe my moral slate clean.'' Certainly Rushdie's moral rigor has not faltered. Where Midnight's Children heralded the birth pains of modern India, The Moor's Last Sigh charts a nation's troubled middle passage. The society Rushdie portrays so powerfully is rife with corruption; pluralism is dying and a dangerous separatism is on the rise, encouraging hatred and despair. 100,000 first printing; major ad/promo; Random House AudioBook. (Jan.)