Salman Rushdie's brilliant The Moor's Last Sigh (1995)

The Moor’s Last Sigh

  • Author:  Salman Rushdie  (b. 1947)
  • Rank:  #66
  • Published:  1995
  • Publisher:  Jonathan Cape (U.K.), Pantheon (U.S.)
  • Pages:  435
  • First Line:  “I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda’s mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door.”
  • Last Line:  “I’ll drink some wine; and then, like a latter-day Van Winkle, I’ll lay me down upon this graven stone, lay my head beneath these letters R I P, and close my eyes, according to our family’s old practice of falling asleep in times of trouble, and hope to awaken, renewed and joyful, into a better time.
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Acclaim:  Whitbread Prize; Time Magazine’s Book of the Year; shortlisted for Booker Prize
  • Film:  none
  • First Read:  Summer, 2001

The Novel: As I pointed out the other day, Salman Rushdie is one of the greatest living writers to not have won the Nobel Prize.  He may, in fact, be the greatest living writer, Nobel Prize or not.  He is one of only six writers to earn three different spots on my countdown.  And The Moor’s Last Sigh, often overlooked in favor of his two highly regarded classics (Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses) or his more recent books (like Shalimar the Clown) is one of his best novels.

This is what I had to say about it back in 2003, when I added it to my staff picks page at Powells (since erased from the web):

“Everyone knows about Satanic Verses by now.  Indeed, when all is said and done, it will be unfortunate if Rushdie is remembered more for the fatwah than for the brilliance of that novel, perhaps the best novel written in the 1980’s.  Many people also know about Midnight’s Children, his brilliant book that won the “Booker of Bookers”: the best book awarded the Booker in the first 25 years of the prize.  Some even know about Ground Beneath Her Feet and Fury, his last two novels, one about rock and roll, and one, ostensibly, about New York City.

Not enough people know about The Moor’s Last Sigh.  It might be Rushdie’s best book.  It might be the best book of the 1990’s.  It captures all of Rushdie’s brilliance: his offbeat, surreal sense of humor; his powerful sense of narrative; his desire to write intelligently about the complexities of his native country of India; his sense of wandering; and his hope of finding a permanent home.

At its heart, Moor’s Last Sigh is the story of a spice trading family, a long chronicle of the hatreds and passions which drive the family apart, sending “the Moor,” the last child of this family, on a desperate quest from India to Spain.

When all is said and done, perhaps people will look at this book, and at his other brilliant work, and remember Rushdie for what he has been: one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, one who has never stopped daring to take new steps.”

Of course, that doesn’t really cover the full range of what Rushdie does in this novel, the magnificent way in which it ties so many of his themes together.  We can see his playful way of dealing with endings (early on, in the first few pages): “Now, therefore it is meet to sing of endings; of what was, and may be no longer; of what was right in it, and wrong.  A last sigh for a lost world, a tear for its passing.  Also, however, a last hurrah, a final, scandalous skein of shaggy-dog yarns (words must suffice, video facility being unavailable) and a set of rowdy tunes for the wake.”  We also get his precise notation of events, a Rushdie trademark: “The woman who transformed, exalted and ruined my life entered it at Mahalaxmi racecourse forty-one days after Ina’s death.”  There are also deeper moments, lines which resonate outside the novel, outside of Rushdie entirely: “If love is not all, then it is nothing: this principle, and its opposite (I mean, infidelity), collide down all the years of my breathless tale.” or “With fear, it’s all or nothing.  Either, like any bullying tyrant, it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes in a puff of smoke.  And another secret: the revolution against fear, the engendering of that tawdy despot’s fall, has more or less nothing to do with ‘courage’.  It is driven by something much more straightforward: the simple need to get on with your life.  I stopped being afraid because, if my time on earth was limited, I didn’t have seconds to spare for funk.”

But one of the keys to understanding Rushdie is his long and complicated history with India.  He was born there, but left when still young.  Still, his connection to India informs all of his fiction and he provides a unique perspective on the country: “India was uncertainty.  It was deception and illusion.”  Not just India, but also Bombay, his hometown, plays a vital part of the novel here, like in so many of his novels: “Bombay was central, had been so from the moment of its creation: the bastard child of a Portuguese-English wedding, and yet the most Indian of Indian cities.  In Bombay all Indias met and merged.  In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins.”

Yet, in the end, in spite of overwhelming tragedy throughout the novel, a grandiose combination of Garcia Marquez’s magical realism and a Shakespearean sense of tragedy, it is all still held together by Rushdie’s unique brand of humor.  After all, he seems to be the only kind of person who could write such a line as “The first point to note is that people’s limbs got detached more easily in those days.”

If you haven’t read Rushdie (odds are you haven’t) and if you have but have struggled through the two great, but difficult novels (Midnight’s Children and Satanic Verses), The Moor’s Last Sigh is a perfect place to begin your trek through one of the great writers of our time.  Of any time.

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