24 September 2018

Zimbabwe: The Moor's Love Song to a 'Vanishing' World

I have read "Satanic Verses" and "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie. While I must confess that I have enjoyed both, I need to point out that such novels do not hold me in thrall. This means I can read them slowly, over a long period of time, as if I have all the time in the world. This is mainly because the books are dense. I have experienced the same thing with Llosa's "War of the End of the World" and Rheam's "This September Sun".

Authors who write works like these need to be very good. And the authors I have mentioned above are good. Their goodness does not lie in holding me in thrall, but in writing about life in a very beautiful way. I remember such works more than those that enthrall me.

Rushdie's "The Moor's Last Sigh" is like the books I have mentioned above: dense. But there is something about the narrator, Moraes "Moor" Zogoiby, that gives you the patience to move along with him in his ridiculously halved life, for when he reaches 35 he is already 70 in looks, a young man trapped in an old man's body, so that the introspective nature of his narration is a product of having seen it all in a very short period of time and having accepted the inexorable nature of one's fate.

My attraction to Rushdie was principally due to his indispensability in the post-colonial and hybridised perspective from which I have been reading literary texts for the past four years. And when you read "The Moor's Last Sigh", Bombay epitomises that post-colonial spirit that drives Rushdie's works. Says Moor: "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 Indians met and merged. In Bombay, too, all-India met what-was-not-India, what came across the black water to flow into our veins.

"Everything north of Bombay was North India, everything south of it was the South. To the east lay India's East, and to the west, the world's West. Bombay was central; all rivers flowed into its human sea. It was an ocean of stories; we were all its narrators, and everybody talked at once." (p. 350).

For someone doing a doctoral research on post-colonial narratives, the description above is fresh fodder for numerous paragraphs of cryptic post- colonial analysis. But when Reshmi (a friend) gave me a copy of "The Moor's Last Sigh", I didn't read it in order to find a case study to which I could apply post-colonial catchphrases.

In fact, I read it way after completing my research, so it happened to be the first post-research voluminous work that I read for no other purpose except literary pleasure. I met someone at work who asked me why I was reading such a voluminous book, and I told them that I was reading it for fun. In academic circles, reading for fun is rare, especially when you have backlogs of research papers or you are PhDying.

You can read "The Moor's Last Sigh" for fun because it combines the literary and the popular. Like Bombay, the narrative is like "insaan-soup", a cacophony of literary and popular elements that both achieve harmony in the Moor's narrative delivery. This is not the only cacophony that characterises this novel. We have the Moor himself, a young man in an old man's body; a crossbred man who is estranged from the world yet intimate with it; a young man who loves his mother while hating her; a young man who knows his father yet doesn't; a corporate world run by warlords and crime bosses; artists who turn into cultic fanatics; and lovers who do not love.

Everything that is contradictory and cacophonous, like the variegated nature of the modern world (reminds me of Ato Quayson's Oxford Street, Accra, Ghana), is what "The Moor's Last Sigh" is all about, yet in this narrative, all these things find harmony in the Moor's calculated narrative so that out of this confusion, what we are reading is the Moor's love song to the world that defined him, a world which is both vanishing and not vanishing.

While the Moor's life is a heartlessly halved one, the labyrinthine tale he leaves behind can only be a product of a life well-lived, or an imagination well-used. The same also applies to the originator of the Moor character, Salman Rushdie. His intimate descriptions of Aurora's paintings are not only critical but artistic. So sometimes we hear Rushdie in the Moor, although we are consistently reminded that he is a young man carried in an old man's body.

The narrative features tragic heroes and heroines who are either swallowed by the sea, or swallowed by Bombay. In the case of the narrator, the tragedy is in the halving of his life. However, this painful reality of their lives is diminished by the beauty and hybridity with which the story is told so that that cacophony I mentioned earlier resurfaces when you try to pin the novel down to its central concerns: a tale that exposes a decades long family saga; a commentary on colonial and post-colonial life; a romantic story of the Moor and the women in his life; a story about the thin line between corporate ulteriors and Mafia interiors; a caustic reflection and evaluation of the future of serious art (what disillusioned older artists may want to call "real" art when compared to the garishness and chaos of bandwagon cultures); an intimate parody of the Englishness of India; and many other concerns which any reader may want to add to these ones.

Salman Rushdie is definitely a prose stylist whose deployment of invention, humour, diversion and digression makes the novel rich in colour and texture. And oh, did I tell you that "The Moor's Last Sigh" refers to this narrative that I am reviewing, and also one of the paintings by a character in the narrative?

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