Somehow, sometime, I became allergic to the term “family saga” and avoided books labeled as such. I don’t know why. The term brings to mind farmhouses and domesticity, kids and family secrets, struggles that are often first world problems I couldn’t care less about. But, like stories about Manhattanites and the French Revolution, it’s simply a strange prejudice I’ve come to embrace because SO MANY BOOKS. A girl has to find a way to not feel the need to read All the Things, right? Especially a slow reader like this girl. Yet inevitably such black-balling will make me miss out on some great stuff.
The Moor’s Last Sigh is explicitly described in its synopsis as a family saga, and boy does it earn the saga aspect. Instead of summarizing the plot myself (a daunting task), here’s an excerpt from the back of the book itself:
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.
The “titanic matriarchs” were my favorite part of the story: Moor’s mother, Aurora, her mother, Belle, and her mother, Epifania are all forces to be reckoned with. In addition to these often outsize examples, there are musings on motherhood itself in the context of India, its prominence in popular culture and national pride. There are many musings in this book on everything you might think of: family, class, race, religion, art, storytelling, history, and more. This sounds like it could be boring, but Rushdie avoids that handily via the entertaining voice of Moor, the narrator, and the sheer power and acrobatics of his prose.
When I first began reading the book, I was reminded of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, an early novel where the narrator begins with his forebears…and never even reaches his birth. Both books are also suffused with comedy, though Shandy is more of a farce. Moor begins narrating his story in the present, in exile, and shifts to his great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, and his own early life, occasionally returning to the present to remind us of his circumstances before we get there near the end of the story. There are moments when Moor doubts what he’s been told of his family, but he never closes the book on an interpretation. Through Moor’s telling of his family story and origins, a story of India also emerges. As an American, most of it was new to me.
All the characters in the book are fascinating and distinct, and the storytelling and language engages as well. And that’s without the magical realism that makes the story feel even more epic and a bit whimsical. It’s another element of the narrative that brings to attention the act of storytelling. Though you can feel the magical realism throughout, when it’s revealed that Moor ages physically twice as fast as a normal person, it kicks into high gear. It leads to all sorts of complications for Moor, some uncomfortable to read, but most of all, along with a withered hand, makes him desperate for love. It doesn’t take long for that desperation to lead to his (almost) ruin.
The Moor’s Last Sigh is an amazing journey and my first Rushdie. I’ll happily read more.