THE MOOR'S LAST SIGH
By Salman Rushdie
Pantheon, 435 pp., $25
Salmon Rushdie's latest novel, ''The Moor's Last Sigh,'' is an extravagant, tragicomic vision of a world exploding with violence, madness, and corruption. Set in the author's native India (where it has been banned, along with Rushdie's ''The Satanic Verses,'' which earned him a Muslim death sentence), this bizarre saga of a larger-than-life family is narrated by the last surviving member of the colorful clan.
Moraes Zogoiby, known as ''Moor,'' is descended on his mother's side from the da Gamas, wealthy spice traders of Portuguese-Christian extraction. His father's clan, the Zogoibys, are members of a Jewish community in South India, although according to family legend, their progenitor who fled Spain for India in 1492 was a defeated Moorish sultan who only pretended to be Jewish.
In the foreground of the tale, three generations of the da Gamas squabble over a family business that eventually mushrooms into an empire of fraud, crime, and violence. In the background, cultures clash, overlay, and mingle, forming a palimpsest of conquest, creation, migration, love, and betrayal that stretches from ancient times into the present, where most of the story unfolds.
Debauchery, blackmail, arson, killing: ''My family has been under many clouds....'' the narrator observes. ''Is this normal? Is this what we are all like?'' His family history is unusual, to say the least, and two of its most titanic personalities are none other than his own parents. At age 15, the beautiful, dynamic Aurora da Gama, heir to the spice empire, insists on marrying the seemingly unsuitable Abraham Zogoiby, a Jew more than twice her age with very little money, in defiance of the wishes of both their clans. Abraham takes over the reins of the da Gama spice business, piloting it to new and dizzying heights of success and corruption, while the artistically gifted Aurora becomes a leading figure on the cultural scene with her boldly original paintings.
Aurora's personality dominates much of the novel. A living exemplar of India as a pluralistic, hybrid nation, she insists on speaking only English in her own inimitable way: ''all these different lingoes cuttofy us off from one another,'' as she explains. Motherhood is not her favorite role, and she overshadows her three female children: ''they can't growofy fast enough for me. God! How long this childhood business draggoes on! Why couldn't I have ... even one child - who grew up really fast.'' The eponymous ''Moor,'' born in 1957 after a 4-1/2 month pregnancy, mystically fulfills his mother's rash wish by aging twice as fast as normal.
Moor's life coincides with an era of civil discord, state repression, and the growth of a Hindu fundamentalist movement hostile to modernism and minorities like the Christian-Muslim-Jewish da Gama-Zogoibys. Toward the novel's end, the middle-aged Moor reverses his ancestors' flight by leaving Bombay for the relative tolerance of the recently democratized Spain.
Do fanatic beliefs cause violence, or does a human propensity toward violence impel people to seize on any reason - religious or ideological - to commit these misdeeds? ''The Moor's Last Sigh'' poses this question and seems to suggest the latter answer.
Almost every character here is guilty of something. Many, including the narrator, have blood on their hands. Any line between heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators is blurred as narrator and narrative whirl toward their apocalyptic, yet madcap, conclusion. ''For the barbarians,'' Moor declares, ''were not only at the gates but within our skins. We were our own wooden horses, each one of us full of our doom.''
This bleak and bitter vision is painted in colors at once lurid and exuberant: A great deal of verbal and inventive energy has gone into what is essentially a world-weary sigh of spiritual exhaustion. Nor does the beleaguered, sinful, yet-more-sinned-against narrator permit himself even the luxury of tragedy, for, as he puts it, ''Tragedy was not in our natures. A tragedy was taking place all right, a national tragedy on a grand scale, but those of us who played our parts were - let me put it bluntly - clowns.''
Because the characters who people these pages are so grotesque, their extravagance undermines the novel's claim to be depicting humanity as it really is. Yet in an age when aberrations - mega-greed, mega-hate, and mega-violence - seem to be becoming ever more common, the Moor's outlandish friends, family, and enemies may begin to look a little more familiar than we'd like.