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Bombay bizarre

Salman Rushdie's novel is playfully erudite and full of surreal wit. By Hugo Barnacle; The Moor's Last Sigh Salman Rushdie Cape, pounds 15.99
Perhaps deliberately, as if to show that normal service has been resumed and that living under a death sentence has not changed his inner world, Salman Rushdie has produced a new novel in much the same mould as Midnight's Children, his first success, which came all of 14 great big years ago.

So once again we have the story of three generations of a dysfunctional upper-class Bombay family, narrated by the grandson while he awaits his end in a place of confinement; and again the family's rise and fall mirrors Indian history, from Empire to Independence to Emergency and beyond.

The main difference is that the family are not Muslims this time but Cochin Catholics with a dash of Jew. The narrator, Moor, is another unhappy prodigy, like Saleem in Midnight's Children with his over-acute hearing; but Moor's problem is that he matures physically at twice normal speed, so that he is a hulking adult at the age of 10 and nearly dead at 36.

This seems to be a simple reversal of the premise of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum, on which Midnight's Children also leant heavily. The gift/curse of Grass's prodigious hero was that he never grew up at all. Rushdie is an inveterate borrower but at least he makes the borrowed material into something new of his own, and Moor's accelerated development and decay is a reasonably appropriate metaphor for what modern India is going through.

Moor's mother, Aurora, is a famous painter, lover of Nehru and numerous others, who makes an annual point of dancing on the clifftop to mock the Hindu festival taking place on the beach. Otherwise, she devotes herself to spiting her husband and children.

"Motherness - excuse me if I underline the point - is a big idea in India, maybe our biggest," says Moor. "I'm talking major mother-country." If Indian society really is so matriarchal, one can see it might foster resentment. Moor later refers to "that image of an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mother who haunts the fantasy life of Indian males". It is the closest Rushdie has come to explaining the mile-wide streak of misogyny that runs through his work, and the recurrent Oedipal motifs.

One of Aurora's rejected old flames is Raman Fielding, a cartoonist who becomes leader of a Hindu fundamentalist party and agitates for the destruction of all those mosques the wicked Muslims have built on the birthplaces of Hindu gods: "and not only their birthplaces," says Moor, "but their country residences and love-nests too, to say nothing of their favourite shops and preferred eateries. Where was a deity to go for an evening out?"

The humour of this has been lost on the real Hindu rulers of Bombay, who have banned the book out of respect for their leader, the ex-cartoonist Bal Thackeray. Besides the play on Eng Lit surnames and the ridicule of this bogus form of Hinduism, Rushdie parodies Thackeray's ludicrous, mock-humble style of speaking with horrible accuracy. And Moor eventually smashes Fielding's head in and kills him, which could also be construed as hostile comment.

In the surge of terrorism that follows the Ayodhya riots, most of the book's characters are killed off. The story is a cruel one, but the style is, as ever with Rushdie, relentlessly jokey. Moor's older sisters are called Ina, Minnie and Mynah. The pun count is off the scale. The police inspector talks like Inky, the Indian prince in the Billy Bunter stories, for no reason except that Rushdie wishes to show he can do the police in different voices. And it transpires that Moor has written the whole manuscript in exile in the Spanish village of Benengeli, which implies it could all be untrue anyway: Cide Hamete Benengeli is the fictitious Arab (ie. Moorish) historian whom Cervantes claims as his source for the story of Don Quixote, and whom he cheerfully blames for any implausible elements therein: "for the people of that race are much inclined to lying".

This is the kind of determined intellectual clowning-around, exhilarating or tiresome according to taste, which stops the Page 15 Club in their tracks every time but carries Rushdie's faithful admirers through to the finish. It is all quite brilliant, of course, (well, quite brilliant) but there is a certain sense of relief in putting the book down and venturing back into the world proper, where things are just things and not always metaphors for other things, and where language can be used simply to order a pint and not always to re-order the universe.