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.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea