Mashed elephants and talc

Fiction: THE MOOR'S LAST SIGH by Salman Rushdie, Cape pounds 15.99

IN 1492 Boabdil, Sultan of Granada, surrendered the Alhambra to Fernando and Isabella, thus ending Moorish dominance in Spain. As he rode off into exile he looked back sighing and shed bitter tears, "whereupon his mother, the terrifying Ayxa the Virtuous, sneered at his grief". Five hundred years later, his descendant, Moor Zogoiby, another exile, watches the light fade over the Alhambra and mourns the loss of other paradises: an island off the Malabar coast, a house in Bombay, the roof garden of Cashondeliveri Tower, skyscraping centre of the Zogoiby business empire.

Salman Rushdie's first novel since The Satanic Verses, seven years ago, traces the fates, or as they would put it, the hit-and-misfortunes of the da Gama-Zogoiby dynasty through this century. The tale is told by the eponymous Moor, sole survivor of his line, as he awaits murder at the hands of a madman in a Spanish tower. The hapless Moor is born the youngest child of Jewish Abraham and Catholic Aurora, brother to Ina, Minnie and Mynah. Moor and his siblings endure an erratic upbringing in their rich, fabulous and autonomous family. Aurora, world-famous painter and linguistic adventuress, is a trifle degagee as a mother: "Poor kids are such a bungle, seems like they are doomed to tumble."

Ina grows up beautiful but dim: "Just too lookofy at, not to talk-oh to. Poor girl is limitoed in brain." Minnie becomes a nun - "Funny Face meets the Queen of Spades" - and Mynah campaigns for a radical feminist group WWSTP - acronym of We Will Smash This Prison, interpreted by some, however, as Women Who Sleep Together Probably. Moor, a baffled innocent, who entered the world after four-and-a-half months gestation, is programmed to grow in double-quick time. Thus at the age of 10 he appears to be 20 and is 6ft 6in, and at 36 is an asthmatic 72-year-old. His right hand is deformed, a clubbed fist. His father Abraham expands his empire, smiling gently as his wife makes public fun of him, tolerating the throng of stars and sycophants who blockade his house.

The family's original fortunes came from the spice and pepper trade; now they are bound also in banking, land, ships and chemicals, not to mention baby powder - "Baby Softo, sing it louder, softo-pofto talcum powder." Not all the white powder packed for export is destined for the baby-bottom business, however, and the power of corruption, as one character remarks, is equal to the power of gods. Evil works its way to the surface of this Eden; Abraham, like Prospero, at last resigns his sovereignty and the enchanted sky orchard explodes: "Whole trees rose gracefully into the heavens, before floating down to earth, like giant spores." All gone into thin air, and with them most of Central Bombay and Abraham himself.

But Abraham's racketeering forms only one thread of the Moor's narrative. Most powerful are the images and legends of the family's past and present. On her wedding night a tremulous young bride sees her husband silently enter her bedroom, disrobe, slip into her wedding dress and row off across the moonlit lake with his long-time lover Prince Henry the Navigator. Aurora reverses her car over a sailor and reinvents him as her gatekeeper, a Long John Silver complete with parrot. This parrot's version of "pieces of eight" is understood locally to mean "mashed white elephants". And when Aurora crashes down the cliff-face to her death this gnomic phrase is her last utterance. Aurora had been dancing on the cliff edge as she did every year, to show her scorn and defiance of the festival of the elephant god, Ganeshi, celebrated on the shore beneath. Abraham's mother Flory was also a high-rise dancer, capering on rooftops, flaunting her petticoats and screeching her challenge "Step over this line."

Marvellous women dominate this book. Articulate, vivid, unscrupulous and contradictory, impulsive, calculating, funny, cruel and loving, they serve also as metaphors for India, Mother India as Mother of Cities, of children who, confused and alienated, will nevertheless forever be harking back to that early nurturing, those "rivers full of mercy and disease". Just as the business empire contains an "Underworld beneath Overworld, black market beneath white", so "an invisible reality moved phantomwise beneath a visible fiction, subverting its meaning". Nothing is as it seems. Rushdie uses the image of the palimpsest over and over, sometimes literally, as in a painting where a second work has been superimposed, sometimes abstractedly applying it variously to gangland, a love affair, the many cultures of India, even God.

Sometimes the meaning beneath the meaning is clear, sometimes it is deliberately inscrutable. The exuberance and multiplicity of character and imagery also, of course, inform the language. Rich and exotic, it is crammed with puns, gleeful jokes, arabesqueries of allusion, vitality and sheer, straightforward fun. "Busters and busterinas!" he cries; he discusses Westoxification and chlorophyllosophy. He makes you search the OED for crores and chawls and fail to find vellards. He drops genially into other writers' prose, dallying with high Gothic, with Billy Bunter, with Kipling, Buchan, Thomas Wolfe and Dr Johnson. Historical figures, Indira Gandhi, Nehru, le Corbusier make daring appearances. A bulldog named Jawaharlal (jaw jaw) after Nehru moves faithfully beside successive generations, latterly stuffed and fitted with castor wheels.

This is a wonderful book, gorgeous in colour and texture, magnificent in scope, wildly funny; it is both a celebration and a threnody. Beneath the many strata of the palimpsest, two affirmations glow like illuminated texts - "to that most profound of our needs, to our need for flowing together, for putting an end to frontiers, for the dropping of the boundaries of the self" and "even if the world's beauty and love were on the edge of destruction, theirs would be the only side to be on: defeated love would still be love, hate's victory would not make it other than it was."

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