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The Moor's Second Last Sigh
Salman Rushdie's new novel has risen like a Venus from the sea, a welcome sign of life from a writer who has been living under difficult circumstances. But to some, the book had a different resonance: a sense of déjà vu. It's called The Moor's Last Sigh? It refers to King Boabdil and the fall of Granada in 1492?
The Alberta writer Jacqueline Dumas' book called The Last Sigh came out in 1993. It too refers to Boabdil and the fall of Granada. I was her editor, having also edited her first novel, Madeleine and the Angel, when I was at Fifth House Publishers in Saskatoon. Madeleine earned a place on the W. H. Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award short list and was the Alberta Writers Guild Novel of the Year in 1989. The Last Sigh appeared, and, having got little national attention, disappeared almost immediately; it went out of print in early 1995, and is now available only at Dumas' bookstore, Orlando, in Edmonton. It is a good book that deserved better.
There are so many similarities between the two books that Dumas' book could not have been published after Rushdie's-at least not without a lot of questions being asked. The similarities range from the obvious to the profound, and should provoke further critical scrutiny. Let me give an overview of them here.
The Last Sigh is about a young Canadian woman who goes to Granada in search of information about her lover, Tony, who apparently drowned there, but may have been murdered. He has become more and more of a mystery to her, since secret events of his life have come to light. She has a key and a map relating to his descent from Moorish and Jewish inhabitants of Granada, expelled in 1492; his family is supposed to have inherited the sword of Boabdil, the last Moorish ruler. His name, Benabo, is a corruption of an ancient Moorish one. That's the core of the plot: solving a family mystery involving treasure and ancient lineage; there are various other mysteries, murders, treasures, and eccentric characters.
Eva, the protagonist, is curiously passive, stilled by the deaths of Tony and his mother, as well as her own parents. In Granada, she becomes involved with a deceitful and dangerous lover who tries to drug and murder her, but is himself killed in the attempt. The final part of the book revolves around an ancient Moorish house and an Oriental woman who assists Eva in her narrow escape from death.
Along the way, she befriends a Canadian woman called Isabella, Bella for short, who is known for her over-indulgence in drink and in male lovers, and who is a commanding presence in the book. People jokingly compare her to Queen Isabella, who with her husband Ferdinand was the conqueror of Granada.
During the Holy Week festivities that are at the centre of the novel, Eva attends a procession of the Virgin of the Plaza del Cristo, who is called Aurora-a name that reverberates through this part of the book.
The Moor's Last Sigh is about a young man from India, Moraes, nicknamed "the Moor", who goes to a village near Granada in search of information about his dead mother, who may have been murdered. He is descended from Moors and Jews expelled from Granada in 1492, including Boabdil himself. His family has material proofs: a dagger, the crown of Boabdil, and also an old book: like Tony, he is descended from a mediaeval Jewish woman writer. Moraes' family name, too, has been corrupted over the centuries, but is still a proof of his descent.
His grandmother's name is Isabella, Belle for short (and she too is compared to the Spanish queen). She was known for drinking, smoking, and carrying on with men. His mother's name is Aurora. She is a painter, and her painting "The Moor's Last Sigh" may or may not be derivative from another artist's, but in any case turns out to be a palimpsest: there is another image hidden underneath.
Like Eva, Moraes is a curiously passive protagonist, suffering from the deaths of most of his family and that of his deceitful, dangerous lover, who tried to drug and murder him, but was killed in the attempt. He has gone to Spain in search of knowledge that will help him deal with these losses. Although the novel is mostly about India, in a sense it all happens in Spain; it is the account Moraes writes while imprisoned in a Spanish castle known as "the little Alhambra", where a Japanese woman plays a friendly but sexually equivocal role in his captivity and escape.
There's a lot more to both books, and The Moor's Last Sigh is primarily interested in the long histories of Moraes' maternal and paternal families in India. What does all this have to do with the fall of the Moorish kingdom of Granada and the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews in 1492? Well might we ask, because this question is at the heart of the limitations of Rushdie's novel and the strengths of Dumas'.
King Boabdil lost the war to consolidate Spain that was waged by Ferdinand and Isabella. He sighed to leave his beautiful city, Granada, and one of the most graceful palaces of the world, the Alhambra. His parting with this place was aesthetic as well as political; it was a parting with the gates of Heaven and the shadow of God, which reverberates down the centuries and into the present. At a certain spot that still has the same name as these two books, he made his "last sigh"-and was rebuked by his fierce old mother for his ineffectuality.
The magic of Granada's beauty is at the heart of the reference; accordingly, it ought to be the reason behind the titles of both books.
In Dumas' novel, that magic is clearly engaged, in the hope for Eva's re-animation in Granada, through the workings of strange coincidence, sudden friendships, sudden deaths, and the evocation of buried resentments and dreams. This is on the level of story; the setting is beautifully detailed throughout, and the Alhambra serves as a gorgeous anchor for the drift of centuries and the passions of human beings. The Spanish characters constantly invoke their reverence for their city and its ambiance.
Rushdie's novel is only obliquely concerned with Spain. The ties are tenuous, depicted mostly in the paintings of Moraes' mother, who has used the story of Boabdil as a prism to refract her own family conflicts. Granada itself is only visited in the imagination. The use of Spain as a setting is a cumbersome plot device in a novel that tricks and plays its way forward with tremendous energy and gumption.
The book's energy is in a torrent of words (in English and dialects), ideas, places, people, jokes, and puns (like Palimpstine for Palestine).
Dumas subtly evokes a particular place and people. Her style defers to the content, whereas Rushdie's is the paramount interest and the content comes along for the ride. That's why the use of Boabdil's last moments in his earthly paradise rings truer, and fits better, in The Last Sigh than in The Moor's Last Sigh.
Both books, in a broad sense, are about lust, treasure, greed, murder, deception, death of loved ones, grief, devotion, and beauty. Dumas was criticized for this in a cranky Books in Canada review: "The Last Sigh merely repeats the tired human refrain of murder and greed and stupidity. History has not elevated it, nor, unfortunately, made it more compelling." Rushdie is lionized for drawing upon the same concerns.
In the five reviews it got, The Last Sigh was loved or hated. Quill & Quire said it was a "wonderfully varied story of international intrigue, romance, mystery, treasure hunting, and danger" that established Dumas as "a writer of great imagination and range". There were favourable reviews in two Alberta newspapers and an unfavourable one in Paragraph.
I'm partisan: The Last Sigh is a very good book, beautifully written, tremendously evocative of southern Spain (where I, like Dumas, lived for a year), full of insights and quirky comments about people in general and Canadians in particular. Dumas does not perfectly join the mystery plot to her novel's literary quality, but it is a good, honest, thought-provoking book.
The Moor's Last Sigh gets praise abounding, but it does not deserve canonization. Its words, characters, and plot devices are overwhelming; its direction and focus are covert; its hero is unlikeable and to me his behaviour is unintelligible. Its beauties are those of slapstick and vaudeville, with the occasional gorgeous insight swept under by the surrounding tumult. The Joyceans will love it.
That is all very well, but the neglect of The Last Sigh is a sign that we do not allow our own writers as much scope as we might think. Dumas is not famous, yet. She is a Western Canadian writer and as such she is not supposed to deal with international questions of place and identity, but only regional ones-she is expected to choose her genre and stick to it, earning her way up slowly, by not taking on more than the rest of us can chew.

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