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THE LAST JEW by Noah Gordon


by Noah Gordon

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-312-26504-2
Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Having completed the Cole family trilogy (Matters of Choice, 1996, etc.), Gordon returns to the more familiar territory of Jewish history for his latest period novel.

The author plows relatively untouched ground here. His tale concerns the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from their homelands on Iberian Peninsula in 1492 but have received short shrift ever since from history and literature, both of which have been dominated by the Ashkenazi Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe. Yiddish has more literary cachet than Ladino (the Sephardim's Judeo-Spanish language), and the sufferings of Jews at the hands of the Inquisition have received less attention than the pogroms in 19th-century Russia. So it's a welcome change to find a Jewish historical novel focused on the wanderings and bitter internal exile of a man separated from his family at the Expulsion and left behind in a now Jew-free Spain. The story of Yonah Toledano, the title character, begins with a mystery: who killed Yonah's older brother and stole the reliquary their father had crafted for the local priory? It soon becomes clear, however, that this will not be a Jewish version of Name of the Rose. Rather, Gordon is making a game but stolid effort to re-create the Spanish picaresque, substituting the Inquisition and anti-Jewish violence for the more mundane obstacles traditionally faced by the genre's peripatetic heroes. As is the norm for historical fiction of this sort, the hero is impossibly noble, and love is repeatedly thwarted but ultimately triumphs. Regrettably, the novel is utterly devoid of humor, and its plodding, dull, pseudo-archaic prose paralyzes the action. Rather than a bawdy romp in the picaresque style, this is a throwback to epic potboilers like Anthony Adverse and the other bestsellers of the 1930s: well-intentioned and too well-mannered.

A sugar-coated history lesson for the cabana at the beach.