Monday, April 4, 2011

By Fire, By Water

By Fire, By Water by Mitchell James Kaplan
“Who by Fire and Who By Water” a refrain from the Jewish High Holy Day liturgy; referring to the fate of people in the coming year, as it is written in the Book of Life. A novel that focuses on Luis de Santangel of Spain, who was a financier to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel during the time of the New Inquisition in Spain, Christopher Columbus, the conquering of Granada and the exodus of Jews from Spain. The author points out in his afterward that all of these events happened almost simultaneously in history; thus his desire to write about them, to try to ‘flesh’ out the story.

There was so much history during this time frame but the author seemed to have it merely as a backdrop for his characters. Luis de Santangel was the focus of the story, as he was struggling to stop the New Inquisition which focused on New Christians – those that converted from Judaism to Christianity. Not only was Luis trying to stop Torquemada and his Inquisition, he was also struggling with his inner thoughts and religiosity. His grandparents were Jewish but converted (conversos – converts) to Christianity so that they could have a better life and not be persecuted, though kept their Jewish heritage and passed it on to their children (marranos ‘secretly practicing Jews). Luis thought of himself as a Christian, but also wanted to learn more about his heritage.

The author seemed to spend a lot of time describing what a Jew was, and the various rituals or prayers. It seemed to this reader to be a little overdone. It might not seem that way, however, to someone who knows nothing of the Jewish way of life. Even though the author had pointed out the harmony, at the time period of this story, between the Muslims and the Jews in Granada, little was said of the Muslim faith.

The sub-story of Judith Midgal was also a bit far-fetched in that she became a silversmith and sold directly to the public. Not only that, but she learned to read and write several different languages from another woman in a very short period of time. This part of the story (as many others) seemed unrealistic to me. I wondered at how accurate it was have a female merchant who not only spoke, but wrote several different languages AND spoke to a Muslim man alone...several times...especially during the Mediaeval age.

I also wondered at the significance of the ‘forbidden’ text, and how that played into Queen Isabel’ and Torquemada’s plans against the Jews. I guess being irreligious myself, I did not see the relevance of this document. How did it spur Queen Isabel into expelling the Jews from Spain? Did she feel threatened by the text and what it meant to Christianity? I think that this should have been further discussed.

Even though this was about the Spanish Inquisition, little was truly said about it, and the violent scenes in this story were murders, not torture scenes. For that (not having long, drawn-out torture scenes), I was thankful, though the scene with the major-domo was unnecessary.

This story was well written and quite descriptive. I felt like I was walking through Alhambra along with the characters; however, the dialogue seemed the same for most of the speakers. This reader did not get a sense of the characters through dialogue, but only through actions and descriptions. The passage of time was also not well defined...did a few weeks pass, months or did several years go by; it was uncertain. This novel could have been more drawn out – giving more detail to the story of Sara, for instance; though it was long enough to simply put out the story of Luis and how those four major events in Spanish history happened around him, possibly due because of him. It was fascinating to learn that he was a real person and that the events in the story were based on facts.

I would recommend this story to anyone who would like to learn a little bit more about the Jewish religion, Christopher Columbus and the New (Spanish) Inquisition. It is a tale of inner conflict and religious conflict during a dark period in the world’s history.

3 Stars
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