You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death. It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri. The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.
Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area. The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru. The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years. The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.
It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to. Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War). “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.
There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks. We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism. Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals. But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”
It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well. As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium. That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.
One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor. We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition. Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well. Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father. Women barely feature. Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage. His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him. Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night. Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends. Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.
There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together. All part of the Black Legend. I love Spain, OK. I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event! I am not getting Black Legend-ish. All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present. But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”. And this is a true story.
It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic. The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives. It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism. That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.
He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him. They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them. At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested. Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.
There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one. And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith. It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be. Human rights. So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way. It’s still going on, in so many places.
Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence! Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it. Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise. There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor. And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.
It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way. This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society. It’s a book about persecution. But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals. Frederick Douglass springs to mind. Nelson Mandela, maybe. People like that can change the world. This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think. And admire. I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading. It’s relevant to everyone.