Alhambra Palace, Granada (no credit or date - from books)
Alhambra Palace, Granada
Text size

By Fire, By Water

by Mitchell James Kaplan. Other Press, New York, $15.95

Historical novels vie with crime and romance novels for the titles of most derided and most widely read literature. They've had a bad rap ever since the 19th century, when the swashbucklers of Alexandre Dumas looked pretty wooden next to Dickens, and cartoonish in comparison to the depth of Victor Hugo or George Eliot. There have always been marvelous exceptions, such as Mary Renault's amazing novels of ancient Greece, but for much of the last century, historical fiction was seen as pure escapism, barely distinguishable from bodice-ripping romance.

Since the publication of "The Name of the Rose," in 1980, the genre has gained gradual legitimacy. Much snobbishness still abounds, however, over the commercial success of historical fiction and the perceived tendency of genre writers to simplify bygone eras. Still, though Umberto Eco's book has sold 10 million copies, it undoubtedly takes some brains to appreciate it, and no one could accuse Eco of writing simplistic books. Literary highbrows came down to mix with the hoi polloi long enough to award last year's Man Booker Prize, the most notable British book award, to Hilary Mantel's "Wolf Hall," a wonderful evocation not just of Tudor England but of the contrast between a steely self-made man and a bunch of spoiled, weak upper-class brats. The legitimacy of the genre progresses this year with the deification in both the United Kingdom and the United States of David Mitchell, whose novel about Japan in 1799, "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet," is a candidate for the Booker and who, even before this latest work, has routinely been referred to as a genius by reviewers.

In this upward trajectory for the genre, Mitchell James Kaplan's "By Fire, By Water" must take its place as one of the most important contemporary historical novels with a Jewish theme. One could also argue that its portrayal of religious and ethnic hatred in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella (or, as Kaplan calls them, Fernando and Ysabel ) is a better way to understand the Jewish world today than the work of many of the hip, hyped young Jewish novelists clawing to the top of literary New York.

Life of a hunted man

The novel, Kaplan's first, is set in Spain in the period around the expulsion of the Jews. He takes as his main character a real figure from that time, Luis de Santangel, Ferdinand's chancellor and the descendant of converted Jews. As a converso, he must always be on the alert for the city of Zaragoza's local inquisitor - and that's the plot point that gets the book rolling.

For the inquisitor is indeed on the trail of Santangel. He interrogates one of Santangel's friends, with whom the chancellor has been secretly learning about the culture of his forefathers under a Jewish teacher. Fearing that his friend has given him away, Santangel covers his tracks, and in doing so he inadvertently becomes involved in the inquisitor's murder. As with many of the best historical novelists, Kaplan takes the seeds of his story from actual history. The inquisitor of Aragon, Pedro de Arbues, was assassinated in that city's La Seo Cathedral in 1485. The blame fell on New Christians, including the real-life Santangel.

From the moment of the murder, Kaplan gives us a very compelling sense of the constricted life of a hunted man. He makes it a convincing metaphor for the dislocation and pain that must have dwelled in the souls of many a converso. "Each night as [Santangel] closed his eyes to sleep, Pedro de Arbues's last cold stare greeted him, reminding him that wherever he traveled, his deeds traveled with him."

Santangel fears the Inquisition and fears the fundamentalist nutcase Queen Isabella. Amid all this danger and hatred, he finds he's too scared to follow his heart when he meets Judith, a beautiful Jewish woman in Granada. The greatest stroke in the book is to make this - the failure to act on love - the central point in the plot. What looks at first like a tale of revenge, skullduggery and religious cruelty turns out to be a bittersweet love story.

Santangel's dramatic - and ultimately rather sad - tale is interwoven with the tragedy of the Jews of Andalus, the vicious scheming of Tomas de Torquemada (based on the real-life first grand inquisitor of Spain ) and the somewhat more benign calculations of Christopher Columbus, who introduces an element of danger into Santangel's life by trying to draw from him what he believes is secret Jewish knowledge that can aid him in his expeditions. (The real life Santangel did much to convince Isabella to finance Columbus's voyages, which ultimately made Spain rich. ) The period was one of turbulent events and, though that description seems more appropriate to a movie trailer, it makes for a compelling novel.

That Santangel - along with Ferdinand and Isabella, Torquemada and Columbus - was a real personage, grounds the book. It gives grittiness to the drama and the love story, and it highlights some parallels with our world today. After all, the decade just passed was driven by friction between the very cultures clashing in Kaplan's book. Muslims, Christians and Jews are not on much friendlier terms than they were when Columbus sailed west to look for the East. The conflict of the time of Santangel is very much alive.

'He's just joking'

For example, I was once in the home of Abdel Aziz Rantisi in Gaza, and the Hamas chief was explaining why Israel could never be signed over to the Jews by Muslim believers. The land that's now Israel had once been Muslim land, he said, and therefore it was the duty of all Muslims to make it Muslim once more, no matter how long it took. "The same is true of Spain," he said.

"He's just joking," said a Palestinian journalist who was there with me.

"No, I'm not," Rantisi said. A few months later, he was killed by a missile from an Apache helicopter. The Israelis weren't joking, either. Unless it was the Spanish who killed him ...

Kaplan, who has previously worked as a Hollywood scriptwriter, moved his family to Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, so he could write his novel without the financial worries that would've nagged at him in a more expensive locale. (Most novelists - even those writing popular genre fiction - earn considerably less from their work than bus drivers, it may surprise you to learn. )

The seed for his novel was planted, according to Kaplan's website, on a family visit to Granada, Spain, where a local tradesman showed him a medieval lock in an old door. It had been opened by a key brought from Morocco by a family of Jews only a few years before. The family had guarded the key and passed down memories of the exact location of the house for 500 years before returning. It sounds incredible, but then it was astonishing enough to make Kaplan write an entire novel about it. One wonders how long the rusty keys in Palestinian refugee camps will be treasured.

This flabbergasting (if, to residents of the Middle East, somewhat cliched and even enervating ) tale of obsession with return was Kaplan's starting point. But his wisest move was to place Santangel's love for Judith at the heart of the novel. As a high government official and a converso, he ought to steer clear of the beautiful Jewish woman whom he comes across in Granada. But the attraction he feels is too strong.

Kaplan never makes it clear if Santangel's love transcends the dangers he faces in a relationship with a Jew. It could just as easily be that he's attracted to the fact that she's Jewish, he's curious about his ancestry, and in any case knows he'll never be un-Jewish enough to satisfy the Inquisition and thus may as well indulge himself. As their personal tragedy unfolds, Judith sees most clearly that Santangel's religious compromises are hollow. After a brief stay in jail, he tells her that it's "better to have no power, and some security - or at least, an illusion of security." She responds: "What good is an illusion?" She'll take exile with her people rather than the hunted, haunted life of a converso.

That's not to say that Kaplan idealizes Judaism or urges all Jews to return to their faith and to eschew the things of the world. Rather, the point of the novel seems to be that the things of which one is uncertain are the most important. An inquisitor could never contemplate such a thought, and neither, one assumes, would many of the rabbis who wield power in Israel today. For Kaplan, Columbus' belief in the existence of an unknown route to unknown lands is the measure of this. As Columbus crosses the Atlantic with Judith's adoptive son toward the end of "By Fire, By Water," the youngster questions him about the mutinous crew's doubts that they'll ever find land. Columbus is determined to go on. "How can you be so sure about things no one has seen?" the boy asks. Columbus responds, "I never claimed I was."

Matt Beynon Rees is the author of four award-winning novels about Palestinian sleuth Omar Yussef, including "The Fourth Assassin," which was published this year.