[caption id="attachment_488" align="alignright" width="284" caption="Mitchell James Kaplan. Photo by Renee Rosensteel courtesy of Other Press."]
Recently I had the opportunity to interview author Mitchell James Kaplan, whose new book BY FIRE, BY WATER has recently been published by Other Press. The book is an intriguing and engrossing novel set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition and Colombus's voyage to the Americas and focuses on a diverse community of Spanish Jews.1. What was it that drew your attention to the topic of converso Jews and the Inquisition?
I did not set out to write a book about converso Jews or the Spanish Inquisition. I set out to write a novel exploring the background of Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage of discovery. It became clear that Columbus's voyage was as much the symptom of a world in profound disarray as it was a harbinger of change. As I explored that disarray, the Spanish inquisition and the condition of conversos came into focus as important elements in my story.
2. Why do you think this subject is important for today's readers?
Most of us are conversos today, in the sense that we must navigate between different identities and ghettos. Few of us in the western world any longer have the privilege of remaining confined within one narrow belief system or ethnicity, to the exclusion of all others. Like it or not, we are exposed to competing world-views and absorb elements from them. The conversos of fifteenth century Spain were precursors of modern man.3. Why did you choose Luis de Santangel as the central figure of your book? How is the real life Santangel different from your fictional creation?
Santangel stood at the center of all four events that changed the world at the end of the fifteenth century: the Spanish Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, the “reconquest” of Granada, and the discovery of the New World. Despite his importance in history, most Americans had never heard of him. The fact that his personal life was so complex, and in some ways tragic, made him all the more compelling as a character.
My initial question, with regard to Santangel, was: What could possibly motivate such an astute and well-grounded courtier to take the risks associated with supporting Columbus's voyage, even when the preponderance of scholarly opinion found no merit in Columbus's ideas? After researching Santangel's life, I came to feel that Columbus's dream must have represented a prayer of hope for Santangel, uttered from the murky depths of a world whirling into chaos.
The Luis de Santangel of my story, like most of my characters, is closely based on the historical individual. He really did have a cousin who was murdered by the Spanish Inquisition. His son did have to pay penance in much the way I described. Santangel was accused of murdering the first Chief Inquisitor of Aragon. King Ferdinand did intervene to save him from the consequences of that accusation. Columbus really did write first to Santangel, following his 1492 voyage.
Santangel's love interest, Judith Migdal, I invented to show the condition of the Jews in Granada leading up to the expulsion. But her nephew, Levi Migdal (later baptized as Luis de Torres) was Columbus's interpreter on the Santa Maria. As Columbus describes him in his diaries, he was a Jew who spoke Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew, as well as Spanish, so it is likely he grew up in the Islamic emirate of Granada.
4. You clearly did a lot of research into the period. Did you learn anything that surprised you? Was there something particularly interesting or unusual that you learned, that didn't make its way into your book?
I learned so many surprising things, among them the aforementioned fact that the Spanish Inquisition was unique in its focus on the “judaizing” heresy among conversos. It was interesting to me to learn that the pope did not initially authorize the Spanish inquisition, and indeed continued to express qualms about it even after it was established. As I researched Queen Isabella, I came to the conclusion that she was a usurper, although most history books gloss over that fact. It would take me much more than another whole book to describe everything I had to leave out.
5. What do you want your readers to take away in terms of an understanding about converso Jews and Jewish culture of the period? What lessons can be drawn from the book?
Regarding the conversos: I like Santangel's question, "what is the advantage of knowing, with absolute certainty, what one believes? There's much to be said for doubt." This intrusion of doubt into the medieval world – a world of certainties, at least with regard to faith – marked the beginning of the process that would lead to the Enlightenment, the Existential age, and our current age which, in my view, is evolving toward mutual respect between the faiths. Karen Armstrong credits conversos with the invention of atheism.
Regarding “lessons:” What I want most of all is not to preach but for my readers to feel that their sojourn in the world of my novel has been a valuable and enriching experience.
A good novel, in my view, is an experience of language, of characters, of complexity and nuance. The best novels evoke an entire world. Like real life, a good novel teems with ambiguity, connotation, and subtlety.
For this reason, I was thrilled to discover that many of my Christian readers identified Luis de Santangel as a Christian facing a crisis of faith, while many of my Jewish readers felt he was a Jew. Similarly, some of my readers asked why I made Torquemada so “human,” as if I were trying to vindicate him, while others saw him as a psychopathic villain. When I receive a wide range of responses like that, I feel I have succeeded in at least one of my aims: to faithfully hold a mirror to a complex world.
Within that complex world, there is room for a Torquemada (whom I see as sincere and intelligent but misguided) as well as a Caceres (whose understanding of Christ's message of love and forgiveness seems to be more aligned with our own) and a Talavera (a man of contradictions, moderate and analytical). The Islamic rulers of Granada can be seen as protective (from Judith's point of view) or ruthless (from the point of view of Sarah's mother). The Jewish scribe Serero is sincere, but causes great damage to those who trust him.