Book Review | Against the Inquisition by Marcos AguinisA Tragic Life Lived Truthfully
Against the Inquisition
Translated by Carolina De Robertis
2018, 636 pp, $14.95
Those who associate bar mitzvahs with elaborate public celebrations might be surprised to learn that their modern significance traces back to an absolutely secret rite. Following the Talmudic phrase “at 13, [one takes on] commandments,” 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Jewish parents, who outwardly lived as Catholics after the rise of the Inquisition, waited until their children were at least 13—old enough to be trusted with dangerous secrets—before privately telling them they were Jews. Against the Inquisition, the newly translated novel by the Argentine Jewish novelist Marcos Aguinis, takes this moment of revelation and expands it into an entire world, one that resonates both in the 17th century and in our own.
Little known in English, Aguinis has been a Latin American literary powerhouse for 50 years, turning out elegant, prize-winning bestsellers that have explored everything from Argentine history to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of Maimonides, all to the praise of his largely non-Jewish audience. The release this year of one of his best novels in English is long overdue. Against the Inquisition, first published in Spanish in 1991, is based on the astounding true story of Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a 17th-century doctor descended from conversos, who re-embraced his Judaism and faced the consequences. Aguinis brings his story to life in intimate human terms, starting with the classic bar mitzvah scene. In 17th-century Ibatin, in the Viceroyalty of Peru (now Argentina), Don Diego Núñez da Silva, a respected Catholic physician, uses a private moment with his oldest son to reveal their true identity, passed secretly from parent to child since his great-great-grandfather’s expulsion from Spain a century earlier. The slip-up in this solemn revelation is that Don Diego’s youngest son, seven-year-old Francisco, overhears it all. Francisco’s tortured 20-year journey from his father’s arrest to his own, and from frightened denial to hard-won integrity, carries us through this epic novel of human freedom.
The novel’s power comes from its portrayal of the psychological damage of being forced to live a lie. Don Diego, who runs an informal academy for his four children in his orange grove to teach them that “knowledge is power,” quickly comes under suspicion from church authorities, forcing the family to move to the larger city of Córdoba. But a small gesture—buying goods from a friend also fleeing the church’s reach—catches up with him, and soon young Francisco witnesses his father’s arrest, followed by his older brother’s. Both father and brother are taken to the Inquisition’s New World headquarters in Lima, thousands of miles away; the brother is never heard from again. The church’s ulterior motive becomes clear as its officials confiscate the family’s property, leaving Diego’s wife and remaining children destitute. Francisco’s sisters are forced into a convent; his mother soon succumbs to illness accelerated by despair. Francisco winds up in a monastery, where he devotes himself to mastering church teachings to undo the taint of his criminal father. He becomes a star pupil and earns the chance to train as a doctor in Lima, where he hopes his father might still be alive.
Long before demanding Jews’ bodies, anti-Semitic societies demanded Jews’ dignity, requiring that they publicly give up their ancient loyalties for the prize of not being treated like dirt—and thereby making them complicit in their own degradation.
By now Francisco is a devoted Catholic, but part of him is still searching for his father—whom he miraculously finds. Don Diego, alive but broken after his years of imprisonment and torture, works at a dingy Lima hospital and wears a placard in public that advertises his status as a former sinner; he limps from his time on the rack and having his feet burned by his interrogators. Diego denounced friends, publicly “repented” and was rewarded with his life. But as father and son reunite, Francisco gradually learns that his father never truly “repented”—and his father, slowly dying from his injuries and from the private shame of turning others in, teaches his son the meaning of Judaism. After years of being brainwashed by the church into viewing Judaism as demonic, Francisco struggles to understand the real nature of Jewish practice and belief, and it takes time for him to see just how deeply he has been immersed in lies. The novel’s depiction of this loving process of discarding delusions and self-loathing is one of the author’s master strokes. “I am at the end of my life, and I want to offer you some advice,” Diego repeatedly tells his son: “Don’t repeat my trajectory!”
The many other voices in the novel—both “Old Christians” and converted Jews who have worked hard to assimilate—make the reader assume, as Francisco does at first, that his father’s motto means that he doesn’t want his son to suffer for being Jewish. But by the book’s intense last third it becomes clear that Diego’s words mean something entirely different. It’s no spoiler to say that Francisco winds up a prisoner of the Inquisition; nearly every chapter ends with a flash-forward scene of Francisco in chains. Yet his journey from freedom to prison (and later, to trial and condemnation) is actually a mental journey from prison to freedom, as Francisco freely chooses to shed his safe but false life. Francisco’s life as a Jew, horrific though it quickly becomes, is the only part of his life that he lives as a full human being.
Against the Inquisition is a daunting book, both because of its heft and its breadth. Its story unfolds across three countries (Argentina, Chile, Peru), an imperial war with the Dutch, rivalries between church and crown, competition among monastic orders, the history of medicine, African and Indian enslavement and the Inquisition’s destruction of indigenous religions. It’s a lot to take in, especially for English readers coming to this history fresh. The book’s style also keeps readers guessing by abruptly shifting points of view. Readers willing to meet these challenges will be welcomed into an utterly engrossing story that will enrich their understanding of the past while inspiring reflection on the present.
Against the Inquisition is not simply a period piece. The novel’s bones are those of the author’s own encounters with authoritarian regimes and the groupthink that supports them. As a seven-year-old in Argentina in 1942, Aguinis, like Francisco, learned the frightening truth about his family’s place in history—in his case, that his grandparents in Europe had been murdered by the Nazis. As an adult, Aguinis endured Argentina’s brutal 1970s dictatorship that disproportionately targeted Jews. With the restoration of democracy, Aguinis held government positions promoting human rights, but the period since the book’s original 1991 publication has been difficult for Argentine Jews. The Israeli Embassy bombing in Buenos Aires in 1992 was followed in 1994 by the AMIA (Jewish communal headquarters) bombing, the largest single attack on Diaspora Jews since the Holocaust—and a crime whose investigation the Argentine government may have suppressed. The alleged suicide in 2015 of the Jewish prosecutor, who had probed the case for more than a decade, hours before he was to present evidence remains suspicious. Aguinis has addressed contemporary events like these in his fiction before, even basing one of his novels on the embassy bombing. In recent years, Aguinis has been outspoken against the worldwide wave of anti-Semitism in its newer guise of anti-Zionism; his ongoing defense of Israel in the international Spanish-language press requires a bravery his 17th-century characters know well. Aguinis’s work has always tackled the submissiveness and denial that make authoritarianism possible. But in this novel he emphasizes something particularly resonant today, in light of the rise of anti-Zionism worldwide: Long before demanding Jews’ bodies, anti-Semitic societies demanded Jews’ dignity, requiring that they publicly give up their ancient loyalties for the prize of not being treated like dirt—and thereby making them complicit in their own degradation. The torture rack may be long gone, but the Inquisition’s psychological legacy endures.
This story will remind readers of the imprisonment of Natan Sharansky and other refuseniks, the horrific captivity of Gilad Shalit and Daniel Pearl, the ten rabbis publicly tortured and executed by the Romans recounted on Yom Kippur and even the online harassment that so many Jews often endure today—minor in comparison, but rooted in the same attempt at dehumanization.
Against the Inquisition’s story is one that bears repeating, especially in our age when truth is too often a popularity contest. As Francisco learns the hard way, life can only be lived meaningfully through an “act of faith,” the profound bravery required to live the truth in a world full of lies.
Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.