Review

By Fire, by Water

by Mitchell James Kaplan

Blending artistry with intense drama and violence, BY FIRE, BY
WATER takes readers on a picturesque tour of the Iberian Peninsula
of the mid-1400s. Here, Christian rule has taken hold of a land
previously controlled by Muslims, and the marriage of King
Ferdinand to Queen Isabella has united the kingdoms of Aragon and
Castile. Until recently, the demoralizing social climate of
intolerance throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages has
spared Spain's people. But Catholic Orthodoxy has become a new
policy, and a Spanish Inquisition has been officially endorsed by
the papacy.

The new panel of inquisitors in Aragon is targeting
conversos --- Christians who have converted (or whose
relatives have) in the interests of self-preservation. Chief
Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada is a brutal clergy member whose
religious views have become twisted far beyond reason. He is
obsessed with discovering, torturing, and judging suspected
"heretics," who must confess and convert or be subjected to inhuman
atrocities. Luis de Santángel, Chancellor to the King, is a
converso himself who has been a spectator to some
disturbing deaths carried out in the name of God. After witnessing
the burnings of women and children, and of a man in whom he
visualized the face of The Messiah as he died, the situation
becomes disturbing enough for him to seek a private audience with
the Pope.

Under the pretense that torture leads to bad politics as the
King's tax collector, Luis attempts to influence the Pope toward
rejecting a mounting discrimination against non-Christians and New
Christians. Though the Pope doesn't fully support the extent of the
torture, he has succumbed to corruption and prejudice, seeing in
the Inquisition a path to greater power and fully backing the view
that Christianity should dominate everywhere. Luis knows that
nothing good will come of this, but as a smug aristocrat in the
King's employ, confident in his own status and officially a
Christian, Luis considers himself outside the realm of scrutiny by
inquisitors.

In an atmosphere that is beginning to look bleak but where most
still feel safe, Luis becomes curious about his Jewish heritage and
enters a private struggle with his faith. He doesn't wish to draw
suspicion, but his Hebrew heritage is being brought up by some. A
business associate, Cristóbal Colón (Christopher
Columbus), acquires some Hebrew scrolls concerning Yehoshua ben
Yosef. Colón requests for Luis to have these translated, and
though Luis initially wants nothing to do with handling them,
Colón leaves them with Luis anyway, hoping to get answers to
the location of paradise and to some personal curiosities on the
scrolls' content.

In his tax-collecting duties, Luis meets a man by the name of
Abram Serero, a sharp-minded scribe and teacher residing in
Aragon's Jewish sector. With some audacity, Serero invites Luis to
visit his home, and though Luis publicly mocks the invitation, he
eventually chooses to accept it (albeit discretely). A discussion
of ideas ensues, and a shared interest and respect sparks future
meetings and a humbling of Luis's beliefs about his mock status.
Colón's scrolls are eventually translated by Serero as well,
comprising a threat to many if they were to fall into the hands of
the Catholic clergy. The two are cautious in keeping the meetings
secret, though this proves more difficult once Luis's aide
discovers them and asks to be included in future meetings. Their
eventual discovery by the inquisitors seems inevitable but comes as
a complete shock to Luis and the others, with terrible
consequences. The level of devastation brought down upon them all
by Torquemada is horrible; Spanish inquisitors take part in some of
the most archaic, grotesque brutalities in human history.

In addition to the main plotline of Luis's role in the
Inquisition, a subplot occurs in the Jewish sector of Granada,
populated by Muslims and Jews who have left Christian Spain. Jewish
citizens of Granada are a subjugated people but are free to worship
according to their beliefs without fear of retribution. Here lives
a single Jewish woman, Judith Migdal, along with her orphaned
nephew Levi and old friend Baba Shlomo. Judith's silversmithing
shop transports finely crafted keepsakes across Granada and Aragon,
and it's due to her smithing that Judith meets and falls in love
with the Christian Chancellor Luis de Santángel. Their
relationship leaves both families potentially endangered and
complicates Luis's already conflicted feelings about his Jewish
heritage and becoming a newly persecuted Christian.

BY FIRE, BY WATER is a finely crafted novel, so well done that
it would be hard to imagine how it could be made better. It's rare
to find historical fiction this intense and exquisite. The book is
as touching to read as it is disturbing. Every detail is sharp and
stunningly described. The plot plays out beautifully, ebbing and
flowing between transparency and subtlety as the moment requires.
Much of the history here is authentic, verified by a lengthy
acknowledgment section listing exactly the details that are true
and those that are not. It is because it’s such a dark story
that it thoroughly impresses upon the reader the practical
importance of ethics in leadership, evidenced by a history where
officials had become so corrupted that their choices defined the
lives of hundreds of thousands, who suffered tremendously as a
result. The novel is sure to inform readers well on the subject of
Catholic Orthodoxy in 15th-century Spain as well as the history
behind the country's unification.

Reviewed by Melanie Smith on December 26, 2010

By Fire, by Water
by Mitchell James Kaplan

  • Publication Date: May 18, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Other Press
  • ISBN-10: 1590513525
  • ISBN-13: 9781590513521