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Interview: May 21, 2010

Mitchell James Kaplan’s debut novel, BY FIRE, BY WATER, is a work of historical fiction that chronicles some of the world-changing events that took place in 15th-century Spain, as seen from the perspective of Luis de Santángel --- the behind-the-scenes figure responsible for Christopher Columbus’s discovery of the New World. In this interview with’s Melanie Smith, Kaplan explains what initially drew him to this particular period, and provides some historical context for such infamous occurrences as the Spanish Inquisition and the expulsion of the country’s Jewish population. He also shares some fascinating and little-known information he encountered in his research, points out contemporary parallels in the ways in which people justify carrying out extreme political policies, and discusses his next novel, which will focus on the early evolution of Judaism and Christianity. What prompted your interest in Spain's history and the subject of the Inquisition as the basis for your debut novel, BY FIRE, BY WATER?

Mitchell James Kaplan: The end of the 15th century in Spain was a period of tremendous, rapid change. The death-throes of the medieval era coincided with the birth pangs of the renaissance. A small cast of characters played central roles in three world-changing events: Isabella and Ferdinand’s conquest of Granada, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and the discovery of the New World. As I explored the lives of these characters, they came alive in my imagination, demanding that I tell their story.

I did not set out to write a book about the Inquisition per se. I wanted to write a novel that would evoke the despairs and hopes of that period, centered on the life of the man who financed Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. It so happens that the Inquisition played a major role in this man’s life. He was implicated in the murder of the first Chief Inquisitor of Aragon. His cousin was burned at the stake. His son was made to wear the sanbenito, or “smock of shame.”

BRC: You mention that this was a six-year research and writing project. Can you share some stories about how you conducted your research?

MJK: Well, most of the research was done sitting in libraries, but that doesn’t make for much of a story. A great deal of the research was also done simply by observing people. For example, I’m aware that my portrait of Queen Isabella is very much inspired by a woman I once knew in France. I’m sure most or all novelists see themselves as avid students of human character.

My wife and I traveled through Spain, visiting museums, castles, and churches that had once been mosques or synagogues. I rapidly learned, however, not to trust my eyes. In many cases --- for example, in the case of La Seo cathedral in Saragossa --- the building you see today is not the building my characters would have seen in the late 15th century.

Of all the images that stay with me from those visits to Spain, those that haunt me the most are the paintings by Goya at the Prado museum in Madrid. Sadly, Goya was himself hounded by the Inquisition.

BRC: Apparently there has been some debate on the extent of atrocities committed during the Spanish Inquisition, regarding the number of victims, and also the degree of inhumanities that occurred. What did your research on this show?

MJK: BY FIRE, BY WATER is not intended to be a book that chronicles the activities of the Spanish Inquisition. It is a novel about the condition of a powerful converso (or “New Christian”) in Spain at the end of the 15th century.

It should be noted that the Spanish Inquisition was not the creation of the Catholic Church of Rome. It was the creation of a small group of individuals in Spain who craved power and whose sense of Christianity was so warped and self-serving that Christ himself would not have recognized it.

For more detailed and extensive information about the Spanish Inquisition, I refer the reader to the works of Cecil Roth, Henry Kamen, and Benzion Netanyahu. These are world-renowned scholars who have examined the original records. Their debate is not about numbers, and there is no serious argument whatsoever about the inhumanity of the Spanish Inquisition’s methods. I have seen these torture instruments with my own eyes. Numerous paintings and written accounts, including the records kept by the inquisitors themselves, attest to the widespread use of torture and burning at the stake, especially in the early years of the Spanish Inquisition.

The focus of scholarly debate today, rather, concerns the motives of the inquisitors. Why did they target wealthy conversos? Did the majority of the condemned conversos really practice Judaism in secret, or were the charges of heresy often trumped-up for the purpose of seizing their wealth? Were the witnesses, anonymous to the accused, always truthful, or did many of them mislead the inquisitors? It is hard to be sure.

BRC: How did you become familiar with the Hebrew and Spanish dialects?

MJK: I can read both Hebrew and Spanish, but I speak neither. It’s a consequence of having consulted books in both languages while doing research. Spanish, I taught myself; but I had studied Latin for three years and I speak French fluently, so it wasn’t so very difficult. I learned the rudiments of Hebrew as a child. I have been to Israel and Spain several times.

BRC: BY FIRE, BY WATER refers to numerous deaths in relation to the Hebrew scroll the Toledoth Yeshu, recovered in the story by the sailor Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus). Could you elaborate on the scroll, the reason for its creation, and if Hebrews were persecuted because of it? Historically, was the discovery of the scroll a reason why they were forced out of Spain?

MJK: Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians attempted to destroy the written religious and historical tracts of the Jews. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX instigated the burning of some 12,000 Talmuds. Many similar events followed. It’s fascinating to me that the Church misunderstood the Talmud in such an extreme way: They believed it to be a work of anti-Christian hatred. Burnings of Jewish books often accompanied or preceded riots, during which the defenseless inhabitants of ghettos were slaughtered, women raped, businesses and homes looted.

The origins of the Toledoth Yeshu are shrouded in mystery. It appears to be an interpretation of portions of the New Testament, intended to illustrate that even if one takes the miracles claimed by Christianity at face value, they can be accounted for without making a messiah of Jesus. If I were to speculate on its purpose, I would say that after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the rise of Christianity in its ashes, the Jews felt vulnerable; the Toledoth Yeshu was a defensive gesture.

In BY FIRE, BY WATER, the Toledoth Yeshu is used illustratively, to represent Christopher Columbus’s wide-ranging intellectual curiosity and to show how miscommunication and misconceptions between Christians and Jews often led to tragedy. Its theme of religious deception also seemed to fit nicely with the converso condition in 15th-century Spain.

BRC: You mention that Colon sought to acquire Jewish writings such as the Toledoth Yeshu, "sometimes, perhaps, by dubious means." Do you have any theories on how he might have acquired any and what his motivations might have been?

MJK: As far as Columbus was concerned, any document, from any source, that supported his mission --- to sail westward toward wealth, honor, and paradise ---  was valid. I find it stunning that a medieval Christian mind could be so open to other traditions. But it demonstrates an often-overlooked aspect of the medieval Christian mind. At Salamanca, as I point out in my novel, Christian scholars studied Jewish and Islamic wisdom as well as their own tradition. Aquinas revered Maimonides --- as a thinker, if not as a believer.

As for Columbus’s “dubious means:” Some historians have suggested that he stole precious maps by Toscanelli, Martellus, and others, and that he fled from Portugal to evade his debts. I don’t know how much of this is true, but what I do know is that Columbus was a survivor, an autodidact, and a monomaniac.

BRC: The Fortalitium Fidei enters the story in the hands of the inquisitors --- a book of horrible doctrine on the Jewish people and non-Christians, circulated among suspected heretics the inquisitors attempt to influence. Do you know if the book was created specifically as propaganda for the Inquisition?

MJK: I don’t believe it was. I believe it was the work of a rabble-rousing itinerant preacher, Ferran Martinez, who reaped power by sowing hatred. Once again, I’d like to make the point that at that time, Rome had very little control over what some of its far-flung representatives preached in its name.

BRC: What happened to the Jews who were forced to emigrate? Where did they make a new start, and how many were thought to have survived? Do you know if most were free to worship openly after leaving Spain?

MJK: Again, it’s difficult to talk about numbers. As I mention in the book, many died at the hands of pirates or were sold into slavery. Others were refused refuge in the lands where they sought to immigrate. Yet others had to settle as non-citizens in countries where they and their children enjoyed no rights.

Of those who survived, many ended up in Portugal. Unfortunately, as a condition of the marriage of Isabella’s daughter (also named Isabella) to King Manuel I, Portugal, too, was required to expel all its Jews. Many of the Jews expelled from Portugal then traveled to Amsterdam, where they founded one of the most important Sephardic synagogues in Europe. Spinoza was the son of converso immigrants from Portugal who returned to the open practice of Judaism after relocating to Amsterdam. Rembrandt lived among these Portugese Jews and painted them.

It is said that Sultan Bazayit II welcomed the Jews warmly to Turkey, Greece, and the other lands he controlled, declaring that Spain’s loss was the Ottoman empire’s gain. The Jewish community of Salonica remained large and vibrant right up until the day when the Nazis destroyed it, murdering virtually all its inhabitants at Auschwitz.

Other émigrés from Spain settled in North Africa, the Balkans, England, Italy, and the New World. Illustrious descendents of the Spanish exile include Disraeli, Benjamin Cardozo, and Jacques Derrida.

BRC: Vizier Ibrahim al-Hakim is a disgusting figure. Is he a historical character, and was his practice of taking very young Jewish girls into his harem (under some unspoken threat) a historically documented one? Did all citizens of Granada have such limited freedoms?

MJK: The vizier Ibrahim al-Hakim is indeed a historical character, but he was no more disgusting than many of the aristocrats of his day. I tried to show that he had a heart and behaved magnanimously (at least, as he saw things) by allowing Sara’s mother to visit after Sara joined his harem. Although we would use terms like “rape” and “pedophilia” to describe his behavior, it was not considered reprehensible in his day, when girls married young and the powerful enjoyed virtually unlimited privileges.

In the Islamic emirate of Granada at that time, Christians --- considered to be natural allies of the enemy states to the north --- were not tolerated. Jews enjoyed limited rights under their “dhimmi” status.

Some 400 years earlier, when Islam still occupied Cordoba and Toledo, both Christians and Jews had enjoyed much more far-reaching freedoms under Islamic rule. The progress of the reconquista, the 800-year-long Christian effort to reconquer Spain from the Moors, was accompanied by a tightening of restrictions placed upon minorities in both the Islamic and Christian domains.

BRC: Torquemada used the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas as a means of twisting a heretic's mind toward the inquisitor's way of thinking. In his writings (Summa Theologica), Aquinas expresses his opinion that heretics deserve death (though some historians say his statement should be considered in the context of the time). Saint or not, in light of how Aquinas's philosophies were used by corrupted clergymen, it's amazing to me that he's personally presented in a positive light still in college philosophy classes. Do you believe some teachings of the Saints during the Middle Ages offered breeding grounds for twisted policies like the Spanish Inquisition?

MJK: The values of western civilization have developed incrementally. Although Aquinas was certainly not “modern,” he did show a great deal of respect for Jewish, Islamic, and pagan thinkers (if not for their beliefs). This represented a huge step forward for civilization.

One of the unspoken themes of my book is that religions evolve. Christianity, Judaism, and some versions of Islam are not today the same religions they were in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that a faith, in any given period, is wrong. It means that no faith, and no society, is ever fully mature.

I don’t blame saints or anyone else for accepting the widespread attitudes of their time. I do, however, blame rabble-rousers like the aforementioned Ferran Martinez (and many others) for using popular prejudices and hatred for the purpose of increasing their own power and fame.

But to try to answer your question: Were the teachings of saints used (or misused) to justify twisted policies? Certainly. Even in our own age, we reference respected thinkers of the past to justify twisted policies. To give an obvious example: Hitler claimed his anti-Semitic ideology was inspired by Nietzsche and Wagner. However, neither Nietzsche nor Wagner ever alluded to a Final Solution.

BRC: Do you have any plans to write a second novel? What other projects are you working on?

MJK: I’m fascinated by the clash of cultures between polytheistic Rome and monotheistic Judea at the end of the biblical era. Prior to the Romans’ annihilation of Jerusalem in 70 AD, many sects preached various ways of practicing the religion of the Hebrews. Only two of them survived. One evolved into what we now call Judaism. The other evolved into Christianity. My next novel deals with these two kindred sects and how they began to move apart in the context of the Roman destruction of their world.

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