The persecution of Majorcan Jews during the Spanish Inquisition is the rich subject of this ambitious 1994 novel, the second book in English translation from the prominent Catalan author (A Matter of Self-Esteem, 2001).
The complex, somewhat labored opening chapters offer both clever misdirection and vivid exposition—first in the romantic adventure of a corsair captain summoned to the bedroom of a mysterious beauty (later identified as a wealthy widow sympathetic to Jewish citizens), then in the emotional turmoil undergone by Jewish silversmith Rafel Cortès, Costura, who has converted to Catholicism and has all but resolved to betray his cousin and namesake (who has retained their family’s faith) to Father Ferrando, the Machiavellian priest who sees the Inquisition’s gathering momentum as his stepping-stone to higher “spiritual” achievement. Riera then introduces a fascinating gallery of variously involved characters, among them putative “rabbi” Gabriel Valls, the Majorcan Jews’ spiritual patriarch; compassionate Father Amengual (Father Ferrando’s temperamental and moral opposite); Viceroy Santomaro y Ampuero, whose official duties are compromised by insatiable sexual appetites; and merchant Pere Onofre Aguiló, who masterminds the endangered Jews’ escape aboard a ship bound for Livorno. Bad weather intervenes, informers betray their neighbors and fugitives are arrested, detained at the Zola-esque Black House deep in the recesses of the Inquisitorial Palace—and interrogation and torture ensue, climaxing with a vengeful “purificatory fire.” (In a moving final paragraph comes the explanation of Riera’s perfectly chosen title.) This is very nearly a great novel: It’s exalted by its recreation of a time (the late 17th century) and place imperiled by religious violence—surely a subject that should attract the attention of contemporary readers—but it’s flawed by the author’s tendency to provide exhaustive background information for virtually every major character, each of whose thoughts and memories are likewise lavishly detailed.
Not an easy read, and at times overlong, but a book with moments of brilliance.