Jeffrey Lewis’ The Inquisitor’s Diary is a succinct gem of literary fiction that asks which of us are entitled to salvation, and which to damnation. It’s a question from a previous century, but one that grabs readers because its relevance remains deeply imbedded in cultural mores concerned with spirituality, religion and ontology. The Inquisitor’s Diary takes 17th century inquisitor Fray Alonso of Mexico City through an intense test of his faith, forcing him to think about the wholeness of things as opposed to accepting a calcified version of what he is the most zealous advocate for: “the blessed light of truth.”
Lewis is probably best known for his Emmy award winning production and writing on the seminal police drama, Hill Street Blues (1981–1987). Since then, however, he has completed six novels in a relatively short period of time: The Meritocracy Quartet (published from 2004–2008), then Berlin Cantata (2012) and now he gives readers The Inquisitor’s Diary this month.
His latest is inspired by a book he picked up in his village in Maine about Marranos, the secret Jews of Spain, and their movement into the New World. Lewis says the style of the book was influenced by The Confessions of St. Augustine and St. Augustine's “acute and self-lacerating observations of himself.” Lewis explains that he was also influenced by the “contemporary rise of fundamentalism in America. There was some sense that we were living in an era when dogma was in ascendance over reason and over love, as a matter of fact.” I spoke to Lewis recently about The Inquisitor’s Diary.
What brought you to this voice of a mid-17th century Mexico City Spanish Inquisitor?
The voice is of course a fiction, that is to say I never met one of these fellows. This character, the inquisitor, he’s a prosecutor in a sense, right? When I was young I was trained as a lawyer, and I spent a couple of years as a prosecutor in New York City as an Assistant District Attorney and something about the way a prosecutor thinks probably rubbed off. I did feel it might be the story of people I cared about because of the issue of whether you could be forced to believe something, in other words, if someone says you must believe this is it possible to believe it just because people are saying you must? I think it’s very hard for people to believe something under those circumstances and I have a great deal of sympathy for people who are put in a position of having to believe something because somebody else tells them they must. It diminishes one’s humanity and puts you in an impossible position…certain crimes of American life in the last couple of decades have raised that question. I would say also the question raised recently by the current Pope, “who is entitled to salvation,” it’s assuming you believe in God and believe in an afterlife, “who gets it and who doesn’t?”
I had the impression upon finishing and while reading this novel that it’s anti-religious, but at the same time there’s sympathy for organized religion in the book. I get the impression that you condemn and condone facets of worshipping a monotheistic God. Could you possibly reconcile what I saw as a paradox?
In a personal sense, I suppose, whoever the twentieth century Protestant theologian was who said ‘the essence of faith is doubt,’ I go with that. Faith comes out of thinking about the totality of things, and whether you have it or not is another question. A strong case comes out of doubt, initially, not as simply a kind of passive acceptance. Having said that, these are areas I wouldn’t claim to know a great deal about, I don’t know who does know a great deal about them, but I don’t make that claim. What I do make a claim for is the drama of this particular story. That is to say, how a man of dogma meets a man, a good man, who is not a dogmatic man, who is anything but.
In your last novel, Berlin Cantata, you used 13 voices and in The Inquisitor’s Diary you’re essentially only using one, why the extreme swing in structure and narrative device?
Each book I’ve written seems to create its own problems, its own crisis if you will, and the crises just got resolved differently. What’s similar in Berlin Cantata and in The Inquisitor's Diary is that none of the voices really are what you might call or might expect to be my own voice if I were writing a third person novel. They are all the voice of some character who is manifestly not me.
The enduring power of worldly myths seems to be a strong thread throughout The Inquisitor’s Diary. I wonder if you could tell me what is the harm or the good brought onto the believers, us, of these myths found in the origins and teachings of Christianity?
The fundamental stories that underlie Christian belief are not so much in question here, it seems to me, as their interpretation and their settling into rigid dogmas over centuries, you know the way anything calcifies. I think it’s the calcification of great stories, or if you will nests of great beliefs, of great truths, their calcification into narrow unchallengeable categories that makes it more difficult for people to live with one another. And perhaps it makes it more difficult for people to see, find, believe in the central truths, at least of the great monotheistic religions that I’m aware of, that’s certainly Christianity and I think of Judaism as well, which have to do with love. I’m not so worried about the myths, but as how they have been handed down. What do they say about how gossip goes?
I have read in an interview you gave that you felt the television industry doesn’t really want to be bothered to express what works of art such as The Inquisitor’s Diary wants to express and I wonder as the landscape of what is making it onto the screen is rapidly changing, is it really that they don’t want to express it, or is it that nobody has really figured out how to do it yet? I wonder if you wanted to elaborate on that?
Everybody in the T.V. business is going after some theory that either will make them rich or ensure that they continue to be rich. There are a lot of people who feel threatened by the new environment and are looking for ways to continue to prosper and I wouldn’t be surprised if the issues eventually become larger, but, the wonderful thing about books is that they can subsist on relatively little economic nourishment. You can continue to write things where nobody is looking over your shoulder as much. No matter where you are in T.V., no matter how sophisticated the content seemingly, results in a degree of pandering.
It’s not uniform, but people are always looking over their shoulder to make sure they’re not either offending or boring or challenging too much, you know, expanding the boundaries a little, but not too much.
Evan Rodriguez is a writer living in Georgetown, Texas. Follow him on Twitter.