How many were burnt at the stake, broken on the rack? We don’t know. How many were forced to leave behind the lives they knew, and with not much more than the clothes on their backs, seek refuge in foreign lands? We don’t know. How many were psychologically tortured and brainwashed until they confessed? We don’t know. How many publicly turned their backs on their faith just to live? We don’t know. In spite of the lack of documentation, the memory of the Spanish Inquisition remains alive in the descendants of the accused.
The title of Mitchell James Kaplan’s novel, By Fire, By Water, embodies and symbolizes these events. The element of fire is an obvious reference to the burnings of heretics, and water represents Columbus’ travels by sea. However, Kaplan, posits another layer of meaning with this title. It references a prayer that is said during Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur, and appears on page 271 of the novel.
“Who shall live and who shall die
Who at the measure of days and who before
Who by fire and who by water
Who by the sword and who by wild beasts
Who shall have rest and who shall go wandering
Who shall be brought low and who shall be raised high.
I spoke with Kaplan on Sept. 16, 2014 in a book club discussion via Skype about the title and its meanings. The prayer signifies the abandonment of the self–the knowledge that we are small or insignificant. Something else, destiny, and/or God, controls. We don’t know what is to come or if we will cease to exist. During the Holy Days, Jewish people are able to pray, repent and do charity in response to avert death. (MyJewishLearning.com, article by Rabbi Dr. Reuven Hammer) Death, unfortunately, was the fate of countless Jews and others who were captured and tried by the Inquisitors. There is hope though, for the characters who are able to escape and start a new life. They just have to have faith that they will be guided to safety.
In the United States, we tend to focus on Columbus’ journeys, his “discovery of America”, when we think of 1492. In a way this is understandable since WE, are the result of his exploring. The Americas, the “New World” came about because of the explorers’ zeal for riches and adventure. We tend to ignore or forget the atrocities, the genocide, that took place during the Inquisition. After all, it is disturbing and heartbreaking for most of us, 500 years later, to even contemplate it.
Kaplan is not afraid to tackle this very polemic and horrific subject in his historical novel. By Fire, By Water is dense with imagery, historical fact and personages, and transports the reader to another time and place, that of 15th century Zaragoza and Granada. He relates the story of Luis de Santángel, a confused noble, descendant of conversos(Jews who converted to Christianity, usually to avoid prosecution by the Inquisition)who was the right hand to King Fernando. He was also instrumental in bankrolling Columbus’ trips. That is historical fact. However, Chanceller Santángel, in the novel, will do nearly anything, even commit murder, to surpress his Jewish ancestry. (This is Kaplan’s invention). Was he a murderer? An entitled noble? A degenerate? A misguided, desperate man who lost his mind and all sense of right and wrong for fear of being discovered? Although killing people is wrong, the reader must decide on his/her own, what to make of Santángel and his crime, since he is never formerly accused or prosecuted for that crime.
What is undebatable is that the Inquisition was a movement that destroyed not only the physical bodies of many people, but their lives, their psyches, and the very fabric of Spain’s society. Jewish and Muslim populations, which had contributed scientifically and economically to the Iberian kingdoms, were exiled, killed, or silenced, changing the course of Spanish history FOREVER. The Edict of Expulsion of 1492, was not retracted until 1966! Ironicablly, both the Spanish and Portuguese governments are now offering citizenship and incentives to those that can prove their ancestors were victims of the Inquisition, or who left in fear of being interrogated or called up. Over 500 years later, their descendants are being invited to come “home”….