2010, 887 pages – yes, 887 pages. Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor
Oooffgghh!! That was a long read! I was about to write that I rarely read big chunky historical fiction books but on reflection, that’s not true. I loved Kristin Lavransdatter, I eagerly await the final volume of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, and I really enjoyed Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy. Perhaps it’s that I often read trilogies and suchlike as they are released, several years apart. But I read this book all in one gulp.
I heard about it from a guide who took me on a historic walk in Cordoba last year, and I very much enjoyed reading about places that I had been in Granada, Seville and of course Cordoba.
It is set in 1564, long after the reconquest of Spain by the Christian Kings. However, as we see all too often in the midst of the sectarian wars that still afflict us, mere conquest is not enough to expunge the beliefs, stories and world view of a conquered people. The Islamic Morisco people in 16th century Spain are defeated, but restive, and uprisings erupt across Al Andalus, put down violently with massacres and enslavement on both sides.
Hernando is the son of an Arab woman and the Christian priest who raped her. His stepfather despises him, and he kidnaps Hernando’s one love, Fatima, and takes and mistreats her as a second wife to spite him. He is shunned by the Christians who educate him into their beliefs, and he secretly visits Hamid, an old teacher who educates him into the Islamic beliefs. These two streams of belief, which he can call on when he needs to, mean that he is distrusted by both sides as he moves between the two cultures.
It is his facility with both Christianity and Islamic that drives him to a project to unite the two faiths through the figure of Mary, who is revered by both traditions. I found this part rather tedious and I’m not sure that it was really necessary to the story. But overall, it is a rather driven narrative, which barely takes a breath. Just when you think that things are about to be resolved, yet another twist occurs…and hence the nearly 900 pages.
I hadn’t heard of this book, which is written by a best-selling author. I was surprised for a moment to find that Lisa at ANZLitLovers had read it (until I remembered just how widely she reads) and her review is much more detailed than mine. I wasn’t even sure if it was written by a male or female author, but after reading the sex scenes with too much throbbing manhood for my liking, I decided that the author must be a man. I was not wrong.
To have the book recommended by a Spanish speaker, keen to show the beauties of her cities, is no small thing. It complicates the easy historical concepts of ‘conquest’ and ‘reconquest’, and I very much enjoyed the descriptions. When I was told about the book, I was reassured that I’d be able to find it in translation which is just as well. I doubt that I’ll live long enough to translate a book of nearly 900 pages in Spanish!