AGAINST THE INQUISITION Marcos Aguinis Translated by Carolina De Robertis AmazonCrossing 2018, 636 pp, $14.95
Those who associate bar mitzvahs with elaborate public celebrations might be surprised to learn that their modern significance traces back to an absolutely secret rite. Following the Talmudic phrase "at 13, [one takes on] commandments," 16th- and 17th-century Spanish Jewish parents, who outwardly lived as Catholics after the rise of the Inquisition, waited until their children were at least 13--old enough to be trusted with dangerous secrets--before privately telling them they were Jews. Against the Inquisition, the newly translated novel by the Argentine Jewish novelist Marcos Aguinis, takes this moment of revelation and expands it into an entire world, one that resonates both in the 17th century and in our own.
Little known in English, Aguinis has been a Latin American literary powerhouse for 50 years, turning out elegant, prize-winning bestsellers that have explored everything from Argentine history to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of Maimonides, all to the praise of his largely non-Jewish audience. The release this year of one of his best novels in English is long overdue. Against the Inquisition, first published in Spanish in 1991, is based on the astounding true story of Francisco Maldonado da Silva, a 17th-century doctor descended from conversos, who re-embraced his Judaism and faced the consequences. Aguinis brings his story to life in intimate human terms, starting with the classic bar mitzvah scene. In 17th-century Ibatin, in the Viceroyalty of Peru (now Argentina), Don Diego Nunez da Silva, a respected Catholic physician, uses a private moment with his oldest son to reveal their true identity, passed secretly from parent to child since his great-great-grandfather's expulsion from Spain a century earlier. The slip-up in this solemn revelation is that Don Diego's youngest son, seven-year-old Francisco, overhears it all. Francisco's tortured 20-year journey from his father's arrest to his own, and from frightened denial to hard-won integrity, carries us through this epic novel of human freedom.
The novel's power comes from its portrayal of the psychological damage of being forced to live a lie. Don Diego, who runs an informal academy for his four children in his orange grove to teach them that "knowledge is power," quickly comes under suspicion from church authorities, forcing the family to move to the larger...