In the Last Blue, By Carme Riera, Translated, from the Catalan, by Jonathan Dunne, Overlook, 384 pp, $27.95
Carme Riera's novel "In the Last Blue" depicts religious zealotry in all its craftiness and cruelty. Set during the Spanish Inquisition, it is based on true events: In 1688 a group of Majorcan Jews, victims of forced conversions, sought to escape the island, only to have their ship stalled by bad weather. They were captured and imprisoned; many were burned at the stake.
Riera portrays a closed, repressive society from many different perspectives -- we meet pious Jews and those struggling with their identity, priests, bureaucrats, merchants, artisans, sailors, prostitutes, peasants. The story is equal parts heroism, devoutness, cravenness, and duplicity.
Divisions within the Jewish community play a central role in sealing its fate. Among the most compelling characters are Rafel Cortès, a convert eager to prove his loyalty to the Church, and Gabriel Valls, the spiritual head of the Majorcan Jews, still scarred by the anti-Semitic bullying he endured as a child. In Catholicism, Cortès finds beauty and a sense of belonging; besides which, being part of the Christian majority confers status and rank. Cortès becomes an informer, denouncing a cousin (with whom he is quarreling over a debt) for trying to circumcise his sons. Valls and his family and neighbors meanwhile lead double lives -- in public, they observe Christian rituals; in private, they proudly practice Judaism.
Fearing renewed zeal from Church authorities, Valls plans an escape to Livorno, Italy, where, he promises, the Jews can live in peace and abundance. He and his followers board ship, believing that "the farce is over at last." Forced to disembark because of a storm, they are captured and imprisoned. With the failure of the expedition, Valls becomes a tormented, conscience-stricken figure -- a man buoyed all his life by faith and certainty, now feeling abandoned by his God and responsible for the ruin of trusting family, friends, and neighbors.
Riera's portrayals of the Church are scathing. Priests jockey with one another for favor and position. Father Ferrando, Cortès's confessor, sees the denunciation he has obtained as a career move, a means of beating out a rival for a promotion. The Inquisitor, eager to show off, wants to schedule executions to coincide with a visit from the Queen Mother. Equally chilling is the energizing vanity of the Church's interrogators, their smug sense of themselves as virtuous people persecuting Jews (or as they view them, "lapsed Christians" ) for their own good.
Riera depicts the many intrigues and conflicts surrounding the events in Majorca; the story has a behind-the-scenes feel. Sometimes her ambitions outpace her storytelling. She goes into overwhelming detail about the background of even minor characters, leading to lengthy passages more expository than dramatic.
The novel is strongest in exploring powerful human needs. Riera's characters, Jews and Christians alike, want to feel part of a larger whole and to believe that theirs is the true path. Even as she depicts the extreme behavior arising from those desires -- whether great acts of courage or the worst intolerance -- Riera avoids caricature and theatrics. She makes her martyrs and persecutors life size, however extraordinary their experiences.