Since men have called me “God” and “Son of God”, my Father, in order that I not be mocked of the demons on the day of judgement, has willed that I be mocked of men in this world by the death of Judas, making all men to believe that I died upon the cross. And this mocking shall continue until the advent of Mohammed, the messenger of God, who, when he shall come, shall reveal this deception to those who believe in God’s law - The Gospel of Barnabas
These words, attributed to Jesus, in the apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas is the lynch pin that holds the main point of this story together. Hernando Ruiz is a poor peasant boy in the Kingdom of Granada, in the village of Apuljarra. His birth is the result of a priest who had raped his Morisco mother and throughout his life he has lived with this stain, his blue eyes being a constant reminder to everyone of the origins of his birth. An outcast among the Morisco community - who refer to him derisively as “Nazarene” - as well as the Christian community who have by now taken over the Kingdom of Granada, the teenage Hernando is in a constant struggle between the two sides of the ever warring faiths. By the beginning of the story, the Moorish kingdom of Granada had been overthrown by the Christians over a century earlier. All of the Muslim population were forced to convert to Christianity (called “New Christians”) but were still treated with suspicion and more often than not, like second class citizens by the ruling Christian population. A strict theocracy was imposed, where each of these “New Christians” were ordered to attend Sunday mass, where the authorities named checked them to make sure that they actually attended. All remnants of their former faith is slowly being wiped away and anyone caught pledging their faith to The Prophet was met with swift and certain punishment. Hernando was brought up a Muslim but also had to feign his new Christian beliefs in order to survive.
At nearly 1000 pages, this novel is epic historical fiction. Very little liberties were taken here so the majority of what you read is exactly how life was for the Morisco population during these times. Sources are cited, quotes are given from medieval sources including letters between nobles, written historical accounts and royal decrees. There are many books written about this period in Spanish history (of which I’ve read a lot of) so this novel was especially entertaining for me. The plot follows young Hernando from his teenage years as a muleteer through his middle aged years around the time of the final expulsion of the whole of the Muslim population from the Iberian peninsula in the early 1600s. Part love story, part historical drama, part religious exploration, there’s a hell of a lot to digest here. The savagery in which each of these communities inflicted upon one another is all here in all its gory details, giving the reader a real sense of how harsh life was in those years and how a difference in religious faith can appeal to the worst side of our nature. Much of Spanish history is explored here - especially the 700 years of Moorish rule which had a much greater impact on Spanish culture than most people are willing to acknowledge these days - and how despite the expulsion of the Moors, many did actually remain behind, simply blending in with their adopted new faith and carrying on with their lives.
But it is Hernando’s “split identity” which is most explored here and after experiencing one tragedy after another he struggles to find a way to unite the two warring faiths (and in turn the struggle with the two sides of himself). When he discovers a hidden manuscript of The Gospel of Barnabas within the walls of an old minaret he hatches a plan to try to bring the two warring faiths together once and for all, often at dramatic personal sacrifice. Ultimately Hernando discovers his true self, despite the fact that his desire to unite the faiths seems daunting if not impossible.
This is a long, dense read, sometimes a little melodramatic (as historical fiction tends to be sometimes) and there are many scenes that seem more like padding than essential but it doesn’t take away from the fascinating account of Spanish medieval life. For those interested in this subject, this is a must read. What the reader may find most poignant is the fact that this struggle between the faiths still rages in the present day, along with the same call to arms, same grievances, same savagery. One can see a direct, unbroken line from the days depicted in the novel to the present day and this is what makes the read the fascinating one that it is. It also explores the dangers of “certainty”, how dogmatic, blind faith to one’s creed can often lead to horrific outcomes. It seems the author’s message is the same as many who study this period in history - that each side has contributed more to the culture than one would realize (or admit).