- The Faith of Remembrance: Marrano Labyrinths by Nathan Wachtel
First appearing in French some thirteen years ago, this genuinely excellent book, now in a very viable English translation, is scholarly and serious-minded, yet replete with humanity and, on occasion, even subtle humor. Historically grounded in a past that still profoundly informs the present, it is proffered to specialists and laity alike in the best tradition of the humanities, with reserve and dignity, not to mention vigor and verve. The author wends his way through mazes—the “Marrano labyrinths” of his subtitle—illuminating along the way the stories of real people of Iberian extraction, who lived mostly during the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. In some instances, however, Nathan Wachtel extends his reach well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. He brings to bear an anthropologist’s cultural perspicacity, together with the narrative sensibilities of an historian. In so doing, he comes to participate himself in the exercise of collective and individual memory he describes. Faithfully evoking images from a fleeting past that in most instances has yet to be recounted, let alone reconciled, he strives—with noteworthy success—to know the lives and deaths of people who in his prose become so much more than mere names and dates registered in an historical archive. Whereas such peripatetic personalities may wander around the Iberian world or at least across large tracts of it, Wachtel’s text, although itself generally quite expansive, is closely and carefully focused. With precision, elegantly but still effusively, he shows how such “lived-in” phenomena as modernity, secularism, and globalization are not an exclusive purview of our time and place. His characters may remain as representatives of categories and characteristics, moving in and out of networks, affiliations, associations, and affinities, while remaining unique individuals. Paradoxically, their diverse loyalties and, curiously enough, multiple ethnicities could leave them in relative isolation, effectively bereft of any real recourse from persecution or any refuge from prosecution by the Inquisition.
This is somewhat of a lengthy book, although nonetheless a captivating read—one that is truly hard to put aside. Wachtel neither wastes nor minces words, evincing comprehension and compassion for the misconstrued, as for the martyred, [End Page 581] albeit without trivializing, minimizing, or otherwise obviating their foibles and shortcomings. It is most assuredly not fiction that he writes, but rather the ultimate expression of “fact,” detailing the typically dynamic dimensions of everyday experience. Such “realism” sometimes may be punctuated, highlighted even, by extraordinary deeds and daring-do, thereby revitalizing as well as recapitulating the Conversos’ condition. Their very “marginality” serves to center their stories: although all are sprung from the Nación, Wachtel’s subjects are by no means “all the same”—especially in the overall economy of their existence in an adverse world. Hounded by the Inquisition across oceans and continents, these folk become a metaphor for tolerance, for leaving well enough alone. The author’s narrative does not so much evoke the pathos of bad memories, although his histories can well and truly harrow up the reader’s soul, spanning a continuum from revulsion through rumination to outright revisionism. His work betokens a memorialization of the ostensibly mundane, a remembrance of things past and present that adds up to much more than the sum of the parts. Although condemned and in many cases judicially murdered by the Holy Office, the Marranos’ presence persists, gathering currency and renewed impetus in the (re)telling. Wachtel’s history does much to document his dramatis personae’s “Faith of Remembrance,” as well as his own. Additionally, his study can foment such a condition in the attentive reader’s heart and mind, as compounded with the other “theological virtues”—namely, hope and charity.