Friday, 15 June 2012

Fire and Song

ANNA LANYON, our guest blogger, tells the story behind writing the story of Luis de Carvajal, the Jewish martyr who died together with his sister in Mexico City in 1596.

I came across the story of Luis de Carvajal in May 1994.  I was in Mexico City at the time, working in the Archivo General de la Nación, gathering material for my first book about a young indigenous woman caught up in the Spanish Conquest.  A friend and fellow historian told me about Luis. She said she believed that he had been a Jewish mystic who had lived and died in Mexico City. She mentioned also that his inquisitorial trial transcripts were held in the archives.  I thought about those transcripts for a while and decided to take a look at them, although I knew that this would mean neglecting my work in progress.

For the next three days I sat in my usual space at the Archivo, quietly turning the pages of Luis de Carvajal’s trial transcripts.  It was difficult at first. Not so much the language - Spanish has altered little since the sixteenth century compared with English - but these were not printed texts. The scribes who recorded Luis’s trials before the Mexican Inquisition in 1589 and 1596 had scratched his words on parchments with quill and ink. It took me a while to familiarise myself with their handwriting and the abbreviations, loops and flourishes they liked to use, but eventually I did, and Luis’s story began to emerge.  

I learned that at the age of fourteen he had left Spain with his family and crossed the Atlantic to Mexico in the hope of starting a new life in the New World. I learned that during the years that followed he had become increasingly devoted to his family’s secret ancestral faith – secret because Judaism had been prohibited by the Spanish Crown in 1492. By the time I reached the end of Luis’s long second transcript, I knew that he had been executed in Mexico City in December 1596, along with his mother and three of his sisters. I returned the documents to the archivist feeling sad and exhausted, but before doing so I made some notes and requested copies of several parchments. Next day I resumed my work in progress.

Trial transcript of Luis de Caraval,
 Mexico City, 1596 

Spiritual testament of Luis de Carvajal
Eleven years passed before I felt free to start work on my book about Luis de Carvajal. Another six years elapsed before I held the first copy in my hands. I’m not a fast writer. I spend a great deal of time thinking and mulling things over before I get to the writing stage. With this book I also had to spend a great deal of time translating documents from sixteenth-century Spanish and Portuguese into English; not just Luis’s trial transcripts and his personal writings, but those of his mother and sisters, and other relatives in Portugal who died before he was born. At times I felt like a character Jorge Luis Borges might have invented: an absurd soul lost and wandering in an endless labyrinth of words. But in the end I did find a way through the labyrinth and managed to complete the book. 

When I first began reading Luis’s trial transcripts I was driven by simple curiosity. The more I read, the more determined I became to ensure that his story would not be forgotten. Two factors kept me going during the six years I devoted to this book. One was the sentence pronounced by the city magistrate on the day that Luis died: that after his death his body would be burned to ashes so no memory of him would remain.  The second was something Luis himself wrote when he was 24 years old.  In a notebook he called his ‘book of miracles’ he declared that he wanted to record his experiences so that the many gifts and mercies God had granted him would be known ‘to all those who believe in the Holiest of Holies.’ I’m not the first person to have written about Luis de Carvajal; others before me have produced very fine work.  But Fire and Song is my own humble attempt to fulfil his wishes and keep his memory alive.

For more information ... 
Interview with Anna Lanyon on 'Late Night Live'.
To buy the book through our partner, Booktopia.
Publisher's information.

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