The Inquisitor’s Diary by Jeffrey Lewis

Haus Publishing, April 2013
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal


InquisitorWhat is dumber than caring about the beliefs of others? As long as someone isn’t causing physical harm, why would anyone spend their time on what someone decides to believe or do with their own life? And nothing could be stupider than punishing someone for their beliefs. Yet this is exactly what the Spanish Inquisition was about. Meritocracy Quartet author Jeffrey Lewis insightfully deals with the absurdity and complexities of this subject in his intriguing novel The Inquisitor’s Diary.

The year is 1649 and the place is Mexico—for the Inquisition took place in the New World, too. A hundred and fifty years earlier, the Jews were expelled from Spain. If they stayed, they either had to convert or face death. Many converted, only to secretly follow their old ways. The Holy Office of the Inquisition formed in order to discover these insincere conversos, these Marranos. Some of these secret Jews fled to the New World, and so the Inquisitors followed them there, too.

Lewis’s narrator Fray Alonso is one of these inquisitors. He’s a lover of fine food and wine whose only wish is to be transferred back to Spain. He keeps a diary addressed to God, and in doing so narrates a journey from Mexico City to Santa Fe and back. He’s supposed to be on the alert for “Portuguese,” that is, secret Jews. Their office hasn’t caught many lately, and so their budget will be cut unless some are found—and burned alive. And, lo and behold, Alonso sees that his cook—a mute whom everyone calls the Dumb One—lights a candle every Friday evening. He must therefore be a secret Jew.

When questioned about the candle, the mute cannot explain. Mysteriously, Fray Alonso begins to hear the mute’s voice in his head. We never know if it’s a projection—a manifestation of mental sickness—or if Alonso and the mute really have a psychic connection. Either way, the conversations they have dig at the root of Church policy at the time: “It isn’t possible to make a man believe something by force,” says the Dumb One’s voice. “If there is force, then only the results of force can speak from a man, not the results of belief.”

Such a statement indicts not only the entire approach of the Inquisition, but also brings to mind the recent use of torture in fighting the War on Terror. The whole way of thinking is simply stupid. It encourages lying and turns both the questioner and the questioned into hypocrites. Because he believes it wrong to lie, the Dumb One refuses to admit what he’s doing is wrong, and the psychic inquisition turns into a real inquisition, as Alonso has the Dumb One arrested and brought to trial—a disabled man threatened with being burned at the stake for the crime of lighting candles on Friday.

Hypocrisy, absurdity, insincerity, insanity—all the characteristics of religion are here. I’m making fun, but Lewis treats the subject seriously and sincerely, with nothing but respect for the thought process of a believer, even while subtly pointing out the irrationality and ridiculousness of such a thought process.

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