Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Hand of Fatima by Ildefonso Falcones | A history of a Morisco

I have to admit that when I started reading this 900 pages book, I was not sure I would be able to finish it. I am usually attracted to tombes of this size, because if the book is good, I can spend a long time in that universe. However, in the case of The Hand of Fatima, I had a few problems relating properly to the main protagonist and the story itself. The story is set in Spain between 1568 and 1612, and my knowledge of Spanish history leaves a lot to be desired. At least after reading it, I can say that I have gained a better understanding of Spanish history, and especially the relationship between Christians and Muslims the Inquisition and witch trials.

My main issue was with our protagonist, Hernando Ruiz. Hernando is a Morisco, or Moor, who was forced to convert to Christianity after the Reconquest of Granada. Unfortunately for Hernando, he is the product of a Christian priest raping his mother Aisha. His stepfather Brahim detests Hernando, who with his blue eyes is favoured by the priests of his village, and is taught how to read and write. In his youth, Hernando is torn between the good treatment he receives from the Christian priests, and the hatred the other Moors, with the exception of the elder Hamid, has for him. Once the Moors rise against their oppressors, however, Hernando, with the aid of Hamid, embraces his Muslim belief.

My problem with Hernando is that he is a very strange hero. He is a bit of a trickster character, because a lot of times he will cause trouble for someone else, without provocation, or he takes things way too far. He claims to be a true believer, but at the same time he gambles, commits adultery, smuggles, and all these other things that strike me as odd. He pushes his few Muslim friends away, alienate potential allies, and still does not understand why the other Moriscos want nothing to do with him. Maybe Falcones wanted to create a very complex and humane character, but for the mission Hernando sets out to do, which is to create more sympathy for Muslims amongst the Christians and find grounds of unity, one would expect a very pure and unequivocally good character. This is definately not the case.

Other than that, the story does seem quite long. A reason for that is that there are so many twists and turns. Whenever things are looking up for Hernando and fortune is smiling at him, some unexpected twist will leave him at square one again (or sometimes even on zero). It comes to the point where you just want to get to the end to see what the point of it all is.

Hernando falls in love with beautiful Fatima, but unfortunately Brahim also has his eyes on her, and manages to maneuver Hernando out of the way and then threaten Fatima to marry him. Fortunes change again, and Brahim finds himself too poor to keep two wives. The Muslim elders, who support Hernando, gives Brahim two months to come up with enough money, otherwise they will grant Fatima a divorce. In a desperate attempt to come up with the money, Brahim seeks out some outlaws to offer them his services. Instead, he is faced with an old enemy who cuts his hand off, and Brahim is abandoned in the desert also by his first wife Aisha. Brahim disappears, and Hernando marries Fatima. All is seemingly perfect. Of course the idyll does not last, and Fatima and the children disappear one day, killed, Aisha claims, by an old enemy of Hernandos. When that enemy's dead body appears, Hernando gives up his search for vengeance. But Aisha has a deep secret.

Whilst the love drama is happening, the Moriscos suffer under the Christian yolk. Hernando is working under cover to help his brothers in faith, and is adviced to be more Christian than the Christians. Unfortunately he takes this so much to heart that his brothers eventually turn their backs on him, and Hernando finds himself friendless and marginalised. Even his mother claims he is a traitor, unaware of Hernando's secret work.

Ironically, as Hernando is working to plant evidence that undermines the Christian gospel, his friends and helpers are mostly Christians. While his former friends and his mother judge him as a traitorous dog, all his needs are looked after by Christians.

In the middle of all this, Hernando is constantly hassled by the Church to collaborate with them on different things, and he has to act as a double agent left, right, and centre.

I have to say, my favourite part of the book was its ending, where Hernando's old life clashes with his new, and he finally seems to have decided who he is and what he stands for. The book claims to try unify Christians and Muslims, and although I don't agree that it really tries to do that, Hernando in his actions, manages to at least live it.

I did eventually get through the book, and I'm glad I did. Although it provoked me at times, I think it's only healthy to read things you don't always agree with. The end of the story really made it come together in my eyes, even if it could have been at least 200 pages shorter...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. I began reading this book, but suspected what you have confirmed for me.

I was interested in the historical notes that the fiction could provide, but the story could not keep me interested in Hernando, his relationship with his mother, his love story, or his ups and downs. These aspects of the story seem like additions contrived to make an unreasonable character likable. My opinion is they could have been better used to enlighten him in a way to unite Christians and Muslims, but instead became peripheral. Instead, Hernando seemed to have no reasoning skills to see that he was betraying the only people who showed him any hope, and craving approval from people who hated in unreasonably. For me, this was a frustrating element that made me question whether I could be bothered continuing to follow his story.

I'm sure others will love it, for the very same reasons I didn't love it, such is the nature of human experience. The author is very talented, and possibly a kindlier and more patient person than me. I will look for his other titles.