Monday, August 5, 2013

Review: The Forgetting River

Descended from Spanish colonials, Doreen Carvajal is convinced that her ancestors may have been conversos-- Spanish Jews forced into hiding during the Inquisition. To research her past she takes up residence in a small Andalusian town. Carvajal finds that even hundreds of hears later the issue of conversos is met with silence. Signs of Jewish communities have been hidden, and many are unwilling to talk about Spain's troubled past. Research has shown that Spain has unusually high levels of anti-Semitism. It has also shown that a significant portion of the population has converso ancestors. Spain's relationship with its Inquisition and its larger history of religious persecution is certainly an interesting one.

Carvajal writes beautifully about her Spanish town, its residents, and its customs. She is a strong believer in fate, in things happening for larger cosmic reasons, and genetic memory. Carvajal believes that the sense of belonging she feels in Andalusia is the result of awakening genetic impulses, long buried by the Carvajal family's colonial settlement in the Americas. She discovers all sorts of potential hidden messages in art and architecture, secret acts of resistance on the part of conversos. Some of these conclusions are more tenuous than others. I must admit that I have less of a belief in fate and genetic memory than the author, so I think I was a bit more skeptical of some assumptions. Still, the book is a pleasure to read. The subject matter is engaging, and the descriptions are beautiful.

I realize that this was not written as an academic text, but there were significant points at which I wanted more scholarly apparatus. I wanted to know what existing research and literature have to say. I wanted footnotes that I could dig into. There were things discussed generally that I wished were cited, so I could find out their origin. I suspect Carvajal was required to leave the scholarly heavy lifting out of the book by her publisher. I believe that was a mistake. That framework would have added tremendously to this book.

Doreen Carvajal, The Forgetting River: A Modern Tale of Survival, Identity, and the Inquisition (Riverhead, 2012) ISBN: 1594487391 

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