Martin Elsant's Acts of Faith
The Inquisition kept careful records of its arrests, its tortures and its auto da fé’s burning at the stake, those the Catholic Church deemed heretics. In all their records over hundreds of years in many countries, the story of Diego Lopes was unique. The Church and witnesses recorded that Diego, brought to the stake in Coimbe, Portugal, simply disappeared. The Church attributed Diego’s vanishing to the Devil. Thousands of witnesses declared it a miracle, the Jews among them. God had rescued His own.
Martin Elsant was intrigued. He wrote his historical novel, Acts of Faith, to create his own theory. Like Houdini, aka Erik Weisz, in Martin’s view, Diego was a very successful escape artist. Now I was intrigued.
In 1492, on the day Columbus and his crew sailed to the New World, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain ordered all Jews to convert or leave Spain. Portugal followed this edict a few years later. The Inquisition had total control. Martin told me, “Heresy is the original thought crime. That’s why the Inquisition—dedicated to the eradication of heresy—became the first Thought Police.”
To bring to his readers the various philosophical streams, Martin develops a number of characters from Diego Lopes, aware and sympathetic to his Jewish roots, his daughter Maria, who is all too aware of the necessity to appear totally “pure” in Christian thought and observances and to Ari Coehlo, a Jesuit seminary student. Ari at first is convinced the Inquisition is justified. He thinks, “Since the Inquisition was empowered by the Pope, who was infallible, it shared the Pope’s mantle of infallibility. Therefore, Ari was convinced that if the Inquisitors arrested someone for heresy, then that person must be guilty.”
Diego Lopes was a wealthy, powerful, well connected man. “But he was no match for the Inquisition….” A widower, his main goal in life was to care for and protect his daughter. She was beautiful, intelligent and well-educated, a brilliant match for any man except for the fact that she was a “New Christian,” anyone with Jewish ancestry even 5 or 6 generations back. She is the means by which Ari is finally convinced of the evil of the Inquisition. The romance between Ari and Maria is complicated yet their struggles lead to truth for both. Martin shared, “For me, the easiest way to create an incentive for an Inquisition ‘insider’ (almost all were men) to turn against his masters was to have him fall in love with a beautiful New Christian.”
Ari begins to realize that not only are the individuals who directed the Inquisition were corrupt uncaring about the pain of innocent people. “It was more than just wickedness. It was something inhuman. It was evil. Absolute, unadulterated evil.”
The Inquisition continued in Europe and then in Central and South America for 300 years. Their lust for blood and wealth, like many totalitarian regimes, was a motivator for their inhumanity. Martin includes a note to explain his name choice for a main characters, Ari, whose full name is Aristedes, an unusual choice for a Portuguese child.
The naming is an important clue to the novel's theme, for Ari is named after Aristedes de Sousa Mende, a Portuguese Righteous Gentile, who defied the Nazis’ control and was honored after the war. Martin sees the Inquisition had much in common with the Nazis, their violence, their control and their pursuit of those outside their circle, Jews above all, but also Gypsies and anyone who was an independent thinker. “The opponents to the murderous regime were very brave but very few.“
The horrors of the Inquisition seem long ago now. The lessons are relevant now as then. Today we see regimes that control their populations in similar fashion, from Iran to China to North Korea. We see groups in the US that shout down speakers with different points of view, that set fire to buildings and riot to frighten others into silence ad withdrawal from political involvement.
Martin answered my questions about how to prevent these regimes from taking over. “We are all capable of thinking for ourselves and we should use that capability to its fullest.”
By creating vibrant and strong characters, some that we are attracted to and some that we abhor, Martin beings alive an era that is fascinating as it is cruel. His knowledge of the era and its events is deep.
And now, how did Diego Lopes escape? To find that out, you must read the novel!
Food, as always, was an important part of life. These Keftes de Prassa, Leek Patties, were and are still popular among Sephardic Jews, Jews originally from Spain and Portugal, who after their expulsion found homes in other Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, from North Africa to the Middle East. Keftes de Prassa is often served at the Jewish New Years, Rosh Hashanah, There are meat and vegetarian options. I made it vegetarian and gave you other options in my expandthetable suggestions.