Reviewed by Samantha Schnee
This international bestseller follows the life of a boy born on the day the Protestant reformation began-when Martin Luther nailed his list of ninety-five theses to a church door in Wittenberg-through his last days in prison and burning at the stake. Cipriano Salcedo, the only son of the Salcedo family, is born in Valladolid, Spain, on October 31, 1517, shortly after which his mother dies. Resented from birth by his father, who refers to him as "that little parricide," Cipriano grows up in the care of his peasant wet-nurse and later is abandoned to the town orphanage. When his father dies, Cipriano takes over the family leather business and invents a rabbit-fur overcoat that becomes extremely popular throughout Spain and the rest of Europe, creating a small fortune for Cipriano. With his entrance to the aristocracy, Cipriano marries the daughter of one of his suppliers, an unpredictable woman famed for her sheep-shearing abilities. As their efforts to produce a child prove fruitless over time, his wife grows despondent and is eventually committed to an insane asylum, where she dies, supposedly dreaming of the hills where she raised sheep as a girl. Cipriano, guilt-ridden over his wife's unhappy demise, takes refuge in the company of a small sect of Calvinists that has sprung up in Valladolid. When the members of this brotherhood are inevitably caught and tried, casualties of the Spanish inquisition, Cipriano is the only member of the group who stays true to his convictions; in his confession the night before his burning he admits to three sins--not loving his father, bedding his wet-nurse during his teens, and fatal indifference to his mercurial wife. Like all the sainted martyrs, however, he holds fast to his beliefs, despite the fact that his demise will be all the more ignominious and painful unless he recants.
The Reformation's revolution in religious thinking-a breaking with Catholicism as its beliefs and practices evolved into those that found no root in the Bible itself-may seem irrelevant; these events, after all, took place nearly half a millennium ago. Yet it was only nine years ago that the Catholic Church acknowledged that souls who were not baptized in the Catholic faith were not automatically damned to hell (fellow monotheists-Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians-and polytheists alike, totaling over 80% of the world's population). Above all this is a cautionary tale against religious zeal, one that is particularly apt for our times, especially in the U.S., where fundamentalism is on the rise.
Miguel Delibes is one of Spain's literary treasures. At the age of eighty-six he is author of over fifty books; he received the Cervantes Prize in 1994, and The Heretic won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa, perhaps Spain's most important literary prize, in 1999. Delibes wrote it while fighting cancer, and at times Cipriano's meditations on the end of life during the year he spends in the Inquisition's prison seem almost autobiographical. By whatever means and experience, in The Heretic Delibes has produced as enduring and thought-provoking a tale as those of his national literary forefathers.
Samantha Schnee is an editor at Words Without Borders.
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