El Ilu­mi­na­do: A Graph­ic Novel

Ilan Sta­vans and Steve Sheinkin

  • Review
By – November 19, 2012

A death in the desert…missing documents…a stub­born priest…a per­sis­tent young woman griev­ing the loss of her cousin and try­ing to solve his death…Jewish sym­bols show­ing up in mys­te­ri­ous places…is this the plot of the lat­est Indi­ana Jones movie? Not quite, but maybe some­thing even better. 

The new graph­ic nov­el by well-known lit­er­ary crit­ic Ilan Sta­vans and graph­ic nov­el­ist Steve Sheinkin packs a punch that is at once a grip­ping who­dunit and a fas­ci­nat­ing les­son on cryp­to-Jews in New Mex­i­co. When Sta­vans, appear­ing as a cen­tral char­ac­ter in his own book, is invit­ed to San­ta Fe to give a lec­ture, he unwit­ting­ly gets drawn into the mid­dle of a mur­der mys­tery with ori­gins that stretch back to the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion and the Jews who fled first to Mex­i­co and then to New Mex­i­co. Iri­na, a young local woman prone to speak­ing Spang­lish, enlists Stavans’s help in piec­ing togeth­er clues that might explain the strange cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing the death of her cousin, Rolan­do. Sta­vans quick­ly learns that Rolan­do had been obsessed with the sto­ry of Luis de Car­va­jal the Younger, also known as El Ilu­mi­na­do,” a cryp­to-Jew who lived in Mex­i­co in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry. Car­va­jal was per­se­cut­ed and then killed for not renounc­ing his Jew­ish roots. 

Iri­na dis­cov­ers that Rolan­do had doc­u­ments that could pos­si­bly prove their family’s con­nec­tion to Car­va­jal. Rolando’s broth­er is a priest, and he refus­es to accept the fact that his fam­i­ly could be Jew­ish. Rolan­do died pro­tect­ing the fam­i­ly secret, and as Iri­na and Sta­vans search for the truth, they encounter a cast of inter­est­ing char­ac­ters all seek­ing answers to ques­tions about iden­ti­ty, reli­gion, and their place in his­to­ry. The sto­ry is fast-paced and fas­ci­nat­ing, with a delight­ful blend of his­to­ry and humor. Sheinkin’s illus­tra­tions are imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­niz­able to fans of his Rab­bi Har­vey series, and his choice of col­ors and atten­tion to details result in a beau­ti­ful­ly enter­tain­ing book that will sure­ly become a classic.

Read Ilan Sta­van’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Fate Knock­ing at the Door: An Inter­view with Ilan Stavans

Philip K. Jason: What binds your inter­est in com­ic strips and graph­ic nov­els on the one hand and more tra­di­tion­al crit­i­cal explo­rations on the other?
Ilan Sta­vans:
Sto­ry­telling is a form of midrash. I love telling sto­ries, ana­lyz­ing them, see­ing them in con­text. I grew up in a cul­ture that jux­ta­posed the word and the image. As a writer, I don’t see one as supe­ri­or to the oth­er. I also don’t see the dis­tinc­tion between high­brow and pop­u­lar read­er­ships. The capac­i­ty to enthrall knows no boundary.

PKJ: Prof. Sta­vans, as a char­ac­ter in your graph­ic nov­el El Ilu­mi­na­do (Basic Books, 2012), is direct­ly involved in a real world adven­ture. What do you say to those who feel that peo­ple in aca­d­e­m­ic life some­how have removed them­selves from real world experiences?
IS: For me the noun aca­d­e­m­ic is deroga­to­ry: it denotes affec­ta­tion, pos­tur­ing, pre­tense. Aca­d­e­m­ic life is shame­ful­ly aloof, removed from the nuts-and-bolts affairs of dai­ly Amer­i­cans. I feel uncom­fort­able with such elit­ism: I pre­fer to get my hands dirty, to delve into the fry­ing pan.

PJK: Tell me some­thing about the back­ground of the fam­i­ly name.
IS: In vain I’ve sought my roots in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Europe. My con­so­la­tion is the knowl­edge that my ances­tors have roots in the Pale of Set­tle­ments, although I don’t know how deep those roots are. My full name (oy gevalt!) is Ilan Kalmen Stavchan­sky Slo­mi­an­s­ki Altchuler Eisen­berg. Stavchan­sky prob­a­bly refers to Stavchany, in the Ukraine. My father, Abra­ham Sta­vans, a stage and soap-opera actor in Mex­i­co, short­ened the name for artis­tic rea­sons, although he nev­er made the move to change it offi­cial­ly. I chose Ilan Sta­vans to empha­size my debt to him. I dis­cuss this debt in my mem­oir On Bor­rowed Words (Pen­guin, 2002).

PKJ: One of your con­cerns in Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Cul­ture (Nebras­ka, 2012) is about the future of eth­nic iden­ti­ties in melt­ing pot nations” ver­sus fruit sal­ad” nations. You dis­cuss this in your new book The Unit­ed States of Mes­ti­zo (New­South, 2013), which is based on an arti­cle you pub­lished in Human­i­ties. Can pub­lic pol­i­cy or pri­vate advo­ca­cy lead to one or anoth­er out­come in het­ero­ge­neous societies?
IS: The Unit­ed States is a gor­geous mosa­ic of eth­nic­i­ties. Regard­less of pol­i­cy, the nation’s future is Babel-like: a sum of parts. I’m an Amer­i­can because I chose to immi­grate to it in 1985. That is, I chose to become a con­vert to the reli­gion we call Amer­i­ca,” to become a prac­ti­tion­er, to sup­port, for bet­ter or worse, its principles.

PKJ: Am I safe to assume that, in your opin­ion, trans­la­tion is a term with mul­ti­ple mean­ings, going beyond the attempt to ren­der a text com­posed in one lan­guage into anoth­er? You’ve trans­lat­ed Pablo Neru­da, Borges, and Juan Rul­fo from the Span­ish into Eng­lish, Singer from Yid­dish to Span­ish, Yehu­da ha-Levi and Yehu­da Amichai from Hebrew to Eng­lish, Shake­speare, Emi­ly Dick­in­son, and Eliz­a­beth Bish­op from Eng­lish to Span­ish. You’ve also writ­ten fre­quent­ly on the role of trans­la­tion in the shap­ing of nations.
IS: For me trans­la­tion is a way of life. In fact, I live in trans­la­tion with­out an original.

PKJ: What do you mean?
IS: In trav­el­ing from one lan­guage to anoth­er, I no longer know if there is a right way of say­ing things or many right ways.

PKJ: One of your life-long inter­ests is Spang­lish. You’ve pub­lished a dic­tio­nary (Harp­er, 2003) as well as a trans­la­tion of Don Quixote of La Man­cha into Spang­lish. Does Spang­lish have its cor­rel­a­tives in oth­er lan­guage blends? In Yid­dish or Hebrew blends? How and for whom do these hybrids function?
IS: Spang­lish is the new Yid­dish: a mix of Span­ish and Eng­lish used by Lati­nos to com­mu­ni­cate across nation­al, eth­nic, and eco­nom­ic lines. Like Yid­dish, it was looked down upon by the edu­cat­ed elite as bas­tardiza­tion. Then writ­ers embraced it as theirs, pro­duc­ing nov­els, the­ater, music, poet­ry, hence giv­ing it an incip­i­ent stan­dard­ized syn­tax. It is spo­ken by mil­lions not only in the Unit­ed States but across the Amer­i­c­as. Just as there is a dif­fer­ence between the Yid­dish spo­ken, say, by Lit­vaks and Gal­itzian­ers, Cubans, Puer­to Ricans, Mex­i­cans, Domini­cans and oth­ers each have their vari­ety of Spanglish.

As for Hebrew, its inter­course with Ara­bic, called Hib­riya, is an essen­tial com­po­nent of Arab-Jew­ish cul­ture today, which I reflect on in Res­ur­rect­ing Hebrew (Schocken/​Nextbook Press, 2008). This so-called bor­der lan­guage fits a pat­tern that also includes Por­tuñol (Por­tuguese and Span­ish), Franglais (French and Eng­lish), Ching­lish (Man­darin and Eng­lish), and so on.

PKJ: You are attract­ed to brain­storm­ing with a part­ner and tran­scrib­ing those dis­cus­sions into pub­lished con­ver­sa­tions. The top­ics are the Bible, the con­cept of love through his­to­ry, ways of see­ing art, and so on. These dia­logues have been pub­lished by uni­ver­si­ty press­es like Yale, Texas, Duke, Michi­gan, and Wis­con­sin. They have also been trans­lat­ed into sev­er­al lan­guages. What is the attrac­tion? How do you set up and ener­gize these conversations?
IS:The art of the con­ver­sa­tion is as old as humankind. Mod­ern times have deval­ued it, turn­ing it into a bite-size pro­mo­tion­al tool. Of course, there’s much more to it: two minds in a tete-a-tete, what is Socrates, the father of us all, about?

Delv­ing into a sub­ject with a com­pan­ion is among the most reward­ing plea­sures in life, not to say in lit­er­a­ture. The con­ver­sa­tions — real or imag­ined — Isaac Bashe­vis Singer had with Richard Bur­gin, Kaf­ka with Gus­tav Janouch, Borges with his friend Ernesto Sába­to, are, in my eyes, gen­uine jew­els. They open a unique win­dow into the minds of the conversants.

I love talk­ing to peo­ple. These talks, tran­scribed by friends, often end up in mag­a­zines. But I also enjoy longer exchanges, which take a year, some­times more. I’ve done sev­er­al of them myself with his­to­ri­ans (Iván Jak­sic), jour­nal­ists (Morde­cai Drache), trans­la­tors (Veróni­ca Albin), philoso­phers (Jorge Gra­cia), et al., and no doubt I’m hum­bler as a result. These encoun­ters gen­er­al­ly start dur­ing a pleas­ant din­ner. If and when the chem­istry is right, the dia­logue even­tu­al­ly set­tles on a spe­cif­ic sub­ject, becom­ing its cen­ter of grav­i­ty. Then the con­ver­sa­tion con­tin­ues via e‑mail: the mutu­al desire is to be thor­ough, to under­stand things as com­pre­hen­sive­ly as pos­si­ble. Soon­er or lat­er I men­tion the exchange to an edi­tor friend, who then sug­gests turn­ing it into a book. If I fol­low that route, the dia­logue acquires the form of a man­u­script, which is sent elec­tron­i­cal­ly back and forth count­less times until every aspect of the sub­ject has been addressed. What I like about these exchanges is their spon­tane­ity, their jazzy nature… To me they feel like fate knock­ing at the door.

Wendy Was­man is the librar­i­an & archivist at the Cleve­land Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry in Cleve­land, Ohio.

Discussion Questions