The Return of Car­va­jal: A Mystery

  • Review
By – March 9, 2020

Burned at the stake on Decem­ber 8, 1596 in the largest auto-da-fe in New Spain,” as Mex­i­co was then known, Luis de Car­va­jal left a 180-page bio­graph­i­cal man­u­script writ­ten close to the end of his life, which recounts his redis­cov­ery of his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty after hav­ing been raised a Catholic in Spain. Intend­ed for his sib­lings, the man­u­script recalls the pres­ence of the Inqui­si­tion in Mex­i­co that last­ed until the ear­ly nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, along with per­son­al rumi­na­tions, a tran­scrip­tion of the Ten Com­mand­ments and Mai­monides’ Thir­teen Prin­ci­ples of Faith, The Yig­dal.

After quot­ing Soren Kierkegaard, the tyrant dies and his rule is over, the mar­tyr dies and his rule begins,” Ilan Sta­vans then cites The Mar­tyr: Luis de Car­va­jal, a Secret Jew in Six­teenth Cen­tu­ry Mex­i­co, the 1978 book by Mar­tin A.Cohen. Accord­ing to Cohen, Carvajal’s lega­cy has con­tem­po­rary sig­nif­i­cance in its tale of per­se­cu­tion and resis­tance, free­dom and survival.

Divid­ed into two sec­tions, the tale of the dis­ap­pear­ance and reap­pear­ance of the orig­i­nal man­u­script around eighty plus years lat­er in a Swann Gallery auc­tion house, becomes a detec­tive sto­ry that tests one’s creduli­ty. Sta­vans, a pro­fes­sor of human­i­ties and Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege in Mass­a­chu­setts, tells it with all the clues to its dis­ap­pear­ance linked to ques­tion­able schol­ars, cor­rupt aca­d­e­mics and dead-end investigations.

Orig­i­nal­ly from Mex­i­co, Sta­vans had authored a graph­ic nov­el El Illu­mi­na­do in 2012, inspired by his inter­est in the cryp­to-Jew­ish awak­en­ing in the Amer­i­can South­west. It led him to research in the nation­al archives of Mex­i­co from where the man­u­script had dis­ap­peared and secu­ri­ty is noto­ri­ous­ly lax. He also dis­cov­ered that there has been ongo­ing inter­est in Car­va­jal and his fam­i­ly by artists, film­mak­ers, writ­ers and com­posers. Diego Rivera, the famous Mex­i­can mural­ist has depict­ed Car­va­jal in sev­er­al of his murals.

This gem of a book aims to repli­cate some­thing of the pre­cious­ness of Carvajal’s man­u­script, includ­ing a repro­duc­tion of the fron­tispiece and last page of the man­u­script itself. Accom­pa­nied by four­teen etch­ings exe­cut­ed in 2019 that uti­lize an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry tech­nique, the illus­tra­tions depict his­tor­i­cal events as well as some of the play­ers in the con­tem­po­rary tale, includ­ing Sta­vans in medieval cos­tume hold­ing a mag­ni­fy­ing glass. Whether he has shed light on the ongo­ing saga, which has expand­ed to include an auc­tion gallery and a wealthy col­lec­tor, is up to the read­er to sur­mise. Sta­vans has cer­tain­ly writ­ten a page-turner.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions