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Preview: Ildefonso Falcones’ La Mano de Fátima

In 2006, Barcelona lawyer Ildefonso Falcones’ first novel, The Cathedral of the Sea, became one of Spain’s all-time bestselling novels, with well over a million copies sold there and four million worldwide. A historical novel set in 14th century Barcelona, The Cathedral of the Sea mixed historical fact and a vividly-rendered love story in such a way that it captivated audiences all across Europe, Latin America, and lately the United States. Winner of several European prizes for fiction, The Cathedral of the Sea has given Falcones a level of popularity in Spanish literary circles that is only exceeded today by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. His second novel, La Mano de Fátima, was released last month with an extremely large 500,000 initial print run in Spain alone. North American release in Spanish is set for August 18, 2009, with an English translation likely to follow in the next year.

Reviewer and critic Larry Nolen, who provided Omnivoracious with a preview of Zafón's The Angel Game last year, returns here with a review of the Spanish-language edition of La Mano de Fátima, available on Amazon by August 18. We'll have more on the novel in late August, including any news on the English-language edition...


La Mano de Fátima
by Larry Nolen

Christian-Muslim relations have never been easy, history bearing witness to attacks by partisans of both religions, with the attendant martyrs and villains. Nowhere is this more evident than in Spain, where for almost 900 years the Reconquista was waged to win back the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control, culminating in the expulsion of the Moors and Jews from the Iberian peninsula in 1609.

Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones sets out to explore the tensions that existed in late 16th century Spain in his new novel, La Mano de Fátima. Over the course of over 900 pages, Falcones covers the period from the Alpujarras revolt of 1568-1571 to the 1609 expulsion through the character of Hernando Ruiz. Young Hernando, the offspring of the rape of a Moorish woman by a Catholic priest, serves as a small-scale representation of the divisions that rent Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492. Rejected by his fellow Moors as being a "Nazarene"and condemned to be treated as a Moor by the Christians due to his crypto-Muslim Morisco culture (public Muslim practices being banned in 1499), Hernando bears witness to the mutual distrust that Morisco and Spaniard alike felt toward one another.

Falcones goes to great lengths to show just how late 16th century life was like for those such as Hernando who were caught between their love for their native land and their desire to follow the Muslim religion openly and be at peace with their Christian neighbors. Hernando constantly seeks to establish a dialogue between the two sects, in part because he desires a place where he can be reconciled to both parts of his heritage. Yet fellow Moriscos such as his father-in-law, Brahim, hold an inveterate hatred of Christians for the betrayals committed and the humilations forced upon the Moriscos since the fall of Granada a century before. Hernando soon discovers himself having to choose between his faith and part of his heritage when a group of Christians are rounded up soon after the Alpujarras revolt has begun. Falcones does an excellent job developing the atmosphere and creating quite a few twists to the traditional love conflict when the character of Fatima is introduced shortly after the main action of the novel begins.

There are three main conflicts in this story: 1) Hernando’s wavering commitment to the Moriscos and the crypto-Muslim faith that they hold, 2) Hernando’s treatment by both the Christian Spaniards and the Moriscos, and 3) Hernando’s relationships with Fatima and certain other people later in life. Falcones does an excellent job with the first two, with the exception of the main "villain" of Brahim, whose character rarely fails to rise above that of an implacable, diabolical foe of Hernando and of his desire for peace between the faiths. It is in the third main conflict, that between Hernando and those closest to him, where Falcones falters.

In large part, this is due to the 41-year span of the novel. In attempting to illustrate the atmosphere of the times and how attitudes began to change toward the Moriscos after the failed Alpujarras revolt, Falcones unfortunately padded the novel in places, creating quite a few turns and introducing a new character dynamic that feels a bit forced after the action of the first few hundred pages. As a result, important characters fade away for long stretches, reappearing only fitfully until the final scenes, where their reemergence feels forced and underdeveloped.

Yet despite this, La Mano de Fátima contains several moving passages that speak to the hope of Hernando (and presumably, of Falcones) for a more peaceful co-existence between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Hernando, despite the unevenness of the second half of the novel, serves as an excellent reminder just what was lost when Christianity and Islam began their ideological war, as well as the hope that many adherents of both faiths have for a reconciliation. Falcones’ novel, coming as it does on the 400th anniversary of the expulsion of the Moors, bears witness to the optimistic faith and tolerance that those like Hernando have managed to uphold in the face of the tumults of the past few centuries.


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Since religion is such a major part of this book, I wonder where the author stands,is he Christian or "other"?

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