Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Review: 'The Heretic' by Miguel Delibes

Miguel Delibes (1920- )

The Heretic (1998)

350 pages

This novel follows the life of a well-to-do land-owner and merchant in 16th century Valladolid, Spain, from his birth to parents who had thought they were infertile, to his growing participation in the underground Protestant reformation in the deeply Catholic Spanish society of the time.

Cipriano Salcedo is born in 1517, his mother dying of complications a few days later. His father, Bernardo, hires a young woman from the countryside to feed and care for Cipriano, and beyond that largely ignores him as he is growing up, sending him off to a religious orphanage as soon as possible. Cipriano eventually grows to take over his father's business, raising sheep for wool that is shipped to central Europe, and even expand it as he begins to make coats from the wool, instead of shipping it overseas. He recognizes the advantage of producing and selling a product as opposed to simply selling the raw material, though he looked down upon by his peers as having taken up a lower occupation. His inner doubts about the Catholic society of the time, already developing during his youth in the religious school, lead him to join an underground group of intellectuals and free-thinking Catholics who discuss the Protestant reformation happening in Europe, and how it can be brought to Spain. The group which eventually comes to the attention of the religious authorities, who are sensitive of the risk to their power and react swiftly and with political backing to any perceived threat.

Although Cipriano's life forms the central thread to the story, the details of Spanish society of the 1500's are in many ways the real star of the novel. Delibes describes how the growing town of Valladolid looks in it's architecture and layout, the different social classes and how they interact, or don't, and the connection to the smaller surrounding towns and large land estates. From details like the shearing of sheep, or the transportation of the wool to the coast for export, are given in fascinating detail. They are woven tightly into the story, not feeling like add-ons, but rather critical elements to understand Cipriano's growth and choices. Delibes also describes the structure of Catholic society of the time, and the internal debates dividing the church and their effect on the general population.

Read quotes from this book

Other reviews / information:
Samantha Schnee, Word Without Borders

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