Author’s background: In addition to writing, Davis spends a lot of his time walking. According to his bio, he researches walking guides, "after spending the better part of his 20s traveling in exotic and colorful places and catching exotic and colorful diseases." His walking experiences strongly flavor this novel.
Plot in a nutshell: Set in Inquisition-era Spain, a powerful, condemned prelate looks back on the critical incident of his youth, when he betrayed his best friend, a Moor. The Moor (his only name in the book) is a holdover from pre-Christian Spain, tolerated because he knows the intricacies of the irrigation system on which the livelihood of the community depends. But as a heathen, he is viewed with suspicion. The Factor, a traveling merchant who buys and sells the community’s goods, describes him: "He’s a witch. He’s killed children. He eats babies."
The Inquisitor, the authoritative hand of the Spanish Inquisition, arrives to exploit these religious superstitions of the mountain populace, enlisting their latent tribalism against the Moor who has kept their community alive with his expertise. By condemning the Moor as a heathen, the Inquisition hopes to strengthen its political hold over the barely civilized regions of newly Christianized Spain.
Sample of prose: "Even though they were now largely invisible, the Moor pointed to each village, hamlet, and finca within sight of our eyrie, and named every one of them as he pointed. When he had finished his litany, he asked if I knew the meanings of those names, and I had to admit I did not.
" ‘That is understandable,’ he said. ‘They are all Arabic names... your people have not renamed them... Why should this be, do you think?’
"Again, ignorance was all I had to offer, but not wishing to disappoint him, I suggested in my childish way that it was because my people were too busy surviving to be naming things and that in time these places would be called by Christian words.
" ‘Perhaps they will,’ he said. ‘Perhaps you and your children or your grandchildren will find words for your world. But I think not. Listen. When you name a place you make it your own. For near a dozen generations my people lived here, learned to live with this landscape and make it their own. That is why I am here. I was chosen because I speak your language. But I was kept here because I know this place and it is mine.’"
Author reminds me of: Hardly anybody reads Montaigne anymore, but Davis’s lyrical language and pacing remind me of Montaigne’s engaging, anecdotal essays.
Best reason to read: There are many pleasures to be found in this book: the pace and rhythm of the language; the vibrant and sympathetic characters; the tense, crisply advancing plot line. And Davis’s philosophical excursions into life, place, differences and death are well worth the price of admission.
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace