Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Fabulous Voyage Across The Ocean Sea by Jay Prasad

The Fabulous Voyage across the Ocean Sea is the story of three young men who cannot escape their heritage. It offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Sephardim, in the period of the mass persecution and expulsion of the conversos from Spain in the late 15th century. 

It is 1486, when Miguel de Avila’s father summons him from his home in Barcelona back to his birthplace in Toledo. Miguel, a gem dealer, and his father have been estranged since the father’s affair with Miguel’s betrothed. The Spanish monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon have sponsored the nationwide persecution of the Spanish descendants of Jews, whose property the Crown confiscates, before Dominican friars preside at auto-da-fe rituals. The victims have two choices: to profess their devotion to the Christian faith and die by strangulation, or to continue their supposed adherence to the Jewish religion and suffer death at the burning stake.

The conversos are damned either way, something that Miguel’s experiences drive home. He witnesses one of the executions in the company of his father’s housekeeper, who takes a lustful interest in him. Later, when her guilt overwhelms her, the woman accuses Miguel and his family of being secret Jews. He and his father escape trial. Miguel undertakes his father’s last command, to find his illegitimate brother, Luis, sired on Miguel’s former betrothed. The precariousness of life as a converso makes the prospect of Christopher Columbus’ plans for a voyage to the East, via a western route, interesting to Miguel. He meets with Columbus and his brother, promising to finance a journey. He questions whether Columbus has truly found the route he promised, as the natives whom the sailors encounter are entirely unlike what they expected.

In 1493, Luis de Avila enters the court of the Catholic monarchs, as Isabella’s secretary. Christopher Columbus and his co-captain have returned to Spain at odds with him. While Luis experience some disappointment that his brother Miguel is not among the sailors who have returned from the Indies, he remains painfully aware from his childhood experiences of the instability of life for the Sephardim. Luis is eager for an opportunity to discover his brother’s fate, as Columbus plans his next voyage. His responsibilities take him back to Spain, and a new wife and son. He also finds Miguel’s own illegitimate son, Aurelio, living in an orphanage. The interference of his in-laws puts Luis’ life in danger and he flees, leaving Aurelio to fend for himself.

Aurelio de Avila is a bright boy, with a seemingly bright future ahead of him. He trains as a lawyer at the prestigious Salamanca University. One of his first tasks requires him to review the petition of Christopher Columbus for revenue he has not received from his voyages. In doing so, Aurelio learns of Columbus’s possible origins and the final fate of the man who rescued him from the orphanage. Can Aurelio escape the troubles that arise from his family’s history?

Author Jay Prasad has written a tragic and compelling story of Jewish life in 15th century Spain. The triumphs and tragedies of each of the three protagonists are vivid. The author’s portrayal of Spain during the period is fascinating and full of rich detail.

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