A Mystical Journey [Tierra adentro]
By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman
Translated by Seymour Menton. Santa Fe, NM: Gaon Books, 2011. 130 pp. Print.1
Reviewed by David Navarro.
Angelina Muñiz-Huberman's literary production establishes a close union between history and exile; in this case, the exile of Spanish Jewry in 1492 and her own exile in 1939,2 and between literature and exile. Muñiz-Huberman's experiences and interest in Judaism become blended in her works, where she combines Christian mysticism, erotic images, Biblical exegesis, Jewish traditions, reality and fantasy. In A Mystical Journey (Tierra adentro, 1977), the author reflects on and depicts her own challenges and tribulations as a Christian-Jewish woman raised as an émigré. She does this through the main male protagonist, Rafael. Muñiz-Huberman's book is connected with the experiences and writings of other fellow Jewish writers raised in Latin America, such as Alberto Gerchunoff's Los gauchos judíos [The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas] from 1910. Such authors portray, in their novels, the lives of European Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century as they escaped from famine and persecution of the shtetls in Eastern Europe in search of freedom and their beloved Promised Land, crystallized for Gerchunoff in the vast lands of Argentina and Uruguay. A Mystical Journey describes the adventures of Rafael, a Jewish teenager who manages to escape the Spanish Inquisition by joining a Christian group of pilgrims on their way to the Holy Land. The novel inaugurates the literary stream of the historical Mexican novel by mixing and intertwining fictional characters within a historical framework and context. Although "the protagonist is not a well-known historical figure, nor do any historical figures appear, even in the background" (158), as Seymour Menton suggests, the text provides some information that helps set the time period of the story in late sixteenth century Spain: references to Philip II, the Spanish Inquisition, the pureza de sangre (blood purity), the European Reformation, the plague and war of religions; these accurate allusions are wisely inserted in the plot of the story in a linear description of events that avoids historical anachronisms. The main character of the story, Rafael, belongs to a Converso family, whose members struggle between keeping their new Christian faith and maintaining their Judaizing practices in secret during a period of profound and abrupt social differences between old Christians and new Christians. The traumatic tension due to the forced conversions suffered by the Spanish Jews who refused the exile of 1492 is shown in Rafael's family; they decide he will not receive his bar mitzvah due to the risk of being denounced to the Inquisition. Rafael realizes his life as a Jew is not possible in his homeland, and he insists "to be a Jew no matter how much I have to suffer and pretend" (12), leading him to abandon his family and embark on a journey that is "long and painful, with its disappointments, its injustices, its anxieties and its mistakes" (12).
Rafael's journey begins by leaving Toledo and reaching Madrid in search of a rabbi who will help him complete his bar mitzvah. In his first trip to Madrid, he also meets Miriam, his future wife, with whom he will embark on the journey that will lead them both to Eretz Israel. Among the many travel adventures he experiences, Rafael encounters the help of an elusive character, a muleteer, who appears and vanishes, and like a malach or guardian angel, provides the young boy with companionship, advice and guidance during his periods of isolation, despair or confusion. The narrative style of the story stands out by employing Rafael as a single narrative voice throughout the entire novel; the lyric quality of the text is preserved by the use of the present tense combined with short sentences, nominal phrases where the main verb is omitted as well as brief Hebrew expressions. Rafael's sense of identity and the need of keeping his personal beliefs in a place where he would be able to live without hiding himself from society depict somehow the archetype of the pícaro or swindler, familiar characters of the Spanish picaresque genre that shaped part of the narrative fiction written in Spain during the sixteenth century. In consonance with the rhythm of the novel, Rafael's adventure continues, at times detoured by external factors (persecution, war, the plague) and at others by internal struggles (fear, nihilism, anxiety), until he joins a group of pilgrims and reaches his final physical and spiritual home in Israel.
The symbolic elements reflected in the novel are found in the allegorical meaning of the main character's name. Rafael (a name of Hebrew origin meaning ‘God is Healer') portrays himself sometimes as an individual who fights against his true faith in a world corrupted and ruled by injustice. His decision to become a corroder of society, joining the beggars, the insane and the criminals, seems to be the only solution to avoid being limited and surrounded by walls, although it is these walls that provide him with the shelter and knowledge he needs. He throws himself into a world of corruption, thieves and criminals that will lead him off course from his dream of reaching the place in which he will be able to live without being in hiding. Under this pressure and confusion, the study of the Bible, which comforts him with some tranquility and forgetfulness from his daily anguish and nightmares, and his faith in God, keep him alive while healing his physical and spiritual wounds as his name symbolically represents: "I want somehow to feel closer to God, and I search in my clothing for the book that I have never abandoned. […] Dust pursues dust, sand reflects sand, not a drop of water, not a green leaf. That is what I am leaving, that's what remains behind. What there will be up ahead, I don't know, but God is at my side" (86).
During his journey, Rafael meets a series of male and female characters that will define, reshape and challenge his personality, unfolding hidden feelings, intellectual growth and sexual experiences: the constant support he receives from the muleteer in times of defeat, the advice for survival he learns from an old beggar, the obsessed alchemist worrying to find a formula to produce the philosopher's stone, the noble and benevolent don Alvaro who guides him and the group of pilgrims to the Holy Land, and Rodolfo the dancer (more of a classy buffoon) who entertains the royal court with his acrobatics and bows. The female characters he encounters are kind and soft, and offer him a safe haven in his tortuous journey: the morisco Almudena, the young girl at the inn where Rafael spends a few nights before continuing his way out of Spain, and the more mature and candid Helena. But above all there is the character of Miriam who, along with his faith, provides Rafael with an anchor, sustaining him through the many losses he endures. Rafael falls in love with her from their first encounter, losing contact with Miriam, who is running from the inquisitors. Not until receiving a letter delivered by the muleteer, does Rafael find out Miriam's current situation: she has been adopted by a Christian family who encourage her to embrace her new religion, but she refuses to leave her Jewish roots.
Muñiz-Huberman employs Miriam (namesake of the savior of Moses and prophetess), to express in her brief letter the challenges and tribulations suffered by the converso community to keep their traditions alive under constant threat. Miriam represents the courage to maintain endangered beliefs. She becomes not only Rafael's future wife, but also his hope and leitmotiv, motivating him to actualize his goal of reaching the Holy Land: "I read the letter again, from beginning to end. I reread it several times until I've memorized it. Miriam's words rekindle my hope and refresh me. It's the only beautiful thing that I've experienced in the midst of so much darkness" (75).
The story culminates with a harmonious ending, as Rafael and Miriam settle themselves in the city of Safed with other Sephardic exiled families, though not without experiencing several sad episodes that take them through France, Germany, Italy and Turkey. The protagonist and his beloved Miriam, like a hatan [groom] and a kalah [bride], join together under the lyrics of L'cha Dodi [‘Come my Beloved'] after accomplishing their dream of reaching Zion, where they can achieve happiness without the threat experienced in their former homeland from their religious enemies. Seymour Menton's translation manages to condense Muñiz Huberman's poetic prose, spiritual quotations and complex characters who suffer and fight for survival and self-reassurance in an abbreviated English edition, describing a fascinating journey through the mind and soul of a young émigré who, like the author, finds himself in a world of difficult perils and challenges, but who through faith and commitment reaches a hoped-for outcome.
McGahan, Michael. "Is There a Hidden Jewish Meaning in Don Quixote"? Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 2.1 (2004): 173-88. Print.
Menton, Seymour. Latin America's New Historical Novel. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993. Print.
1. Dr. Seymour Menton is Professor Emeritus of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of California Irving. A specialist in the Latin American short story and novel, Menton has published eighty four articles, eighty four reviews and fourteen other books and translations.
2. Born in Hyères, France, in 1936, Angelina's parents were Republican supporters during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and were forced to leave for Cuba, where she resided for part of her childhood until making her way to Mexico in 1942. When Angelina was still a young girl, her mother revealed to her that she had Sephardic roots. Following the discovery of her ancestral origins, she undertook the study of Judaism and eventually underwent a formal conversion. Her literary production includes poetry, essays and fiction, with the theme of exile being her main literary topic. She inaugurated the neo-historical novel in the Mexican letters with her book Morada interior (1972). This endeavor also represented her first novel on Crypto-Judaism and Sephardic mysticism. Her works have been translated into English, French, Italian and Hebrew. Muñiz-Huberman also teaches Comparative Literature at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM).
David Navarro is a Lecturer in Spanish at the University of Dayton, Ohio, USA.