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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Heretic

Miguel Delibes

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Heretic

Title: The Heretic
Author: Miguel Delibes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1998 (Eng. 2006)
Length: 350 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Heretic - US
El hereje - US
The Heretic - UK
The Heretic - Canada
L'hérétique - France
Der Ketzer - Deutschland
  • A Novel of the Inquisition
  • Spanish title: El hereje
  • Translated by Alfred MacAdam

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Our Assessment:

A- : appealing life-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 13/11/1999 .
FAZ . 14/11/2000 Andreas Kilb
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 2/9/2000 Hans-Jörg Neuschäfer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/6/2006 Alison McCulloch
Die Welt . 16/9/2000 Martin Ebel
World Lit. Today . Winter/2000 David Ross Gerling

  From the Reviews:
  • "The novel is astonishing for its quirky vitality. This is less a novel of ideas than an extraordinarily imaginative evocation of provincial life in a past age." - The Economist

  • "Dies alles könnte sehr bewegend sein, wenn es bewegend erzählt wäre. Aber Delibes, der in Spanien für seine "Sprache aus Gold" verehrt wird, schreibt einen kargen, knarrenden Stil, der nicht selten die Grenze zur Platitüde überschreitet." - Andreas Kilb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "(T)he awkwardness makes way for an engaging account of the lives, loves and fate of the wealthy Salcedo family (.....) The delight here is in the detail of Spanish life, particularly of Valladolid" - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Delibes gelingt es, seinen Figuren über viereinhalb Jahrhunderte hinweg nahe zu kommen, ohne je aufdringlich zu werden. Bei all dem wahrt er einen ruhigen, gelassenen Ton, der kongenial zum Stoizismus seines Titelhelden passt." - Martin Ebel, Die Welt

  • "Considering the quasi-cinemagical imagery that holds us spellbound page after page, it is easy to overlook the fact that Delibes not only does not fear the monumental implication of his subject but delights in making it accessible at a personal level. (...) The most gratifying aspect of the story, however, for this reviewer, is the author's rendering of past customs and events from our vantage point. While Delibes scrupulously avoids reverse anachronism, he delicately reinterprets the past without stripping it of its character and impact. (...) Even by the Olympian standards of Delibes's earlier novels, El hereje is a milestone." - David Ross Gerling, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title of the novel suggests -- and the English subtitle reinforces the idea -- that The Heretic is very much A Novel of the Inquisition. An opening Prelude, set in 1557, which has the title character, Cipriano Salcedo, travelling back to Spain with outlawed books (Luther, Melanchthon, Erasmus, the Bible) as the Inquisition rages certainly offers that but the book quickly jumps back in time, and it's many pages before heresy and the Inquisition are again at the forefront. This is very much a life-story, following the life and career of Cipriano from birth to death, and his role as a heretic truly only comes to the fore in the final section and chapters.
       The Heretic is a three-part novel, beginning with 'The Early Years'. Over a hundred pages long, this part of the book only covers Cipriano's childhood and early teen years. The second part, 'The Heresy', jumps ahead to when Cipriano has completed his studies and begins his career as a very successful businessman. Even here, the heresy is slow in coming. Only in the final part, 'The Auto-da-fé' does everything come to a head -- and go up in flames.
       The novel is dedicated: "To Valladolid, my city", and much of its success comes from Delibes' devotion to detail and affection for his protagonist, and the (physical) environment he grows up in. Valladolid and the surrounding area are lovingly and evocatively described in the book, and Delibes artfully uses the changes and growth of the city in the narrative; throughout, Valladolid is an integral part of the novel.
       Cipriano's mother dies at his birth, and it's something his father, Bernardo, decides he can never forgive him for. Bernardo is immensely unlikable, wonderfully portrayed as trying out various poses after his wife's death to see which best fits him, and then playing the part to the hilt. Fortunately, Cipriano's wet-nurse, Minervina -- a young teenager who had lost her own child --, is a loving caregiver and protector, the mother-figure he needs.
       The family dynamics are very nicely handled: Bernardo has chosen to dislike his infant son, tolerating him only out of a sense of paternal obligation -- and Cipriano returns the favour by always wailing when he is in his presence. Meanwhile, Bernardo also lusts after Minervina, and his attempts to spy on and seduce her are very nicely presented. Bernardo's coldness towards his son gets worse as the child grows up, and despite having the wherewithal to send him to a fine school he dumps him in a boarding school for foundlings, where the boy won't even come home for vacations.
       It was Minervina that taught Cipriano his first lessons. For her: "learning to read and write was the equivalent of learning doctrine", and despite her own limited education she does her best to set Cipriano down the proper path. It doesn't quite work -- the small child doesn't really understand or appreciate the use of the catechism and the rest, but he does aim to please. Still, from the first, his embrace of religion isn't wholehearted but rather slightly sceptical.
       Once he has finished his studies Cipriano takes over his (by then dead) father's business, and becomes a successful entrepeneur. Here and later Delibes uses him as a case-study of the changing economic and business-environment in the Spain of that time, the sort of historical colour that helps add texture to the novel without ever sounding too much like it's pieced together from a textbook. (Years later, Cipriano wants to increase what amounts to the minimum wage of his workers, but learns quickly that his unilateral act would do greater harm to the larger community than the gains it would offer to the select few.)
       Cipriano also marries -- the slight, small man taken by the physically at least relatively overwhelming Teodorima, known as 'the Queen of Páramo' for her remarkable sheep-shearing abilities ("she could shear a hundred sheep in under a day"). It's an odd but plausible relationship, eventually shattering over their inability to conceive a child.
       Business and, for a while, domestic life, satisfy Cipriano, but this is also a world in which religion -- and dogmatic hegemony -- are being challenged. The most obvious challenge is far away: Luther, Calvin, and the like. That he is destined to get mixed up with all that is also made clear from early on, as Cipriano even notes that he was born on the same day as the Reformation:

     "I mean I was born in Valladolid at the same time Luther was nailing his these to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg."
       Delibes forces the connexion; in part, The Heretic is obviously an attempt to describe the effects of the Reformation in this different culture. In Cipriano's Spain there is even less openness -- but change is in the air, and the questioning of doctrine inevitable. It takes Cipriano a while before he is receptive to the challenges, but ultimately he is convinced. As someone tells him:
"The Church needs a reform, and no opinion is out of order in these circumstances."
       With the crack-down of the Inquisition it, of course, turns out that lots of opinions are considered out of order -- at least by the near all-powerful authorities. Cipriano finds the faith that he believes in, but at considerable cost. In the final section Delibes nicely presents the fatalistic outlook -- and the bizarre near-normality of the proceedings -- in the face of the outrageous suppression of any thought inimical to the prevailing doctrine. The argument here is not so much that Cipriano has made a superior choice, but that those in power have abused it -- much like, for example, the Soviet show-trials of the 20th century.
       Cipriano is an interesting character, marked less by his father's mistreatment than the loss of his one true love, Minervina. Their relationship -- a striking variation on the Oedipal theme -- is torn asunder relatively early on, and he is unable to find Minervina again until near the end of his life. At times one suspects he married Teodorima simply in the hopes of literally being overwhelmed by her, but he's a scrappy little guy and for a while the mismatched couple make it work. But without Minervina he can never be whole; hence also, perhaps, his abandoning of worldly things and descent into the opacity of religion, which he can convince himself is meaningful.
       More than anything, The Heretic is a good story, and it's well told. While the signs (particularly Cipriano's birth-date) are ominous, Delibes doesn't bog down the narrative with a particular message, or theology (or history): the character is central, and he gives him time to find his way. The book isn't truly surprising, but it is also far from predictable, a confident writer taking his time -- while keeping the reader in suspense -- in leading to his conclusions. Worthwhile.

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The Heretic: Reviews: Miguel Delibes: Other books by Miguel Delibes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Miguel Delibes was born in 1920 and died in 2010.

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© 2006-2010 the complete review

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