The Hand of Fatima
By: Ildefonso Falcones
Format/Source: Mass bound paperback; my purchase
1564, Granada. The Moors have unsuccessfully tried to rise up against their Christian oppressors and the town has been painted with the blood of their victims. Hernando, a young Arab with a Christian father, is despised by the townsfolk and by his own step-father for his ‘tainted’ heritage and is banished to live in the stables. Hernando finds comfort in his affinity with the horses and becomes an expert muleteer. News of his special touch reaches the King of the Moors and he is appointed to fight the Christian troops sent by the Spanish King Philip II. There he meets Fatima, a young girl with black eyes who will become the love of his life. But his step-father cruelly marries her instead and forces Hernando into slavery. With the help of his Christian friends, he hatches a grand plan to reconcile the two warring faiths – and the two halves of his identity…
I finally got around to reading this book! It had been sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read, for a few years now. (loved Cathedral of the Sea and waited forever for this novel to be translated and available)..I suppose I kept putting it off in part because it doesn’t look like his third novel is going to be translated any time soon (Edit: Correction), plus this book is massive (over 900+ pages long…in mass bound paperback O_o It’s so big that it actually weighs down my book bag; everything else is seemingly lighter than it). In the end I decided to read it, particularly during my subway rides to and from class as it seemed like the best time to read it.
This book is part of the Everything Espana Reading Challenge 2014 that I am participating in.
Okay, so I think the novel does a good job in protraying the period with all of its difficulties; it really feels like the reader has been transported to medieval Spain, complete with the intolerance between cultures and religions and the conservative practices. What’s especially interesting about this novel is that it doesn’t feel very Spanish either; granted, any notion of national identity and the concept of Spain as a nation-state did not exist at this time but other than a few names and places mentioned, it doesn’t feel like you’re reading a book set in the geographical region either. It’s a very curious experience.
As for the story itself, it moves exceedingly slowly; I really felt that the story could have been condensed, details of his life left to the larger events than the day to day dread. Hernando’s journey was reminiscent of Arnau from Cathedral of the Sea; lots of hardship, lots of crappy things happening to him back-to-back. I understand that life was very difficult back in the medieval period, but Hernando just could not catch a break, and the fact that he was the product of both religious cultures–to varying degrees though–just made life even worse for him. He is never one or the other, and the people around him expect him to choose sides, but the poor guy just wants to do what’s right, and often what’s compassionate, for the fellow person next to him, but ideologies and expectations continue to plague him. I felt really bad for him as people whom he love also turn away to varying degree…The book is hard to read not only because it’s dense, but because it’s such a downer.
Overall, The Hand of Fatima was a rather disappointing and exhausting read; I was very close to giving up on this book but I just wanted to know whether Hernando and the people in his lives were going to end up marginally okay so in the end I ended up skimming the latter half. I do commend the author for really paying attention to the detail of medieval southern Spain and all of its social, cultural, and political structures and workings, but it’s an exhausting read and there’s not much to keep the reader hanging on throughout so it got pretty dry, boring, and in the end quite tiring.