How I Came to Write "Guardian of the Dawn"

5 November 2010

In Portugal, where I live, people generally speak in glowing terms of The Golden Age of Goa. It was then, during the latter half of the 16th century, that a fabulously lucrative spice trade turned a sleepy, palm-shaded Indian port into a world-renowned, multi-cultural city of elegant palaces, churches, gardens, and markets. Yet on reading about this legendary colony, I soon discovered a far darker side to the story…
   Shortly after Portuguese troops conquered Goa from the Sultan of Bijapur in 1510, they began forcing the tens of thousands of Hindu residents to convert to Christianity. In 1540, during a wave of fanaticism, they destroyed 300 Hindu temples, many of them built in ancient times. Then, in 1545, a Spanish Jesuit missionary named Francis Xavier petitioned the Portuguese Crown to establish the Inquisition. Once the king’s approval had been secured, the former Hindu population of Goa, as well as the hundreds of secret Jews living there, found themselves at the complete mercy of the Church. Simply keeping a statue of Shiva in a family shrine, or whispering a Hebrew prayer over the grave of a loved one, became a serious criminal offence. Those discovered to be practicing their old beliefs in secret were summarily arrested and tortured in dungeons, kept in shackles by priests hoping to force them to divulge the names of friends and family members who had joined them in their ‘heretical’ practices.
Prisoners who refused to identify others or give up their beliefs in Hindu or Jewish ‘sorcery’ were strangled by executioners or burnt alive in public Acts of Faith – from 1560 all the way up to 1812, when the Inquisition was finally abolished.
As a writer, I’ve always been very interested in exposing instances of injustice that other people would prefer to forget, and as soon as I read about this neglected period of unrelenting persecution, I realized I wanted to make it the background for a new volume of my Sephardic Cycle, a series of independent historical novels about different branches and generations of a Portuguese Jewish family named Zarco. The first two novels in this cycle are ‘The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon’ and ‘Hunting Midnight’, both international bestsellers.
I felt particularly inspired (and angered!) upon learning that Francis Xavier, the fanatical priest ultimately responsible for the torture of tens of thousands of Hindus and Jews, had been canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622. As far as I know, he remains the patron saint of all the missions of the Catholic Church.
   Even though victims of persecution were only ever given their freedom on the condition that they never reveal what they’d suffered while in prison, a few courageous men and women dared to write about their experiences – sometimes in excruciating detail – and I was soon able to obtain copies of their narratives. These texts enabled me to accurately describe the workings of the Inquisition and helped me to give emotional depth to the characters in my book who suffer at the hands of the Church – Tiago and Berekiah Zarco, as well as Phanishwar Bakliwal. They also filled me with admiration for the authors and instilled in me an urgent desire to give greater voice to their bravery.
   One other important facet to the book I should speak about…

A few years before reading about Goa, I had an idea for a novel that would be a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’, in the tradition of Jane Smiley’s ‘A Thousand Acres’(which reworked ‘King Lear’) and Jean Rhys’ ‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ (which explored some unresolved mysteries in ‘Jane Eyre’).
   What I wanted to do was take Iago and Othello back to an earlier time when – inside my fictional narrative – they were childhood companions. I felt excited about this idea because it had always seemed to me that the reasons given by Shakespeare for Iago’s vicious hatred of Othello were flimsy at best.
   What had truly caused the rupture between the two men?
I speculated that it was something traumatic that had happened during their youth, long before the action of Shakespeare’s play. Maybe Iago came to seek his Moorish friend’s destruction because of a betrayal he could never forgive – something so terrible that it even justified murder.
   As I considered the possibilities for this book, I saw that – more than anything else – I wanted to discover why Iago had embraced evil. Understanding the nature of evil – and its allure – has always seemed essential to me, maybe because my central reference point for modern history has always been the Holocaust.
   Then came my discovery of the Goa Inquisition, and I realized that I had found the perfect setting for my reinterpretation of Shakespeare. Here was a time and place of wealth and glory, but also of suspicion, fear, cruelty, and vengeance. Here, I would be able to submerge my reinvented ‘Othello’ inside a dramatic story that would interest readers whether or not they had ever seen or read the Shakespeare play. And here, placing my imagination inside a time of merciless religious persecution, I might be able to write something important about the nature of evil and its consequences.

Michael Fieni