The Day of Atonement

  • Review
By – October 23, 2014

David Liss, author of A Con­spir­a­cy of Paper, The Cof­fee Trad­er, and oth­er high­ly regard­ed works of fic­tion, has writ­ten a grip­ping nov­el set in eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry Por­tu­gal. The pro­tag­o­nist, Sebastião Raposa, is a descen­dant of New Chris­tians who were forced to con­vert from Judaism in the late fif­teenth cen­tu­ry. Cen­turies lat­er, his par­ents are impris­oned and exe­cut­ed by the Inqui­si­tion under the accu­sa­tion of prac­tic­ing Judaism, and Raposa flees to Eng­land. There, he changes his name to Sebas­t­ian Foxx and con­verts to Judaism, an act of defi­ance moti­vat­ed by his hatred of the Inqui­si­tion. Soon after, Raposa returns to Lis­bon, deter­mined to take revenge on the priest respon­si­ble for the deaths of his par­ents. While in Lis­bon, he steals from thieves, exe­cutes cut­throats, and hunts down the man who mur­dered his parents.

As the sto­ry pro­gress­es, Raposa is drawn to the teach­ings of Judaism, par­tic­u­lar­ly the con­cept of atone­ment, which is man­i­fest­ed most notably on the Day of Atone­ment. On this day, indi­vid­u­als must seek for­give­ness from each oth­er pri­or to ask­ing it of God. This idea con­flicts with the assump­tion of the Chris­t­ian Inquisi­tors that the motives and remorse of the vic­tims of the Inqui­si­tion were irrel­e­vant, and that they must suf­fer for their sins. Raposa rec­og­nizes that the revenge he sought in Lis­bon had trans­formed him into a vio­lent and bit­ter vig­i­lante, and that in this way he was hard­ly bet­ter than the Inquisi­tors. Much of the nov­el is spent on Liss’s spec­u­la­tions on the nature of for­give­ness, the dif­fi­cul­ty of dis­tin­guish­ing between the wicked and the good, and the need to under­stand the motives of indi­vid­u­als before judg­ing their actions. Raposa ulti­mate­ly real­izes that while he may not always be able to con­trol his emo­tions, he is respon­si­ble for his actions, and must there­fore seek for­give­ness from those he had harmed through his vig­i­lan­tism; only after­ward can he rebuild a new life in Eng­land and leave his ani­mos­i­ty behind.

Read­ers grap­pling with the emo­tion­al and reli­gious aspects of their own iden­ti­ty will empathize with Raposa’s per­son­al strug­gles to over­come his fix­a­tion with his past, and will be fas­ci­nat­ed by Liss’s riv­et­ing ren­di­tion of eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Lis­bon caught in its medieval past at the onset of the mod­ern age.

Relat­ed content:

Edyt Dick­stein is a grad­u­ate of the Joseph Kush­n­er Hebrew Acad­e­my in Liv­ingston, NJ and is study­ing at Har­vard University.

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