Books: The Columbus Affair

I finished The Columbus Affair a few weeks ago, but decided to put off writing a blog post until today. I was busy, and anyway – today just seemed appropriate. I know, yesterday was October 12, but today is the official government holiday. And being an employee of a community college, I get those holidays off. So I have time to reflect back on what I learned about Columbus from reading this book.

It’s fiction, but it’s fiction that deals directly with mysteries surrounding Christopher Columbus. So there’s a fair amount of history related in the novel, as well as some segments of historical fiction where the events described elsewhere are actually taking place. While I was listening to the audiobook, I was skeptical about how much of it could really be historic fact as opposed to the creative output of author Steve Berry’s imagination.

But at the end, the Writer’s Note explains what is fact and what is fiction. And a surprising (to me, anyway) amount is fact. We certainly don’t know whether the central premise of the book is true, that Christopher Columbus was a Jew. But a number of supporting arguments are true, such as that there was no Catholic priest on Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, but there was a Hebrew translator. And that first voyage was financed, at least in part, by Jews.

My husband’s reaction, when he asked me what the book I was reading was about and I told him, was to be very skeptical of the whole idea. I had never heard of the suggestion that Columbus might have been a Jew either, and I found the idea intriguing but hardly convincing. Only when I had both read the Writer’s Note and read some articles on the internet (such as this one) did I realize that Berry was using the fruit of serious historical research as the framework for an entertaining mystery.

Since this is the first novel I’ve read by Berry, I can’t say how it compares with his others. Some fans of his Cotton Malone novels do not care for this one, which no doubt is quite different from what they’re used to. I have to agree with some that the storyline is rather far-fetched, more so, perhaps, than the inventive details added to what is known about Columbus. One character – the main villain – is really so “out there” that it strains credulity. And yet there certainly are extremists in real life who are probably no more extreme than Zachariah Simon.

It’s hard at first to come up with much sympathy for the protagonist, Tom Sagan, and even more so for his estranged daughter Alle. But over the course of the book they grew as characters – and they grew on me. I didn’t want them to get themselves into the trouble they kept getting into. But the twists and turns of their story made the miles between home and work fly by as I listened.

I’m not sure how much I could appreciate the descriptions of Vienna and Prague. I have visited neither city, though if I ever do have the opportunity to travel there I’d be interested in seeing the places described in the novel. I was better able to visualize the beauty of Jamaica, which I have never traveled to either, because the beauty described is mostly that of nature rather than architecture.

But it was the history that really intrigued me, especially for its connection with the Jewish people, and the references to Spain (which I have visited) and Spanish history (which I studied both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student). I knew some of the Jewish history related in the novel, though not the details about the Temple treasure. That the treasure could be hidden away in some cave in Jamaica seems highly improbable, but the high-stakes hunt for it made for a fascinating tale.

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