Had she lived to finish the third instalment of the Grazia dei Rossi trilogy that she envisioned and undertook, Jacqueline Park would have celebrated with a well-deserved sense of artistic literary achievement.
Alas, Park died on Jan. 27, 2018. The task of completing the third work, Son of Two Fathers, fell to her friend and colleague, Gilbert Reid. The co-authored work is a deeply satisfying conclusion to the writing that Park began more than two decades earlier.
Son of Two Fathers is a colourful, action-filled tale that spans the years from 1536 to 1542. Within that timespan, the authors deftly sweep across large-scale events and developments. There are political intrigues among the ruling classes of various Italian city-states, simmering, violent conflicts within the intra-Christian Catholic-Protestant schism, fierce geo-political and military competition between European Christianity and Ottoman Islam, and of course, the horrific scapegoating and persecution of Jews by the Inquisition.
The truly shining filaments of the novel, however, are the eventful personal dramas of Danilo del Medigo and a core of key individuals that thread their memorable paths through the epic events dangerously unfolding all around them. Del Medigo, of course, is Grazia dei Rossi’s son. We met him in The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi, the first volume of Park’s literary triptych. We read of his coming of age in the second volume, The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi.
Son of Two Fathers begins with Danilo’s arrival in Venice. He is trying to evade Turkish assassins sent by the sultan’s wife as a result of a false accusation leveled against Danilo by a powerful man in Istanbul. The assassins are only the first of many sinister pursuers whom Danilo must avoid.
Danilo is a gifted young man. Like young Moses raised in Pharaoh’s court, Danilo has received the age’s finest education in the sultan’s court. To his impressive substantive knowledge and his considerable skills, Danilo also brings the integrity, analytical heft and intellectual curiosity of the father who raised him, Judah del Medigo and the swashbuckling warrior disposition of the father, Pirro Gonzaga, whose genetics are imprinted into his soul.
Danilo is a strong, forceful, complicated character. But he is not the dominant character in the book, nor even the main character. He shares the stage, so to speak, with a number of equally strong, exciting, resolute, courageous women who also dare to effect their own destinies. Indeed, despite its title, Son of Two Fathers is as much about the strength and wisdom of women as it is about him.
This is deliberate, and was Park’s clear intention from the very outset of the project she began with The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. In an interview with The CJN in December 2014, Park explained that Grazia was the literary incarnation of Pacienza Pontremoli who lived in the early 16th century. The young Jewish Pontremoli resisted the insistent urging by the aristocratic Isabela Gonzaga d’Este, the Marchesa of Mantua, to convert to Christianity. Park was so impressed by Pontremoli’s unwavering loyalty to her people and her faith and by her sheer audacity that she made the young woman the model for Grazia dei Rossi.
Grazia dei Rossi is a fictional character. But a historically real Gracia does exist in the novel. Dona Gracia Nasi was the Jewish name for Beatrice De Luna, a New Christian who headed the Mendes Bank in Europe and ultimately in Istanbul too. Nasi established a secret network of agents who rescued thousands of Jews and New Christians from the fires of the Inquisition. Her humanity and bravery provide the overarching context for the urgency and high drama that drives much of the story’s action.
Nasi (Beatrice de Luna) actually appears in only one scene. But other women of considerable humanity, idealism and courage play pivotal roles in helping Danilo navigate through the ubiquitous treachery, intrigue, deceit and violence.
Son of Two Fathers offers readers a great deal. It has many thrilling moments laden with suspense, scalding tension, and unpredicted twists and turns of plot. It also provides thoughtful explorations and mini-dissertations on subjects as diverse as visual art, theater art, philosophy, political history, and Jewish history. Readers interested in history will enjoy this book. Readers interested in Jewish history will delight in it.
One of the book’s many gripping, suspenseful scenes occurs as a Franciscan friar incites a group of ordinary men and women into becoming a threatening mob about to set upon a small group of Jews out for an afternoon stroll. It is one of the authors’ many teaching points in the novel about fanaticism.
“Danilo calmly stared at the friar. The man was a fanatic. However intelligent, however knowledgeable, he would have no sense of honour, no decency, and no respect for persons or for truth. His self-righteousness would banish all doubt, all humanity. Such men would lie, would cheat and would murder – all for the Cause. An appeal to reason or to charity or to justice would be useless.”
Many of the inter-related storylines of Son of Two Fathers reverberate today within the walls of our modern societal structures. Of course this is what history – a factual accurate record of the past – is meant to achieve. It informs the present and enables policy makers to steer away from the crashing timbers of intolerance, xenophobia and radical self-interest.
Reid masterfully concludes Park’s worthy project. An accomplished writer, documentarian and author, he lived in Italy for some 24 years and was the director of the Canadian Cultural Centre in Rome when he met Park when she was researching the first Grazia novel.
He recently reflected on his contribution to the novel. “By going back into my own days, sunny days, foggy days, winter days, summer days, in Venice and Rome and in the Po Valley, or in Bologna or Florence or Milan, I was able, I hope, to realize Jackie’s vision for Son of Two Fathers, and to recreate the dynamism, heroism, romance, and passions of that wonderfully vibrant world of almost 500 years ago, a world which, essentially, gave birth to the world we live in today.