The Canadian Jewish fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay recently published his fourteenth novel. In an essay on Kay’s oeuvre, Michael Weingrad notes many Jewish themes and occasional Jewish characters. These perhaps appear most explicitly in two of his books, which, like several others, are set in fictionalized versions of historical settings:
Kay makes use of a good deal of Jewish history in some of these novels, especially The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), which is based in 11th- and 12th-century Spain and focuses on the interaction among Jews, Muslims, and Christians. He cites the great historian [of medieval Egyptian Jewry] S.D. Goitein in his acknowledgments, and, in the course of the novel, he quotes poems from the corpus of medieval Hebrew verse.
One notices that, unlike historical Jews, Kay’s Kindath, [the Jewish-like religious group in the novel’s world], have no concept of a Zion from which they came and to which they might one day return (or even visit as pilgrims). . . . So, while Kay draws from many of the rich, diasporic aspects of Iberian Jewish culture, a figure such as Judah Halevi, the great Hebrew poet of medieval Spain who yearned for Zion, is not included. Tellingly, the center of Kindath culture is seemingly modeled on Ottoman Salonica, not Jerusalem.
[By contrast], his earlier novel Tigana (1990) is haunted by a Zionism that never becomes explicit. . . . The setting resembles fractious 16th-century Italy, though in this case one of the conquerors of the novel’s peninsula is a powerful sorcerer. In retaliation for the death of his son in battle against the rebellious republic of Tigana, this despot uses his magic not only to crush the population’s resistance but to eradicate its very name and memory. Only the survivors of the rebellion can recall their country. A spell prevents anyone else from believing that there ever was such a place as Tigana, which has been renamed after a rival state.
Does this not call to mind—despite its absence from Kay’s Afterword, [which notes several other historical events]—the Roman renaming of conquered Judea as “Palestine,” after the ancient Philistines? It may be going too far to suggest that Dianora, a woman from Tigana who winds up falling in love with her people’s enemy, has a name that sounds, appropriately, like the term for the dispersion of the Jews. But it does seem less than coincidental that the name of Devin Bar Garin, another of the Tiganans who awakens to his country’s erased history, recalls the first prime minister of Israel.
Much as the magic spell forces the people of Tigana to remain silent about their identity, [however], Kay remains silent about the concern with Jewish memory and identity that informs the thematic substratum of the novel.