Miguel Delibes’ The Heretic culminates a long and acclaimed literary career. This novel about Reformers in the 16th century has been well received internationally and earned Delibes – at eighty years of age – the Premio Nacional de Narrativa, Spain’s most distinguished literary prize. In many ways, the novel is worthy of such praise. It offers a painstakingly detailed depiction of life in Spain during the final years of Charles V’s reign, in particular life in Delibes’ native city of Valladolid. The author’s keen eye for the nuances of everyday existence, as well as his wealth of knowledge about the city itself and its mercantile affairs, transports the reader back to an era when enterprising men made fortunes from commerce with fleece, and when the Holy Inquisition could, and often did, burn men for their religious beliefs. Likewise, in the character of Cipriano Salcedo, a “small man with hairy hands” whose earnest quest for solidarity with God leads him into Lutheran doctrine and tragedy, Delibes has constructed a likeable ordinary hero through which to explore the timeless themes of innocence and intolerance.
This is complex terrain for any novelist, however, even one as accomplished as Delibes, and unfortunately The Heretic falters in those areas that most often matter to readers of today’s historical fiction: dialogue and action. Written in a direct narrative style that does little to enliven the grave subject matter, with the exception of Salcedo’s odd childhood and his tempestuous marriage to a statuesque but unstable sheep-shearer, there isn’t much in the way of the personal to engage us. Indeed, much as we want to care, once calamity strikes the Protestant conclave of Valladolid, we are left feeling a bit empty and in need of more to sustain us, much like Salcedo himself – which, perhaps, was Delibes’ intention all along.