Rich details of the Barbaricini culture, and the Genargento Mountains in the Babargia, the most remote region of Sardinia in which they live, ground Mary Saracino’s novel in a very specific place. Saracino blends the research of an anthropologist with a gift for story-telling, rendering a sort of ethnographic fiction. The foundation of culture, topography, flora and fauna, and linguistic details is firmly based on fact but vividly realized in a story so beautifully and poetically written that the scholarship and data are effortlessly ingested, threaded through the book’s pages so naturally that the reader is caught up in the fictive moment as if surrounded by the wild mountains and centuries old holme oaks. Through her scrupulous research, Saracino brings to life a village of shepherds, basket makers, wild bee charmers, and deeply knowledgeable and intuitive folk healers.
In addition to its ethnographic focus, Saracino follows the example of Nobel Prize laureates and various respected scholars by placing her novel in a different time period, the 15th century, making Heretics a historical fiction. Events of the Spanish Inquisition, the violent imposition of Catholicism on Jews and Moors, and the suppression of indigenous spiritual and cultural practices provide a backdrop to her tale. Parts of the book occur in Spain, and in her descriptions she captures the politics, tastes and sights of Barcelona, as well as contrasting it with the Spanish colony in Sardinia.
The main characters in the book are majarzas, indigenous healers, a family of twin matriarchs, their daughter and granddaughters also marked to be folk healers, both by training and natural talent. These women, along with their husbands and the men and women their children marry, are the center of the story. Saracino creates credible, fully fleshed characters, redolent of shepherd cottages, unleavened bread, pungent pecorino cheeses, native distilled spirits, honey, wild flowers, and mountain air. While doing so, she catalogs the herbal pharmacopeia, herbs, plants, honey, bee venom, and how to use them. These twin matriarchs, Sarda and Shardana, are highly respected and influential in their village. Their skills have birthed every baby and healed every villager of ailments at one time or another. Likewise, their intuition and oracular dreams are considered authoritative.
While venerating the ages-old Black Madonna, Nostra Signora Nera, for which the empty Catholic church is named, the villagers have moved her statue to an ancient well, the Su Tempiezu. Nearby, the great Mother Oak sings to the plants and ensures good harvest, surrounded by wild flowers and a primordial forest filled with oak, cork, chestnut trees and medicinal plants that can be made into potions, dyes, and tonics. Sarda and Shardana, and many other villagers, still live and practice their traditional animistic ways, believing that all things–bees, flowers, trees, clouds, winds–have spirits, their own secret languages, and songs. They believe in the Dea Madre, the great mother god, and look to Her for succor and guidance.
When training her granddaughter, Martina, in the ways of majarzas, Shardana admonishes the child to ask permission of the plants before gathering their leaves or flowers or berries or plucking it from the ground.
Plants are as human as you or I. They have generous hearts. . . although you’re a human being, you’re not better than the herbs and roots, the berries and flowers we harvest. Or the bees. They’re equal to us in every way. They are our blood relatives.
To transcend scholarship and create literary fiction requires not only imagination and an eye for detail, but also narrative tension. The conflict in this book originates in its second major narrative theme, that of Father Antonio Albóndiga, a Spanish rogue priest, with a fanatic commitment to extirpating and confiscating the property of all Jews and Moors, whether converted to Catholicism or not, as well as torturing and killing people considered pagans or susceptible to being called a witch. Antonio is expelled from Spain for violence, licentiousness, and political missteps, despite a political connection to his hero and role model, Tomás de Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition, still notorious for torturing and murdering thousands of people, in alliance with Queen Isabella. Exiled to the Spanish colony in Sardinia, Antonio again becomes notorious for his lust, thievery, debauchery, murderous anger, fanaticism, and cruelty, which soon result in his further banishment to an idyllic, isolated community filled with nature loving villagers in the Barbagia, the most remote area of Sardinia, whose residents are the least assimilated into the culture of the Spanish invaders.
Again, Saracino’s scrupulous scholarship rewards the reader with historical fact, while the poetry of her fiction brings that history to life. Likewise, her keen insight into psychology and human nature makes her characters fully formed and complex. There are no stock characters, no caricatures. She provides insight into what in his personal history led to Antonio’s hate, intolerance, and extreme behaviors, which otherwise might damn him to complete darkness and evil in a less deft hand, and creates a smidgeon of sympathy for a frankly horrifying character. Every page he inhabits creates an expectation of some form of brutishness. Antonio, like so many violent and angry people, was subject to violence and horrors as a child. He also suffers debilitating migraines that seem to lead to violence.
By contrast, every page devoted to Sarda and Shardana and the pristine and peaceful mountain wilderness in which they live and practice their craft feels like a moment spent in idyllic contemplation of the beauty of existence, irrespective of hardships, visited upon people who live so close to nature and in harmony with their aboriginal ways. The contrast between the two narrative threads sets up the tension and conflict necessary to have effective fiction.
The subtitle of the book, “a love story,” creates ambiguity as to the nature of that romance and which characters might be parties. This is no formula romance novel. Saracino’s book is not a formula anything, not purely a historical fiction, definitely not a bodice ripper of the romance genre. Neither is it purely ethnography or historicity. She creates a full blown, credible reality.
The structure of the book replicates the society Saracino is depicting. Memories, interactions, scenes, descriptions, and dialogues cycle through the book, emulating the way the characters conceive of history spiraling, circling in on itself and repeating itself, more like the coils of one of the woven local baskets. To the villagers, history does not proceed in a linear fashion, and all actions must and do have consequences.
The hearts and the minds of the Barbaricini turned in a circular motion. Round and round, united as one, the head and the emotions maintained the unbroken connection between action and consequence.
Saracino uses linguistic code switching. Her English language narrative is embroidered with Spanish, Italian, and Sardinian, the latter language considered closer to Latin than to any other language, including Italian. As well, she uses the dialect of the mountain people, called Barbaricini because the Romans considered them to be barbarians, both for their primitive ways and for their accent.
As in all societies, the characters, particularly with the abbreviated life expectancy of the 15th century, must deal with death of family and community members.
They believe in the sanctity of water and stone, of blood and bone, of tears and laughter, immediate and intimate. Death and life were twins hovering over the shoulders of every man, woman, and child. Fate would deal with them what it chose, but in the end, the womb of Earth awaited every human . . . .
Saracino’s generosity and insight reveals much about the nature of mourning. The villagers have no expectation that grief will be brief, or even finite. Like memory, like history, like the seasons that controls their lives, grief cycles in and out of consciousness, unlike modern expectations that grief proceed in a linear way through a certain sequence of steps, preferably brief steps, at that. Debilitating sorrow for the loss of a loved one is depicted in this book as lasting even as long as a decade, with grief lasting a life time. The tolerance of such overwhelming sadness is truly beautiful, unlike today when a bereaved may be expected to cut grief very short, to get on with life, to quit wallowing in the self pity that some consider grief. In the end, however, we are told that mourners must release their sorrow “into the womb of the Mother.”
What this reader found most amazing is that a healing may occur merely from reading the descriptions of time spent in the forests and amidst the vegetation, and from the depiction of tolerance for the unfolding of human behaviors. Saracino’s words have the power to serve as balm on the reader’s personal pain, as surely as the characters’ physical and psychic distress are salved by the potions and elixirs Sarda and Shardana concoct from nature.