Book Review: “The Prophet of the Andes,” by Graciela Mochofsky – The New York Times

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“The Prophet of the Andes” tells the story of Segundo Villanueva, a quixotic spiritual seeker who led hundreds of followers from Peru to Israel.
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THE PROPHET OF THE ANDES: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land, by Graciela Mochkofsky. Translated by Lisa Dillman.
The words “Peru” and “spiritual journey” have taken on certain connotations in the era of hallucinogenic tourism. But decades before the Amazon became a destination for disaffected millennials to confront their demons on all-inclusive plant medicine retreats, it was a place to test one’s faith — and the site of one man’s all-consuming search for understanding, for truth and, eventually, for salvation in a holy land halfway around the world.
The story is about faith, but more than that, it is about questioning. The man at its center, Segundo Villanueva, spent a lifetime in study, reading and arguing about the Bible, forever hoping to discern the authentic voice of God. His desire to uncover the truth — a truth that he believed had been obscured by centuries of misinterpretation and guarded by worldly, corrupt men of the cloth — is in some ways reminiscent of the cultural conspiracies that roil our contemporary politics. Where knowledge seems to be hidden, men will drive themselves mad trying to find it.
Graciela Mochkofsky first stumbled across references to Villanueva in 2003. “After many years of suffering and persecution,” Mochkofsky writes in the introduction, “Villanueva had amassed hundreds of followers who considered him a prophet. They all converted to Judaism and migrated to Israel.” Her book both documents and contextualizes Villanueva’s spiritual journey against the backdrop of Peru’s religious and political history.
As she was to learn, the truth about Villanueva was dark and complicated. He was 21 when he found a Bible hidden deep in a trunk that belonged to his late father — and, in its pages, found himself. Miraculous though it was, the land of Canaan sounded familiar to Villanueva, “full of donkeys and goats, roast lamb, udders and milk, crops harvested or ruined. The people there concocted the same petty schemes, found themselves in the same absurd predicaments.”
A self-taught biblical scholar, Villanueva was endlessly intrigued by the moral road map of the Bible, and frustrated by the contradictions he saw between its straightforward commandments and the practices of the Catholic Church he knew. The book depicts a sort of spiritual adolescence, a trying-on of identities: Catholic, Calvinist, Pentecostal, Adventist. At every turn, Villanueva was a thorn in the side of priests and preachers, who were initially impressed then increasingly irritated by his relentless questioning. What did God want of them? Should they become vegetarians? Change their names? When the Bible commanded circumcision, was that a metaphorical edict or a literal one?
Villanueva’s thirst — for guidance, for structure, for the knowledge and freedom to follow God’s true path — inspired him to found his own church in the Amazon (where he was shot and nearly killed by a local guide). But his great epiphany came in the late 1960s, when a quest to read the Bible in the original Hebrew led him to Lima’s small, closely guarded Jewish community. The rabbi presented him with a children’s book titled “Jewish Traditions and Customs,” intended to discourage Villanueva from any notion of converting: “The book would make clear who was Jewish and who was not, why a highland Peruvian, a cholo, was not, and could not be, Jewish,” Mochkofsky writes.
But when Villanueva opened the book, what he found was a revelation. It described precisely the way he and his followers were already living, and he arrived home delighted, the mystery solved at last. Guess what, he told his congregation: They were Jewish! They’d been Jews all along!
The nature of Jewish identity has become no less fraught since then. Is it a matter of bloodlines? Tradition? Observance? Faith? But Villanueva was neither aware of nor interested in religious gatekeeping, and this book is strongest — and most human — in these moments when he barrels forward, certain that he’s finally figured it all out. In one memorable scene, Villanueva and his congregation return to the rabbi in search of circumcision (not the metaphorical kind) but are turned away; their only other option is a surgeon who will perform the procedure for the hefty sum of $60 apiece. One imagines that many men would simply (and perhaps relievedly) abandon the enterprise at this point, but Villanueva would not be deterred: Three years later, he and a dozen followers were back with cash in hand.
But these moments are few and far between. This story is sprawling, multigenerational, the stuff of a Cecil B. DeMille epic; its settings range from dirt roads high in the mountains where the air is too thin to breathe to fecund rainforests to the war-torn West Bank, where Villanueva and his congregation ultimately settle. And like any epic, it often lacks intimacy; we get to know Villanueva as a student, a teacher and a prophet, but not so much as a father, a husband or a man. Mochkofsky is no doubt aware of this; an endnote laments the “preponderance of male voices in this book,” a hazard of the decision to focus her narrative on the part of Villanueva’s life and community that largely excluded women. Even more unfortunate is that Villanueva’s voice is not among those featured. By the time Mochkofsky connected with him in 2005, he was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease; the afterword notes regretfully that “our awkward exchange could not be described as an interview.” And Mochkofsky’s text, originally written in Spanish, seems to have lost lyricism in the sometimes awkward translation.
The most notable exclusion, however, is not a person, but an event: Here is a story of Jewish faith in which the Holocaust plays no part whatsoever. It is, Mochkofsky writes, “a Judaism with no past and no tradition, with no memory of persecution, the Holocaust or the struggles for Zionism” — and yet the narrative of displacement is no less compelling for it. The Peruvian converts were fleeing not persecution or pogroms but abject poverty, fueled by government corruption. When emissaries from Israel visited Villanueva’s congregation, they were aghast at the barrenness of the place: dirt floors, no plumbing, a windowless, roofless temple lit by candles. Israel was no less of a beacon to these newly minted Jews. They, too, bore a brutal legacy: of colonialism, the Spanish arriving in Peru to conquer, to kill and to convert the local population by force.
Many of Villanueva’s followers remain in Israel today, but Villanueva did not find peace there. The rabbis, it turned out, were as fallible as any other leaders, prone to conflicting interpretations of the Torah. His insistence on continuing to ask questions made Villanueva a nuisance there as he had always been, everywhere. And so this is, ultimately, a story of a journey without a destination — and Villanueva less a messianic or prophetic figure than a tragic one. A restless, homeless, helpless searcher who seeks endlessly without finding, sows continually without reaping, and dies with his mind, and his memory, in tatters. In the Old Testament, this is Cain’s fate; in Coleridge, the Ancient Mariner’s. But when we encounter this man in folklore, he’s known by another, more familiar name: the Wandering Jew.
Kat Rosenfield is a culture writer, a columnist at Unherd and the author of four novels, including the Edgar-nominated “No One Will Miss Her.” Her next book, “You Must Remember This,” will be published in January.
THE PROPHET OF THE ANDES: An Unlikely Journey to the Promised Land, by Graciela Mochkofsky | Translated by Lisa Dillman | 272 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $30


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