written by Ilan Stavans
illustrated by Steve Sheinkin
“You have an annoying habit of confusing literature with life, Stavans,” a colleague tells Ilan Stavans midway through the wildly captivating and fun El Iluminado. He’s speaking to the character of Ilan, but it’s a knowing wink to the reader, who may have noticed that the writer of this tale shares the name of the protagonist. Actually, they have a lot in common: Like his leading man, writer Ilan Stavans is a professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College and an expert on the culture of the Crypto-Jew (families of Jewish peoples who have hidden their religious identities for centuries, usually to avoid persecution or even death).
The fictional Stavans makes a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to be a guest lecturer and then hopefully take in an opera (a production of Life Is a Dream by Pedro Calderon de la Barca). But his plans are upset when he gets embroiled in a Da Vinci Code-like mystery involving modern Crypto-Jews. It begins with the death of a young man named Rolando. His cousin enlists Stavans’ help to track down the real cause of his death (and the person or persons behind it).
That leads to even greater intrigue and mystery. Most of it is good fun, and Stavans (the real one) delights in spilling Santa Fe’s wonderfully interesting secrets. It is, as he points out via a Jeopardy! question that plays in the background in a panel, the United States’ oldest capital city…and that comes with a lot of history. Stavans takes great delight in mining it.