Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz

Ok, wow. This book was amazing. It chronicles the true story of the conquest of Mexico as told by Bernal Díaz, who traveled with and fought beside Hernando Cortes in 1519. Rarely—well, never before—have I read a work of non-fiction with the same avid interest as I would a work of fiction. I literally could not put this book down. The story was interesting from beginning to end and there were many points where I just had to set it down, look at Don and say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” He probably got tired of me reading him passages. There were even points where I gasped in astonishment and the kids would look at me and ask, “What’s wrong, mom?” That kind of a book.
Díaz is a good story teller and seems to represent multiple sides with fairness. Cortes comes across as both a man of mythic bravery and wisdom, but also as a man who reserves most of the gold and women for himself. Montezuma is portrayed as both bloodthirsty and backstabbing, while at the same time intelligent and endearing. And La Malinche, the Indian woman who is fluent in both the language of Tenochtitlan and Vera Cruz and who serves as Cortes’ interpreter, to me is the most interesting of all. When I spoke to a friend of mine about La Malinche, who I had never heard of in any of my high school or college history classes, she immediately knew who I was talking about and said she was looked on as a traitor by many Mexicans. This is a completely different viewpoint than is represented in this book, but I am interested in reading other material about her and the conquest.

One of the other things I liked about this book was that Díaz interspersed it with interesting anecdotes. There is one point where he tells of how Cortez stepped off their boat and lost his sandal in the mud, so he had to fight with one bare foot. Díaz later says the sandal was recovered. I found myself wondering how that story made it into the memoir, but it is stories like this that make this book so much more than a history text. As W.H. Prescott said in The Conquest of Mexico, “[Bernal Díaz] introduces us into the heart of the camp, we huddle around the bivouac with the soldiers, loiter with them on their wearisome marches, listen to their hopes, their triumphs, their disappointments. All the picturesque scenes and romantic incidences of the campaign are reflected in his page as in a mirror."

So, in contrast to the last book I read on the Aztecs, this one is much less textbook and much more readable. I would have liked to read this in a college class.


Unknown said...

I actually heard a really interesting essay by a hispanic cultural historian, talking about how the view of women in Mexican culture is different from the view of women in Spanish culture, talking about how on the one hand there was the image of La Malinche, the whore-traitor, and on the other the Virgin of Guadalupe, the virgin-protectress. It was an interesting, if somewhat overly simplistic essay. But then, in 30 seconds on the radio, you know...

Anonymous said...

Yes, the whore-traitor idea--I can see where they get that, but again, her position wasn't really her fault. Even before she was given to the Spanish, her own parents had given her to an indian tribe, who had given her to another tribe. She did bear Cortes a son, and he married her off to another of his captains. Apparently she willingly joined their side as a translator, but given the atrocities being committed by the Aztecs at the time, I can't say that I blame her. She is a very interesting, complex character to me, and I'm interested in writing about her.

On the other side, you have Cortes and his men, who, at the same time that they are setting up the image of the Virgin in each town and preaching Christianity, they are willingly accepting, or actively taking many Indian women as slaves/mistresses. It's a strange kind of hypocrisy.

Amanda said...

sounds interesting. Maybe I'll have to borrow it sometime. This is the one you were waiting on from Amazon, right?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, this is the one. I think the next one I need to order is Cortes' Letters to Charles V, which is his actual correspondence regarding the campaign.

It's interesting that this book was written at the same time, basically, as Don Quixote, which seems much more archaic. The translators may have something to do with the difference in style.