Closer to God

Adam Bradbury

  • 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile by Homero Aridjis, translated by Betty Ferber
    Deutsch, 284 pp, £14.99, October 1991, ISBN 0 233 98727 4
  • The Campaign by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Alfred Macadam
    Deutsch, 246 pp, £14.99, November 1991, ISBN 0 233 98726 6
  • The Penguin Book of Latin American Short Stories edited by Thomas Colchie
    Viking, 448 pp, £15.99, January 1992, ISBN 0 670 84299 0

‘Mexican literature will be great because it’s literature, not because it’s Mexican,’ yelled Angel in Carlos Fuentes’s magnificent dystopia, Christopher Unborn. We may be on dodgy ground, then, lumping together two Mexican novels – one about the South American uprising of 1810 and one about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain at the end of the 15th century – but for the fact that both try to explain something about how Mexico got where it is today.

Fishermen have threatened to kill Homero Aridjis. Last year, in the New York Times, he explained that, as head of the environmental lobby, the Group of 100, he has condemned the slaughter of dolphins in Mexican tuna nets. ‘Criticising the slaughter is unpatriotic,’ he wrote. ‘The dolphin, after all, has no country, belonging to itself alone and to the earth.’ Death threats for a lack of patriotism? It sounds a bit unlikely. There is, of course, another angle – money. Mexico’s tuna-catchers have already suffered a huge loss in exports since the imposition of an import ban by US authorities, and having a compatriot harpoon you from behind is certainly likely to rub salt into the wound. But patriotism is really not the point. That Aridjis thinks it is says something about his own preoccupations.

Having no country is the subject of his 1492: The Life and Times of Juan Cabezon of Castile, published in Mexico in 1985 and now translated into English. The quincentenary of the ‘discovery’ of the New World will be a mixed affair. 1492 was by any standards a remarkable year. Depending on your point of view, it was a triumph or a calamity. It was a good year for Spain’s Catholic monarchs, who crushed the Infidel at Granada and expelled the Jews from Spain before packing Columbus off to find a back route to India.

Americo Castro has said the picaresque was born of the ‘outsiderdom’ of the converso – the Jew converted to Catholicism – and Aridjis’s book trumpets its picaresque inheritance. Its hero Juan Cabezon is a descendent of Jews, born to a barber and a prostitute who both die violently when he is young, leaving him to the mercies of a blind converso, Pero Meñique. Pero’s cousin, Isabel de la Vega, a conversa, becomes pregnant by Juan. She is condemned to death by the Inquisition and goes into hiding; Juan’s dogged search for her (his second name means pig- or big-headed) keeps the novel coasting along to the gloomy climax at the port of Palos from where the last ship of Jewish exiles sets sail, followed within days by that of Columbus. Juan has an extended family of literary antecedents from El Lazarillo de Tormes and El Buscon through Moll Flanders to Ellison’s Invisible Man and Kafka’s Amerika, and his story is encrusted with many of the devices found in picaresque. Bawdy, scatological and satirical, it also shares some of the larger preoccupations of the genre – orphanage, exile, persecution and, crucially, the promise of a new start in a new land. This thorough literary breeding is complemented by plunder from historical documents. Drawing detail from contemporary descriptions of 15th-century Spain, the wickedness of the Inquisition, eyewitness accounts of the autos da fe, Aridjis dovetails slabs of history with his hero’s fictional life to produce a melancholy picture of a Spain bristling with violence on the verge of becoming a world power.

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