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.

The historian William Atkinson could be called prescient for writing, early this century, that the accession of a woman is ‘an event commonly fraught with untoward consequences’. He was, however, talking about the ‘salvation’ of Castile in the 1470s, not Britain in 1979. Isabel la Catolica wielded the Holy Office like an army of crack troops to unify a kingdom whose cohesion had been diluted by two feeble kings, by civil war and, according to the propaganda of the day, by the absorption of Jews and Muslims. At the time of her accession the region’s economy was heavily dependent on some 250,000 resident conversos and 200,000 Jews. Ghettoised to limit their influence over conversos and taxed to pay off the royal war debt, the Spanish Jews were finally expelled by a queen who, according to her own chronicler ‘paid no heed to the diminution of her rents, esteeming very highly the cleansing of her lands’.

Given that this royal historian, Fernando del Pulgar, was himself a converso, it is surprising that of all the picaresque strategies at Aridjis’s disposal the manipulation of the relationship between protagonist-narrator and reader – what we tend to think of as a peculiarly modern play of perspective made possible by an ‘unreliable’ storyteller – is not much in evidence here. There is no appeal for our complicity in specious moral posturing; Juan Cabezon is neither mercurial, nor protean, nor a trickster; he is not even much of a rogue. The tone of delivery for the most part is measured and unruffled – even the bleakest of personal moments are embellished with workaday portraits of 15th-century life and death. Aridjis’s narrator tends to move as Peter Greenaway’s camera, sideways rather than in and out. We are, it seems, to take at face value most of what this picaro tells us, as if his theme is too important for us to be left in any doubt over something as trifling and ‘literary’ as whether or not he is telling the truth.

This trust lends credibility to the book’s vast historical sweep; its pathos depends upon our seeing little people caught up in the jaws of big history. Most pathetic is blind Pero Meñique, who dies bungling an attempt to assassinate the Inquisitor-General, Torquemada. Fernando del Pulgar, whose natural sympathies compromised his loyalty to the Queen, noted that the increasingly aggressive efforts of the Sevillian clergy to persuade the Judaisers to abandon their old practices were to little avail because the Jews’ ‘obstinacy was so foolish a blindness and so blind an ignorance’, – a blindness, in the case of Pero Meñique, which prevents him from seeing his number’s up.

Aridjis no doubt draws on del Pulgar and others for some of the butchers, bakers and candlestick-makers who find their way into 1492. But he moves repeatedly from the factual to the fantastic, from historical detail to the delirium of a persecuted mind. Lists of people, professions, artefacts, things of everyday life, crowd the pages with characters in the manner of an Orozco or Rivera mural. In Aridjis’s hands crowds become living things which subsume humanity: ‘like a long bloody crocodile nigh upon three hundred flagellants wound their way through the street’; an anti-Jewish mob is ‘a thousand-handed beast among collapsing furniture’.

Rather than through the trickster-narrator, Aridjis seeks to unsettle our confidence by mixing history with hysteria. It is the accumulation of eye-witness accounts and other travellers’ versions of the persecutions that introduces an element of distrust: with a witchhunt in full swing who are we to believe? Juan crosses paths with the grotesques of Medieval pageant, but he also sees phantoms born of the mind-bending techniques of the Inquisition. These are genuinely spooky passages reminiscent of the nightmarish visions of Goya and Bosch, where our grasp of reality is overwhelmed by a sense of moral chaos. So Juan’s first glimpse of Torquemada is infused with the supernatural: ‘Perhaps it was my fancy that made him hover a span above the ground and gave him the fleshless hands of a corpse. And I am no longer certain if his haunches, knees and elbows jutted out of his clothes as he walked, or if it was his funereal garments that made him seem a creature of the night, a devourer of the dead.’ On another occasion a band of mummers comes singing and dancing through a square: ‘The wagon overturned and the human beings escaped, pursued by the little Deaths. Death the charioteer attempted to right the wagon, a drunkard approached to give them assistance, then a red angel and a white devil, both winged, came from opposite ends of the square to set it straight. The lesser Deaths caught the people, put them in the coffins and laid them down with their heads, arms and legs doubled up ...’ Pageant becomes life or, in this case, death.

The final irony is that the way out of this moral chaos, the route westward, is burdened with the imagery of the past, a fatalistic circularity. Columbus is first glimpsed via one of the semi-apparitions which Juan observes, a choleric despairing figure reciting the Jews’ creation of the world down to Noah’s flood – ‘rapidly figuring the world’s accounts, just as later I was to hear Don Cristobal Colon do.’ Later, in a bar in Toledo, a familiar of the Inquisition asks Columbus whence he comes. ‘From myself’ is the reply. The familiar warns Columbus that ‘the generations of man succeed each other like waves of the sea, and his dreams as well.’ Juan leaves the explorer proclaiming his faith in his mission and as he wanders around Toledo, whose houses ‘seemed like the stony fragments of some other city, long gone and legendary’, he fears he is followed by the ‘ghoul from the Holy Office’ before realising that he is hearing his own footsteps. Historians suggest Columbus may have barred Jews from what he thought were going to be his new dominions; Juan Cabezon’s well-founded paranoia would follow him on his voyage to the doorstep of the land of the free.

‘How good it would have been to be founded by Montesquieu instead of Torquemada,’ muses the rebel Mexican priest Quintana in Carlos Fuentes’s The Campaign. ‘But it didn’t happen that way.’ In this, the first book of what is to be a trilogy, we follow the revolutionary trail of Balthasar Bustos from Buenos Aires to Peru, Chile, Venezuela and Mexico as he takes part in the uprisings which began in 1810. Balthasar is driven by a crush on the wife of his enemy, the President of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, claiming at one point that all his egalitarian heroics had an ulterior motive – to impress the Marquise, ‘whose image,’ the dust-jacket says ‘has shimmered in his head ever since he left Buenos Aires’. This makes it all sound a lot less tawdry than it is. ‘While he all but rubs epaulets with some fairly impressive revolutionaries, Bolivar and San Martin among them, Balthasar’s overriding desire during his ten-year campaign is to get his hands on the Marquise’s perfectly formed buttocks. This at times seems absurd, reductive and in any case a reworking of something Fuentes did in The Old Gringo and Christopher Unborn, although admittedly The Campaign adds a twist to the notion that revolution can be achieved by, or even consist of, screwing the boss’s daughter. Balthasar’s whirlwind trajectory teases out some of the Big Ideas about the creole struggle for independence from Europe, but its very scope, speed and lightness of touch leave one hankering for more information and perhaps a little less hankering on the part of Balthasar.

Fuentes shares with Homero Aridjis a concern with the ability of individuals and people to assert their own identity and ‘destiny’. For Fuentes it has long been a question of creating an identity for Mexico which is neither European nor North American but Mexican, something which must accommodate the pre-Columbian and creole history as well as the legacy of Torquemada. ‘Do we want to be European,’ Quintana asks of Balthasar Bustos, ‘modern, rich, governed by the spirit of the law and the universal right of men? Well, let me tell you that nothing like that will ever happen unless we carry the corpse of our past with us.’

It’s hard to get through a discussion of Mexican writing without touching on death. Fuentes’s ‘corpse of the past’ echoes a story by compatriot Juan Rulfo, where the inhabitants of a small desolate village refuse to leave for a more nourishing environment, asking ‘who’ll bring along our dead ones? They live here and we can’t leave them alone.’ Rulfo’s piece, ‘Luvina’, appears in a pointed collection of Latin American short stories gathered by Thomas Colchie which brings to light some of the less familiar aspects of the region’s writers. Brazilians are refreshingly well-represented; refreshingly, magic realism is not. Linking many of the pieces is a dark, brooding quality where cruelty and mental disorder are frighteningly close – not least in Fuentes’s gothic little tale, ‘The Doll Queen’, whose title character is the untouchable object of an obsessive memory, not unlike the Marquise in The Campaign and Isabel de la Vega in 1492. While this shared line in unattainable women may be peculiar to Fuentes and Aridjis, when it comes to death they are in the majority. Most Mexicans carry the corpse of their past with them; where else is death embraced so joyously with sugar skulls and coloured rafia?

The immediate issue facing Mexico is not whether it wants to be European, but whether it wants to be North American. The most famous saying about the Republic goes to the effect that it is a long way from God and uncomfortably close to the United States. Recent manoeuvring at the Presidential palace may change all that. Whiskey priests everywhere will be raising their glasses to a president who is seeking a rapprochement with the Vatican, while devotees of free-market economics will be chinking theirs over an agreement being negotiated between the US, Mexico and Canada, which will create a trading bloc to rival Europe ’92 and, barring electoral priorities in the Bush camp, could be in place by that symbolic date of October 1992. Closer to God and the United States.

For some, this manifestation of amistad with the gringo is a sell-out. Back in 1962, when Kennedy was egging Mexico on to be the flagship in the Alliance for Progress, Fuentes warned of revolution, saying that ‘the formulas of free-enterprise capitalism have already had their historical opportunity in Latin America and have proved unable to abolish feudalism.’ Thirty years later, Mexico’s government – the same party – is giving free-enterprise capitalism another go. Will it succeed in abolishing feudalism now, or simply transfer the seat of the feudal lords north of the border? Since the publication of Christopher Unborn, which described the Mexico of 1992 as squalid, exploited and polluted, the Republic has, under a US-educated, free-marketeering president, begun to emerge from protectionism – too swiftly for some Mexican industries, too slowly for some in the US. Fuentes recently put his name to a letter to the Mexican Congress calling for the inclusion of a ‘social charter’ in any free-trade agreement, to protect Mexican workers and their environment. The Group of 100 is fighting a rearguard action and surrounding its protests there’s an air of being caught up in the jaws of history. A degree of economic integration between the US and Mexico now seems inevitable; the numbers of dolphin caught in Mexican nets represent little more than chips in the free trade bargaining.

Montesquieu or Torquemada – the conundrum running through The Campaign is whether Latin America can achieve independence and justice: both Aridjis and Fuentes betray a certain fatalism, expressed variously as ‘destiny’ and myopia. The fear in Mexico, where economic reform has not been matched by political reform, is that it will, like it or not, inherit the worst of both worlds. When President Bush said last August that he could think of a guy close to home who should be taking a long hard look at the events in Moscow, he went on to explain that he was referring to Fidel Castro. Confusion may have clouded some minds because on the same weekend Gorbachev’s Crimean holiday threatened to become a forced leave of absence, the world’s longest ruling non-Communist Party – Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) – was clawing its way back to a commanding majority in the House of Deputies. The PRI is one corpse Mexico will be carrying around for some time to come.