Myths of conquest


Laura Esquivel <em>Simon & Schuster, 208pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 141652214

Several years ago, in a cafeteria in downtown Bogotá, I had a conversation that stuck in my mind long afterwards. I was having lunch with a Colombian colleague, a very respectable, even upper-class woman, with white skin, light eyes and a large apartment in the poshest area of the city. She was explaining to me that the roots of her country's long-running conflict lay in the violence perpetrated by the Spanish during the conquest. "They took us as slaves, beat us, raped us," she said. That pronoun, "us", struck me as very odd. Although her physical appearance, surname and social status indicated that she was of Spanish descent, she was identifying herself not with the conquistadores, but with the conquered, the indigenous Indians.

I think I remembered the exchange because it was so revealing about the tensions inherent in being Latin American. It is a mixed (mestizo) identity, which encompasses the extremes of conquering and conquered, "civilised" and "savage", guilty and innocent. At the time, I assumed that a white Colombian would deny her Spanish heritage because she didn't want to feel complicit in the atrocities of the conquest. Yet, after spending more time in the region, I saw that there was another explanation. After years of US domination, even relatively well-off Latin Americans are keenly aware of how it feels to be at the mercy of an imperialist power. They can relate more easily to the conquered, because that is how they feel. Conversely, indigenous identity has become a symbol for cultural and political autonomy: when, in 2003, Chávez replaced Venezuela's traditional 12 October "Columbus Day" celebrations with "Indigenous Resistance Day", it was a gesture of defiance not only to the original conquistadores, but also to the US.

The problem, however, is that co-opting history for political ends inevitably means perverting it. The old myth, in which the Spanish "goodies" brought civilisation to the savage "baddies", is simply replaced by a new one, in which the innocent Indians are brought to their knees by the nasty Spanish. Reality, of course, is always more nuanced and complicated than that. It is good news, therefore, that two of Latin America's most popular writers, the Mexican author of Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel, and Chile's Isabel Allende, have recently published novels that radically re-evaluate figures central to the conquest. In doing so, they have contributed to a process of reconciliation that, 500 years on, is still barely beginning.

Allende's Inés of My Soul tells the story of Inés de Suárez, the lover of the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia and the first Spanish woman to set foot in Chile. Born a humble seamstress in the town of Plasencia, Extremadura, Inés escapes repressive post-Inquisition Spain for the newly discovered Americas, where "traditional laws have no bearing and society is completely scrambled . . . Any one of us can find himself in chains, branded with red-hot iron, and the next day be elevated by a turn of fortune." Sure enough, her social status is transformed when she becomes linked to the powerful Valdivia. Together with a retinue of Spanish adventurers and accommodating Yanacona Indians, they set out for Chile, hoping to found a "just society based on hard work and cultivating the land, not on the ill-gotten wealth bled from mines and slaves".

Their idealism takes a battering, first during the horrendous journey through some of the world's least hospitable terrain, and later at the hands of the fearless and hostile indigenous Chileans, the Mapuche. Anyone who has nipped over to Santiago on a bargain flight will pause for thought at Allende's painstakingly detailed descriptions of the conquistadores' long, near-fatal trek through the Atacama desert, the months they spent eating nothing but insects and roots, and the regular bloody attacks they suffered. Although Allende does not duck from describing the rape and torture meted out by the conquistadores, she sets it in the context of an existence so brutal it defies the imagination. Both the Mapuche and the Spanish are warrior races: Inés comes to the conclusion that "we will . . . eventually exterminate the natives of this land, because they would rather die free than live as slaves. And if any of us Spaniards had to choose, we would not hesitate to make the same choice."

While Inés's life has been relatively sparsely documented, Esquivel takes on a more iconic and controversial figure. Malinche is the name given to Malinalli, the indigenous woman who was used as a translator and informant by the Mexican conquistador Hernándo Cortés. She also bore him a son, widely held to be the first mestizo. As such, she is known as both the mother of the Mexican race (the "Mexican Eve") and its greatest traitor (La Chingada, "the fucked" or "the raped", being her pejorative nickname). Octavio Paz, in his seminal study of Mexican identity, The Labyrinth of Solitude, described her and Cortés as "more than historical figures; they are symbols of a secret conflict that we have still not resolved". Her name has even entered the language with the adjective malinchista, used to describe a Mexican who has been corrupted by foreign influence, usually that of the US.

Esquivel sets out to vindicate Malinalli (confusingly, the name "Malinche" is also used to refer to Cortés) by allowing her to tell her own story. In this version, she is not a traitor, but a young girl sold into slavery by her mother, then abused and exploited by her Spanish owners. Unfortunately - and in contrast to Allende's sharp, compulsive novel - the bravery of the venture is undermined by Esquivel's meandering, shapeless narrative, which lapses into clichéd mysticism. Here, indigenous culture is represented by Malinalli's grandmother, who is prone to long speeches along the lines of "every time you see a bird in flight, there I'll be. In the form of the trees, there I'll be. In the mountains, the volcanoes, the cornfields, there I'll be" - ad tedium.

It is significant, of course, that these are female authors, and that they have both chosen female protagonists. Their implicit contention is that, while attitudes towards pre-Columbian culture have changed over time, the women who took part in the conquest have always been either demonised or ignored. Allende is particularly effective in showing the long-underestimated contribution that Inés, and the other women in the expedition, made to the conquest. The conquistadores would have been unable to fight without partners to patch up their wounds and feed them tortillas; while the men were on the battlefield, the women were undertaking the arduous, backbreaking work of cultivating food and animals, practising medicine, making homes and looking after children. All of these tasks were equally, if not more, essential to the founding of a nation, but none of them were given commemorative statues or a place in the history books.

Both novels have inevitably taken some criticism for their revisionist politics, most of which is unjustified. It is true, however, that neither of them overcomes the crucially important problem of how literature should represent indigenous cultures that were oral rather than written. Esquivel incorporates a "codex", or sequence of images, into Malinche because, she explains, "the ancient Mexicans told the epic poems of their people through images". But to the contemporary reader, the images look like second-rate cartoons which, if anything, detract from the novel's credibility. The weakest section in Inés comes when Allende ditches the first- person narrative to describe a meeting between the various Mapuche tribes. Suddenly, the authenticity that characterises the rest of the book gives way to artifice. While Inés and Malinche are fresh and provocative looks at this fascinating period of history, they present generations to come with a more daunting challenge: to imagine the conquest from the other side.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?