Article — From the December 1990 issue

Questions of Conquest

What Columbus wrought, and what he did not

( 2 of 8 )

The historian who mastered the subject of the discovery and conquest of Peru by the Spaniards better than anyone else had a tragic story. He died without having written the book for which he had prepared himself his whole life and whose theme he knew so well that he almost gave the impression of being omniscient. His name was Raul Porras Barrenechea. He was a small, pot-bellied man with a large forehead and a pair of blue eyes that became impregnated with malice every time he mocked someone. He was the most brilliant teacher I have ever had.

In the big old house of San Marcos, the first university founded by the Spaniards in the New World, a place that had already begun to fall into an irreparable process of decay when I passed through it in the 1950s, Porras Barrenechea’s lectures on historical sources attracted such a vast number of listeners that it was necessary to arrive well in advance so as not to be left outside the classroom listening together with dozens of students literally hanging from the doors and windows.

Whenever Porras Barrenechea spoke, history became anecdote, gesture, adventure, color, psychology. He depicted history as a series of mirrors that had the magnificence of a Renaissance painting and in which the determining factor of events was never the impersonal forces, the geographical imperative, the economic relations of divine providence, but a cast of certain outstanding individuals whose audacity, genius, charisma, or contagious insanity had imposed on each era and society a certain orientation and shape. As well as this concept of history, which the scientific historians had already named as romantic in an effort to discredit it, Porras Barrenechea demanded knowledge and documentary precision, which none of his colleagues and critics at San Marcos had at that time been able to equal. Those historians who dismissed Porras Barrenechea because he was interested in simple, narrated history instead of a social or economic interpretation had been less effective than he was in explaining to us that crucial event in the destiny of Europe and America–the destruction of the Inca Empire and the linking of its vast territories and peoples to the Western world. This was because for Porras Barrenechea, although history had to have a dramatic quality, architectonic beauty, suspense, richness, and a wide range of human types and excellence in the style of a great fiction, everything in it also had to be scrupulously true, proven time after time. In order to be able to narrate the discovery and conquest of Peru in this way, Porras Barrenechea first had to evaluate very carefully all the witnesses and documents so as to establish the degree of credibility of each one of them. And in the numerous cases of deceitful testimonies, Porras Barrenechea had to find out the reasons that led the authors to conceal, misrepresent, or overclaim the facts; knowing their peculiar limitations, those sources had a double meaning–what they revealed and what they distorted.

For forty years Porras Barrenechea dedicated all his powerful intellectual energy to this heroic hermeneutics. All the works he published while he was alive constitute the preliminary work for what should have been his magnum opus. When he was perfectly ready to embark upon it, pressing on with assurance through the labyrinthine jungle of chronicles, letters, testaments, rhymes, and ballads of the discovery and conquest that he had read, cleansed, confronted, and almost memorized, sudden death put an end to his encyclopedic information. As a result, all those interested in that era and in the men who lived in it have had to keep on reading the old but so far unsurpassed history of the conquest written by an American who never set foot in the country but who sketched it with extraordinary skill–William Prescott.

Dazzled by Porras Barrenechea’s lectures, at one time I seriously considered the possibility of putting literature aside so as to dedicate myself to history. Porras Barrenechea had asked me to work with him as an assistant in an ambitious project on the general history of Peru under the auspices of the Lima bookseller and publisher Juan Mejia Baca. It was Porras Barrenechea’s task to write the volumes devoted to the conquest and emancipation. For four years I spent three hours a day, five days a week, in that dusty house on Colina Street in Lima, where the books, the card indexes, and the notebooks had slowly invaded and devoured everything except Porras Barrenechea’s bed and the dining table. My job was to read and take notes on the chronicles’ various themes, but principally the myths and legends that preceded and followed the discovery and conquest of Peru. That experience has become an unforgettable memory for me. Whoever is familiar with the chronicles of the discovery and conquest of America will understand why. They represent for us Latin Americans what the novels of chivalry represent for Europe, the beginning of literary fiction as we understand it today, The tradition from which sprang books like One Hundred Years of Solitude, Julio Cortazar’s short stories, and the works of the Paraguayan novelist Augusto Roa Bastes, books in which we are exposed to a world totally reconstructed and subverted by fantasy, started without doubt in those chronicles of the conquest and discovery that I read and annotated under the guidance of Porras Barrenechea.

The chronicle, a hermaphrodite genre, is distilling fiction into life all the time, as in Jorge Luis Borges’s tale “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Does this mean that its testimony must be challenged from a historical point of view and accepted only as literature? Not at all. Its exaggerations and fantasies often reveal more about the reality of the era than its truths. Astonishing miracles from time to time enliven the tedious pages of the Crónica moralizada, the exemplary chronicle of Father Calancha; sulfurous outrages come from the male and female demons, fastidiously catechized in the Indian villages by the extirpators of idolatries like Father Arriaga, to justify the devastations of idols, amulets, ornaments, handicrafts, and tombs. This teaches more about the innocence, fanaticism, and stupidity of the time than the wisest of treatises.

As long as one knows how to read them, everything is contained in these pages written sometimes by men who hardly knew how to write and who were impelled by the unusual nature of contemporary events to try to communicate and register them for posterity, thanks to an intuition of the privilege they enjoyed, that of being the witnesses of and actors in events that were changing the history of the world. Because they narrated these events under the passion of recently lived experience, they often related things that to us seem like naive or cynical fantasies. For the people of the time, this was not so; they were phantoms that credulity, surprise, fear, and hatred had endowed with a solidity and vitality often more powerful than beings made of flesh and blood.

2010 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

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Commentary October 7, 2010, 10:57 am

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