The Children of Columbus

From violent conquest to common culture

The novel was forbidden in the Spanish colonies by the Inquisition. The Inquisitors considered this literary genre as dangerous for the spiritual fate of the Indians as for the moral and political behavior of society, and in this, of course, they were absolutely right. We novelists must be grateful to the Spanish Inquisition for having discovered, before any critic did, the inevitably subversive nature of fiction. The prohibition included reading and publishing novels in the colonies. Naturally, there was no way to prevent a great number of novels from being smuggled into our countries and we know, for example, that the first copies of Don Quixote entered America hidden in barrels of wine. We can only dream with envy about the kind of experience it was, in those times, in Spanish America, to read a novel: a sinful adventure on account of which, by daring to abandon yourself to an imaginary world, you had to be prepared to face prison and humiliation.

Novels were not published in Spanish America until after the Wars of Independence. The first, El Periquillo Sarniento, appeared in Mexico only in 1816. Although novels were abolished for three centuries, the goal of the Inquisitors--a society exonerated from the fictional disease--was not achieved.

They did not realize that the realm of fiction was larger and deeper than that of the novel. Nor could they imagine that the appetite for lies--that is, for escaping objective reality through illusions--was so powerful and rooted in the human spirit, that, once the novel as a medium for satisfying that appetite was gone, the thirst for fiction would infect, like a plague, all the other disciplines and genres in which the written word could freely flow. In repressing and censoring the literary genre specifically invented to give "the necessity of lying" a place in the world, the Inquisitors achieved exactly the opposite of what they wanted. Theirs was a world without novels, yes, but also a world into which fiction had spread and contaminated practically everything: history, religion, poetry, science, art, speeches, journalism, and the daily habits of people.

We still are victims, in Latin America, of what we could call "the revenge of the novel." We still have great difficulty in our countries in differentiating between fiction and reality. We are traditionally accustomed to mix them in such a way that this is, probably, one of the reasons why we are so impractical and inept in political matters, for instance. But some good came also from this novelization of our whole life. Books such as Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Cortázar's short stories, and Roa Bastos's novels would not have been possible otherwise.

The tradition from which this kind of literature sprang, one in which we are exposed to a world totally subverted by fantasy, began, without doubt, with those chroniclers of the conquest and discovery that I read and glossed under the direction of that great historian of Spanish America, Raul Porras Barrenechea. Whenever Porras Barrenechea spoke, history became anecdote, gesture, adventure, color, psychology. He depicted history in a series of murals which had the magnificence of a Renaissance painting, and in which the determining factor of events was never impersonal forces, the geographical imperative, economic relations, or divine providence--but rather the case of certain outstanding individuals whose audacity, genius, charisma, or contagious insanity had imposed on each era and society a certain orientation and shape.

I have been thinking a lot about Porras Barrenechea lately, particularly since 1992, which was, as you might remember, a commemorative year, the Quincentenary, which recalls a turning point in world history. Some would rather forget, but I think we ought to remember that just about 500 years ago Christopher Columbus's caravels first set sail and arrived on what would be called America, initiating waves of European and African immigrations. It is appropriate to reflect upon Columbus's voyage and its aftermath because just about everything good, and some of the bad, that has happened ever since has its roots in this episode. It shook up geography, economy, religion, morality, and the imagination of humanity; and it changed the course of history like probably nothing before it except, perhaps, the biblical flood.

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote regarding patriotism that "only affirmations are tolerated." Regarding the Quincentenary, it seems only contradictions were tolerated. A heated discussion preceded the Quincentenary, during which some rejected the idea of a commemoration wholesale, while others were willing to agree to it provided it served primarily to publicize the pillage committed by discoverers, conquistadors, and colonizers. The Quincentenary produced a curious controversy, with prosecutors of all shapes and sizes but few defenders.

Some of the harshest detractors have been Spaniards and Portuguese who have raised their angry voices to claim there is nothing to celebrate in the arrival of Columbus to America because it was an imperialistic enterprise. Catholic priests and theologians are the leading critics of what my school textbooks in the 1950s had called "the propagation of faith and the extirpation of idolatry by missionaries," a statement not even the most absent-minded conservative would dare to say in public today. All celebrations of the Quincentenary appear to have been burdened with hidden feelings of guilt and bad conscience.

This should not surprise us. Our age may be one of tremendous events, but it is also one of intellectual confusion. It is an age that has witnessed the collapse of the bloodiest regimes in history, and the eruption of liberty in societies where it never existed before, or where it was but a pale, elusive fire. But it has also witnessed the perversion of common sense and the assailment of values and reason by ideology. Ideology has become the lay religion of our time, and its dogmas, stereotypes, commonplaces, and excommunications continue to contaminate the intelligentsia of the Western world. The condemnations, the discomfort, and the silence of so many intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the Quincentenary can be explained by the fear of praising the moral or material achievements of our democracies, and thereby losing the "politically correct" credentials so necessary for success in the cultural establishment of the First and Third Worlds. The Second World, the Soviet Union and its satellites, failed and collapsed precisely because ideology had moved beyond the musings of individuals to become the reason of state. Prominent intellectuals continue to cast a shadow of doubt and skepticism on liberty and democracy, but this is an aberration. Liberty is nothing to be ashamed of. It ought to be cherished with the fervor of those who have lost it, or have just regained it. Like the young people of the former East Germany who in 1989 tore down the wall in Berlin, one of the tasks for men and women of the new generation is to tear down the ideological walls of the prison houses of thought and culture still prevalent in so many free nations.

The arrival of Europeans in those lands--let us say it without an inferiority or superiority complex, and without bringing in historical exorcisms--is the greatest event in the history of America, Europe, and I would dare say, the world. Modernity began with the odyssey of Columbus's three fragile and legendary boats and with the handful of adventurers who sailed through uncharted waters in search of a new route to India. They boggled the European mind by stumbling into a fourth continent with highly developed civilizations. After 1492, the histories of many peoples scattered and isolated from each other in all corners of the world became one single, interconnected, and inseparable history. The slow, daunting, grandiose, and irreversible march of humanity towards universal civilization was set in motion.

There are many ways to broach a subject of such massive import. One can start at the beginning, like José de la Rada y Gamio, the fearless historian who began his biography of the poet Mariano Melgar with the Almighty's creation of the universe. He summarized the first seven days and continued chronologically with Adam and Eve, the earthly paradise, the apple, the serpent, and so on. By the time he got to the birth of his hero near the end of the 18th century, he was mentally and physically exhausted. I will not rehearse this method now, but will choose instead a less comprehensive and more personal one. I would like to look back on the events of 500 years ago from the perspective of my own experience, from my family history, or rather, from the history of my last name.

The name Vargas--my father's--arrived in South America with the first wave of Spaniards, those intrepid men led by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro who scaled the Andes and encountered the Inca civilization. The Vargases came from Extremadura, one of the poorest regions of Spain, and took their name, as was then customary, from the feudal lord of the region, on whose lands they worked as farm hands.

Humble and ignorant, many of them illiterate, but fierce as the times they were braving, they became protagonists in all the breathtaking events that characterized this adventurous and violent encounter of worlds and cultures. A Vargas was among the handful of conquistadors who set eyes on Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas, as he was drinking chicha, a corn-based liquor, from a skull. Rumor had it that it was the skull of his half-brother Huascar, whom he had executed in a bloody civil war. The next day, on the Plaza of Cajamarca, the conquistadors ambushed the Incas and dealt the fatal blow to the empire.

No sooner had the empire fallen than the conquistadors became involved in bitter and bloody conflicts. Many were killed in civil wars, others in uprisings. But many survived and spread throughout Peru and beyond. Centuries later, the name Vargas would become quite common. My paternal family is a stream from this vast network of rivers.

I was never particularly interested in the genealogy of my family, a large and sometimes unruly tribe. I was, however, quite interested in individuals and in none more than in Don Marcelino, my grandfather, for whom I felt uncontrollable affection. At home his name was taboo, and therefore a myth. He had been a faithful supporter of the liberal leader Augusto Duran, whom he accompanied in countless uprisings, guerrilla wars, imprisonments, and exiles. My grandmother had to work wonders to feed her five children. In his old age, the impulsive Marcelino crowned a life of irresponsibility when he fled his home with a native woman who wore traditional Indian dress. He finished his days with her, far away from us, as the master of a railway station in a remote post in the Andes.

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