I’m pleased to welcome the talented and insightful Jonathan Marcantoni to this blog so that he might discuss with us Juan José Saer’s novel, El Entenado.
“I hungered for the open sea. Children blame the intransigence of the world on their own callowness and lack of knowledge; they think that far off on the other side of the ocean, on the farther shore of experience, the fruit is more succulent, more real, the sun yellower and kinder, men’s actions and words more intelligible, clear-cut and just.” (Saer)
This last Columbus Day, I, like perhaps many of you, was bombarded on social media with articles and Memes dedicated to the injustice the “discovery” of the Americas had on the native population, with nearly sole credit for the misery being placed on the shoulders of one Christopher Columbus. This assessment is historically inaccurate, since Columbus was not responsible for much of what occurred during the Conquista, nor did he have anything to do with the crimes of the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British empires that vied for control of the New World. After all, he died in 1506, prior to European contact with the Aztec and Incan empires and most of South America. Placing blame on Columbus for the woes of Native Americans also ignores the history of the Reconquista, that is, the 800-year war fought between Spanish Catholics and the Moorish invaders who conquered Spain by taking advantage of a civil war between the Visigoths, who had kicked the Romans out a few hundred years earlier. It is historical irony that such manipulation would be put to use by the Spaniards in their conquest of the aforementioned Central and South American empires. The Reconquista had engendered generations of Spaniards who relied on lands and money awarded them for their participation fighting the Moors, and with the war over, these young Spaniards, many of them humble farmers, no longer had a guaranteed source of income and land. The greed and bloodthirsty nature of the early conquistadors can be credited to the two generations following the Reconquista. Think of the conquistadors as the medieval equivalent of a boy growing up on his granddad’s stories of fighting in World War Two. A Spanish boy in that time would listen to his tales of valor fighting the Moors and wish for his own glory on the battlefield, and the Americas provided such an opportunity.
The revisionist history of Columbus also avoids paying due respect to the humanity of Native Americans by turning them all into victims. This is as historically inaccurate as arguing that the Aztecs and Incans were not peaceful people, but were in fact just as savage as the Spaniards could be. It is worth noting that the Spaniards adopted the methods of punishment and torture employed by the people they conquered (such as the quartering of a man’s entire family in front of him prior to disemboweling him, a favorite practice of the Incan royalty). But that is only worth noting in the sense that it paints a fuller picture of the societies the Conquista interrupted. We cannot pay true respect to a people, or to historical events, by focusing solely on the good or the bad. The Native Americans were not holy, enlightened tribes who lived in utopias, nor were they brute, unintelligent savages. The Spaniards, as well, were not all bloodthirsty, greedy rapists. A great many of them, particularly the monks and the Jesuits, earned the love and respect of the native tribes. Modern day Paraguay, for instance, was once run by Jesuit monks who respected the customs and traditions of the native population. What we know about the native civilizations of the Americas is largely due to the scholarship and translations headed by monasteries and the Catholic Church in order to convert the natives by first understanding their cultures and beliefs. In this way they could find common points between native mythology and Christianity. In short, both sides were human beings, and the way in which social media and the 24 hour news cycle has diminished historical periods to little more than bullet points turning flesh and blood men and women into cardboard cut outs, betrays the memories of both the European invaders and the Native Americans.
Juan José Saer’s The Witness (El entenado), takes place in the early days of the Conquest, and attempts to show the links between European and native societies, to unearth the common humanity that history books have long forgotten. The book shows how imperial impulses of superior versus inferior societies is a universal human concept, and that mankind’s hold on civilization is held together by the thinnest, and blurriest of threads.
Saer tells his story as one continuous movement. There are no chapters or scene breaks. The narrative flows much the way life does, continuous, yet forever looping back on itself. The book is told from the point of a view of a man (no names are ever given) who in his old age has decided to write his memoirs. An orphan turned cabin boy on a Spanish ship headed to the New World, he experiences both kindness and cruelty at the hands of the crew. After several months, they land on an unknown coast and almost immediately, the entire party is slaughtered, save for the boy. He is taken hostage by the tribe, and forced to watch what we learn later is a yearly ritual, in which the tribe cooks and devours their enemies, and then participate in an orgy that involves everyone, young and old. The scene is horrific and nearly traumatizing, but afterwards, the natives resume a mundane, reserved existence. The hedonism of the first night is in stark contrast with how the natives behave every other day of the year. The narrator is largely left alone to observe this society, yet he is never without food or work or a place to stay. The Spanish title of the book means “step-son” and this just as accurately describes his role as in the English title. He is at once a part of the community and outside of it. Cared for, but not truly a member of the family. It becomes clear that the tribe views themselves as superior to their neighbors, and it soon becomes clear that what happens to him occurs every year with another member of another local tribe. The narrator deduces that this community kidnaps people in order to first intimidate, and then demonstrate their enlightened ways, so that when the visitor is returned, they have been “civilized”. There is another reason for the cannibalistic ritual, but I won’t spoil it for you.
After ten years, another Spanish ship arrives on the coast, and the narrator is sent to them. The ship follows where the narrator came from and the tribe is annihilated. Our protagonist is now a young man, and does not speak any Spanish. He is re-educated on Spanish customs and Catholicism by a friendly priest, but while he learns to follow those customs and speak the language, he never feels like he is with his own people. He has become yet another witness to another imperial civilization, and that is how he spends his life. Once in Spain, he joins a travelling theatre company where writes a play about the tribe. While he meant for the play to be educational, the Spanish audience instead sees it as yet further proof of their superiority over the Native Americans. The experience with the theatre causes the narrator to place himself further apart from Spanish society, observing their manners and attitudes and always placing them in contrast to those of the tribe.
It becomes clear, to the reader and to the narrator, that the tribe is a sort of microcosm of mankind. We do everything in our power to control our elements, our appearances, our manners, and in so doing we begin to believe that we are special compared to others. In our condescension, though we believe it to be humanitarian generosity, we try to impart our beliefs and customs onto others, because logically there can only be one truth and one way of living. For there not to be means that we are not special, and so we have to continue the masquerade, sometimes via violent ends, such as warfare, to dominate those “others”. We also dominate via our culture, which we believe to be of such quality and inspiration that anyone who encounters it will improve as a person. Yet in all its forms, civilization is nothing more than theatre. We play our roles, hit our marks, and collectively agree on the same lies. The journey the narrator is on is one where, having witnessed two seemingly distinct societies play out the same tendencies and attitudes, he must determine where exactly does authenticity lie. While the tribe has been wiped off the face of the Earth, its shadows hangs over the protagonist’s life. His obsession is derived from his belief that the tribe, for all its theatrics, had greater access to the true nature of life and humanity than the Spaniards do. And so he deconstructs his days in the jungles of South America, piecing together clues and revelations until, finally, the answer he has been looking for is revealed. That moment, when all artifice has been stripped from civilization, has haunted me ever since I first read the book in 2008. It is a scene I think of often, especially living in Colorado, where any achievements of man are easily dwarfed by the enormity, and the eternity, of nature.
To purchase the original Spanish (which is immensely beautiful), click here: El Entenado
To purchase the book in English (there is another translation available, but this one is better), click here: The Witness
Jonathan Marcantoni is a Puerto Rican writer, co-founder of Aignos Publishing, PEN Member, and author of Communion (with Jean Blasiar), Traveler’s Rest, and The Feast of San Sebastian. He has a BA in Spanish Studies from the University of Tampa. He will obtain his Masters of Humanities from Tiffin University in May 2015. Please take a moment to follow his writing career by accessing the links below.
The Feast of San Sebastian
There is No Cholera in Zimbabwe
Follow Jonathan Marcantoni on Twitter