February 2011

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Longing for Strangeness

I began reading Tony Horwitz's A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World expecting a history of the “discovery of the Americas.” What I found was a hodgepodge of journalism, whimsical reflections about North America, and a cursory reading of the conquistadores' chronicles. Should I add that it’s also inaccurate and written in a style I’ve once heard referred to as “magazine writing”? Normally I would say that I’m not qualified to pass such judgment, as I’m not a historian, but Horwitz is presumably writing for a general readership (no footnotes attached) so I feel entitled, if not obliged.

Europe’s mistaken sojourn into the Americas might be the most important historic event ever. Some have argued that landing in the Americas provided the Europeans with their first chance to move towards objectivity. Tabula rasa was in essence the indigenous person and this continent with no history (although, of course, they were wrong about these things). Similarly, as historians like the ingenious Anthony Grafton have pointed out this was a litmus test for medieval zoology via Pliny. Are there really unicorns? How come we haven’t seen these anthropophagites? In this sense, Horwitz’s title is quite appropriate, only that the journey the author takes is neither-nor.  

The book begins on a trip to Cape Cod. The author stumbles into Plymouth Rock only to realize he knows nothing about its history. So he decides to do some research: “After skimming a few histories, I dug deeper, reading the letters and journals of early explorers -- except, awful lot happened between Columbus and the Pilgrims. Incredible stories I’d know nothing about. This wasn’t a gap in my education; it was a chasm.”

Here in the very first chapter lies the book’s mistake: assuming readers also too float adrift in this “chasm” of ignorance. But I think most (reading) Americans know that Eric the Red arrived via Greenland, that the Spaniards settled in Florida -- not to mention all those other states that have Spanish names -- or that the Jamestown colony was a failure.

You might argue that the author, inspired in New England, is merely asking us to re-experience these histories as the subtitle suggests. If that’s the case, his “adventures” seem rather flaccid in comparison to the conquistadores. Historical reenactments of the Conquista at St. Augustine in Florida, a sweat lodge in Greenland, driving via the Hernando de Soto’s trail through the South aren’t exactly spectacular settings for travel writing. Nor do we gain any real insight into the people who live in these places today. Not surprisingly the only people who seem to care about these distant histories are experts.

It’s great when historians write for a popular audience, but not so much when popular writers decide to take up history. Statements like “Why the previously hostile Indians chose to save the English isn’t clear” lead one to question the rigor of Horwitz’s investigations. And one glance at the bibliography page shows that every book he read was in English. Granted, Horwitz is open about this -- he’s one of us, however fascinated with these stories -- but is this really the person you want writing a version of the polyglot discovery of America?

This probably isn’t really a field ripe for fluff; there are plenty of great books about this otherworldly experience, not to mention epic poems, chronicles, and novels. Furthermore, this isn’t exactly a simple topic. First one needs to contextualize Spain in Europe to begin to understand the Conquista, and given its reliance on the Dutch, the Italian, who were also part of its empire, it’s not easy for anyone to really get -- never mind the English and their very different experiences (one book that does this extremely well is J. H. Elliott's Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America 1492-1830). One gets the impression that this is a fantastic journalist that bit off more than he could chew.

Luckily, all of the magic missing in Horwitz’s book I found in Juan José Saer’s The Witness, likewise about the “discovery” of America. A young boy tells the story of his first visit to the Americas, the sort of story one finds in those Horwitz read -- only Saer uses the chronicle only as a starting point for his fiction. After being shocked at the emptiness of the Americas, the Spaniards are ambuscaded and killed by an indigenous tribe. Only the boy survives to watch his former shipmates be eaten. Somehow he learns to live with the indigenous that soon name him, Def-ghi. As the speaker recalls it:

There are many days, hours, minutes in ten years. Many deaths and births too. As I was changed and shaped by the flow of time, what had seemed strange to me the first night on the beach slowly became familiar. It is hard for any of us to locate our past with any certainty in a precise moment in time and space.

Then one morning, still half-asleep, he hears someone standing above his body say, “He’s got a beard.” The Spaniards have returned, only now the familiar has once again become foreign.  He hardly recognizes them and can no longer speak their language. Father Quesada, versed in the language of the indigenous, appears to interrogate the new prisoner. He cuts his hair and beard, and brings him back to Europe with them. When they get there, they are greeted like celebrities. The narrator is once again educated in this new culture, before getting a part a play about his experiences in the Americas (playing himself, of course). His success, however, is short-lived; once again he must return to the Americas.

Soon the speaker realizes that the Indians saw no “realness” outside of themselves. The same might be said of the Europeans who question the narrator about the indigenous so that the Church can determine whether they are human or not (a real debate between Bartolomé de las Casas and Juan Ginés Sepúlveda). The boy is an “other” to both groups, and in being this “other,” he comes to a stunning conclusion: the existence of Indians confirms that something exists for the Indians, and vice versa. Each language and culture fights against their one common enemy: nothingness. Even his name as a boy amongst the indigenous, Def-ghi, becomes mired in abstraction, and is essentially meaningless (he concludes they gave it to him just have something to call him). Something is always better than nothing.

The Witness is a masterpiece, the kind of book one comes across once every few years. This is not simply an acceptable translation but one in which one can marvel at the writer´s prose, despite its new foreign sounds. A myriad of beautiful sentences and images, reading The Witness must be akin to finding an unknown but populated world, alienating and wonderful.