Book of a lifetime: True History of the Conquest of New Spain, By Bernal Díaz
Saturday 01 December 2012
I read Bernal Díaz's 'True History of the Conquest of New Spain' about 30 years ago in JM Cohen's 1963 translation for Penguin Classics. It is an eyewitness account of Hernan Cortes's expedition to Mexico in 1519 by one of his principal captains, a soldier from Medina del Campo.
Except to check the Spanish text, I have not opened the book again until now. I have not read the letters of Cortes to Charles V or the histories of Lopez de Gomara and Bartolome de las Casas, kept abreast of modern Spanish and Mexican historical scholarship on the Conquest, or returned to Mexico. Cohen translated only the first 157 chapters of Díaz's narrative and I have not read on. I can take so much and no more.
In 1519-21, two civilisations smashed each other to bits and the force still reverberates in my imagination. Certain scenes from Díaz have never been far from my thoughts: the sight of the city of Mexico across the lake, the night battle on the Causeway, the death of Montezuma, the graffiti on the wall of Cortes's house in Coyoacan saying, "My soul is sad because Cortes has hidden all the gold!"
Here is humanity at its best and its very worst, often in the same sentence, and always set down without affectation. At times, I feel like Bernal himself on his farm in Guatemala, old, riddled with wounds and dirt-poor, and so troubled by nightmares that he must leave his bed to lie on the ground under the stars (unless there happened to be gentlemen in the district).
Bernal's style is said by experts to be not of the very best, but these sentences seem to me pretty good whether in English or Spanish: "I must say that when I saw my comrades dragged up each day to the altar, and their chests struck open and their palpitating hearts drawn out, and when I saw the arms and legs of these 62 men cut off and eaten, I feared that one day or another they would do the same to me.
When I remembered their hideous deaths, and the proverb that the little pitcher goes many times to the fountain, and so on, I came to fear death more than ever in the past. Before I went into battle, a sort of horror and gloom would seize my heart, and I would make water once or twice [y orinaba una vez o dos] and commend myself to God and His blessed Mother."
James Buchan's 'Days of God: the Revolution in Iran and its consequences' is published by John Murray
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Barbarians vs Samoa interrupted by sprinklers as fans criticise lack of Wi-Fi and poor seating at West Ham's Olympic Stadium
- 2 Caitlyn Jenner car crash: Driver who died in collision sued by surviving passengers for $18.5m
- 3 Watch the Supermoon live: How to see the brightest Moon of the year tonight
- 4 Hulk Hogan wants to be Donald Trump's running mate in the US Presidential election
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
Game of Thrones season 6: Jon Snow theorists believe Ned Stark's son may have a twin sister
Edinburgh Fringe 2015: Monty Python-inspired Australian Sam Simmons wins comedy award with 'very silly' show
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge?'
Game of Thrones season 6: Director promises most exciting premiere yet 'starts off with a bang'
Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Online toy marathon to launch new film
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
'Women only' train carriages: Jeremy Corbyn unveils radical move to tackle public harassment
Black holes are a passage to another universe, says Stephen Hawking
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up