Tuesday, August 02, 2005

"I again had the urge to travel"

"Meanwhile, in a Paraguayan outpost, [Alvar Nunez] Cabeza de Vaca sees his strict rules of respectful cohabitation with the local Indians dismantled by the pull of old habits: 'Amazons in the jungle, like mermaids to sailors at sea, were the wishful fantasies of isolated men, forever hopeful that some lustful encounter or blissful discovery would dissolve their suffering.' To cries of 'Freedom!,' the governor is arrested by a mob and jailed".

- from a review by Ivan Briscoe, who edits the English language edition of El Pais, of
A Western Gate: The Return of Saint Agnes by Marcus Cabeza de Vaca ("Cabeza de Vaca Junior"). The whole review is attached as a comment.

The relacion of the "original" Cabeza de Vaca was among the inspirational texts when I lived in Los Angeles in the late 1980s and, in my spare time, tried to imagine and rediscover the historial landscapes of the continent.

1 comment:

Caspar Henderson said...

In search of the errant conqueror

A new novel explores the parallels between a 16th century odyssey and modern-day California



The pantheon of Spanish onquistadors may not include his name, but Álvar
Núñez Cabeza de Vaca still lays claim to one of the early Spanish empire's most puzzling and extraordinary life-histories. Not for him the toppling of Indian rulers or grabbing of gold: Cabeza de Vaca's feat was to survive,
shipwrecked, among the indigenous peoples of Florida, knowing not a word of their language and having nothing to sell. For six years.

Moving by blind instinct and gaining renown as a shaman, Cabeza de Vaca and three other lost souls from a doomed expedition to explore North America's landmass eventually met up.

In 1535, they started winding their way around the Gulf of Mexico, across the plains of the modern United States - these were the first Europeans ever to see buffalo - and back to the imperial heartland of New Spain. His tale, full of Homeric improbabilities, has been known since it was recounted in his book Relación (1542); yet the author of
the recently published English-language novel, The Western Gate: The Return of Saint Agnes, has a special genetic entitlement to revisit the tale.

Marcus Cabeza de Vaca admits that the tale of his ancestor (their surname literally means "cow's head") has haunted him since he was young. The bloodline of latter-day author and 16th century discoverer has diluted over the centuries in the brew of North American migration, but Cabeza the younger's own life, teased and transformed into his fiction and then laid
alongside the retelling of his ancestor's saga, points to the similarities in the two men's restless natures.

Born in 1950 in San Diego, the younger Cabeza quickly tired of the material abundance and effortless security of West Coast life: "All the basic needs were met," the author explains in an interview from his current home in Athens. "I had it all too early and too fast."

Likewise, his avatar in the
novel, named directly after the great conquistador, begins a journey of learning and adventure across the mafia's pseudo-mansions and beleaguered Indian reservations of 1980s California. "Life in this part of the world, in modern times, has become an unsuccessful quenching of an inherited fire - a misdirection of the quest to move further outward," the author writes.

Impatience with the safe and stable also drove the conquistador onward.
Having defied all the odds in Pánfilo de Nárvaez's disastrous 1527
expedition - four survivors out of 400 starters, a not untypical statistic of early empire -, Cabeza the elder accepted a new posting from Charles V on his return to Spain. This time he would serve as adelantado (governor) of the isolated and besieged viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, comprising what is now Paraguay and Argentina; the reader is reminded of Sinbad the Sailor, recounting before every calamitous sea-journey that "I again had the urge to travel."

In the rudimentary colonial capital of Asunción, Cabeza de Vaca sought to combat those two quintessential ills of far-flung imperial outposts:
delusions of gold, and mass polygamy with the indigenous locals "gluttony
of the flesh"). He failed, miserably, and a mutiny chained and expelled him back to Europe.

Shuttling over 400 pages between these two lives - one of ultra-modern living, the other of grub-eating survival - the author constructs a fascinating meditation on human movement, greed, power and the urge to step beyond the bank balance of everyday living to appreciate some greater, unfathomable whole.

The aim, it should be stressed, is not religious. Nor, according to the
author, is it peddling "spiritual" solutions of the sort that California has hijacked and packaged for the world market. "The idea," says the author, "is that, maybe, one of the most disenfranchised citizens has the simplest and
clearest idea of what spirituality is."

A very concrete encounter between the errant Cabeza de Vaca Jr. and a young woman called Inés from a Chumash Indian reservation anchors the novel. The two meet in a hospice where they both feel urged to attend to the needs of the dying residents, a job in which the story-spinning Inés excels. Soon, plans to franchise a casino on Chumash land lead to a mafia sting against
Inés, who is herself saved through the intervention of Cabeza de Vaca,
coincidentally a personal tutor of a mafiosi's slow-learning son.

The resulting imbroglio, perhaps in keeping with the nature of the location, teeters toward cinematic cliché. The author's effort to link Inés' story with that of her namesake Agnes, the virginal "lamb of God" slain by the Romans in 304 AD for her Christianity, also sit somewhat uneasily within the
tale. But it is in the weft of the two adjacent stories, with Inés' quest to restore Indian dignity mirroring the elder Cabeza de Vaca's own evolving respect for the native peoples of the Americas, that the author is at his lucid best.

At one, particularly touching moment, Inés begins telling a group of schoolchildren the ancient Chumash myths, only for her rapt listeners to be distracted by an oncoming brass band in the street outside, celebrating the cowboy pioneers of the 19th century. "By now Inés' whole audience had
disappeared out onto the boulevard. The sound of the band was deafening... I could see tears of disappointment and anger in her eyes."

Meanwhile, in a Paraguayan outpost, Cabeza de Vaca sees his strict rules of respectful cohabitation with the local Indians dismantled by the pull of old habits: "Amazons in the jungle, like mermaids to sailors at sea, were the wishful fantasies of isolated men, forever hopeful that some lustful encounter or blissful discovery would dissolve their suffering" To cries of "Freedom!," the governor is arrested by a mob and jailed.

Centuries later came vindication: Cabeza de Vaca's name is now often
bracketed with that select group of 16th century Spanish priests and
conquistadors, Bartolomé de las Casas and Vasco de Quiroga foremost among them, who appreciated the need to act humanely toward the conquered
"savages" of the Americas.

"Here's a guy who was groomed to be a conquistador," the author explains
from Greece. "But the ordeal he suffered in Florida brought him humanity and humility. He came to a revelation about himself, and realized that there was
virtue in the Indian."

Yet to his credit, the novelist does not follow his state's movie industry into a golden sunset ending - or not quite. Instead, modern California is brilliantly depicted as a kind of conquest endpoint, a summation and elaboration of the human drives, good and bad, that imperial expansion involved.

In the final pages, Cabeza de Vaca Jr and Inés head off to the most sacred site in Chumash lore, the so-called Western Gate, where the spirits of dead people lifted off into heaven (known as Similaqsa ). There, the two find the US military base of Point Conception, which to the author's astonishment is
marketed as a "spaceport" to fire rich people's ashes into the great beyond.

Old legends and beliefs can die or be killed, the novelist suggests, but somehow hi-tech, savvy and moneyed humanity will return to its roots, at the risk of never knowing why.

A Western Gate: The Return of Saint Agnes is available from Anagnosis Books, Greece, www.anagnosis.gr

The journeys of Cabeza de Vaca

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was born around 1490 in Jerez de la Frontera to an aristocratic family, presided over by his grandfather Pedro de Vera, who distinguished himself in the brutal colonization in the 1480s of the Canary Islands - regarded by historians as the forerunner of the conquest of the Americas.

Having served the Spanish army with merit in Italy and at home, Cabeza de Vaca's fate was decided by his appointment as second-in-command to Pánfilo de Narváez's exploratory expedition to Florida in 1527. After various disasters, including mass desertions, hurricanes, disease and shipwrecks, Cabeza de Vaca and three other survivors were eventually left stranded in what is now Galveston Island.

Living at the mercy of indigenous tribes, the four conquistadors - one of them a black Moor from Morocco - set out years later for Mexico, on an epic journey that saw them back in Mexico City in 1535.

After writing an account of his odyssey, Cabeza de Vaca returned to the Americas in 1540 as governor of the troubled Río de la Plata. Five years later, he was sent back in chains, and spent his remaining years defending his honor before the Spanish authorities. He died in Seville in 1560.