Wednesday, September 7, 2011

My Latest Reading

Hugh Thomas has always been regarding as one of the preiminent historians of the Spanish-speaking world. I very much enjoyed his book Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico. I also started his book Cuba: The Pursuit of Freedom, and while I enjoyed much of it I eventually gave up: it's a whopping 1500 pages. I pre-ordered his latest book, The Golden Empire: Spain, Charles V and the Creation of America, and have been reading it off and on since it arrived last week. I am both fascinated and disappointed.

I am fascinated because the story of the Spanish conquest of the Americas is compelling. The conquistadores were remarkable men in their relentlessness, cunning and cruelty. Tony Soprano would not have lasted five minutes around these guys. I perversely admire their determination. The men of one Spanish expedition to Florida marched until their boots were worn out. When they decided their only hope of further progress was to travel by water, they found a navigable river, melted down everything metal they could spare to make saws, hammers, and nails, then cut down trees to build ships. The conquistadores were men who would endure starvation, illness, march through hot jungles and over ice-capped mountains, all in the hope of achieving their mad dreams of conquest and riches. There's a further out-sized quality to the actions of the leading men of the day back in Europe, such as when King Charles V of Spain (who was also Holy Roman Emperor) asked for a loan from some Flemish bankers. His collateral? Venezuela.

I am disappointed with The Golden Empire because of various instances of sloppiness I see in the text. Thomas uses exclamation points, which in a nonfiction work are a sign of an amateur writer, which he certainly isn't. There are occasional difficulties for the general reader that a decent editor would have addressed. For example, there's never any effort to explain sixteenth-century Spanish currency. To say that an official received an annual salary of 150,000 maravedis is meaningless if the reader doesn't have any idea of what a maravedi was worth in 21st-century dollars (to the extent that one can realistically make such a comparision), or what kind of standard of living a given number of maravedis could provide. At other times Thomas provides details that beg some kind of explanation. For example, he writes admiringly of Cortés' rebuilding of Mexico City/Tenochtitlan in the first couple of years after the Conquest, and notes that he built two hospitals, including one specifically for lepers. Was there an extensive outbreak of leprosy among the surviving Aztec population? Did some of the colonists arriving from Spain turn out to be lepers and infect other people? Or was Cortés anticipating a leprosy outbreak?

Is Hugh Thomas so arrogant a writer that he refuses to accept edits, or has his publisher (Random House) laid off all their editors?

Another thing: on the book jacket Thomas' author portrait is an oil painting. It's credited to Hernan Cortés.* However accomplished the conqueror of Mexico was, I doubt his gifts included portraiture and access to a time machine so he could go 500 years into the future to paint pictures of British writers.

*I am not making this up.

No comments:

Blog Archive