The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World
New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery
The Times Atlas of World Exploration: 3,000 Years of Exploring, Explorers, and Mapmaking
Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 9001900
The Early Spanish Main
The Tainos: Rise and Decline of the People Who Greeted Columbus
Disease and Demography in the Americas
Letters from a New World: Amerigo Vespucci’s Discovery of America
Portugal and the Discovery of America: Christopher Columbus and the Portuguese
L’expansion Portugaise dans la littérature latine de la renaissance
Isabel The Queen: Life and Times
The Portuguese Empire in Asia 15001700: A Political and Economic History
Columbus was mugged on the way to his own party. The American quincentennial year drew to a close with barely a mention of the Admiral of the Ocean Sea and would-be “Viceroy of India.” Even the advertising agencies found him too hot a potato (the potato of course being one of Europe’s more useful American acquisitions resulting from Spain’s conquests in the New World). By October Columbus had become what advertisers dislike most, especially when they are promoting department store sales on family holidays: he had become controversial.
Kirkpatrick Sale made a preemptive strike against Columbus as a destructive colonizer in The Conquest of Paradise (1990), and in spite of criticism of Sale for tendentiousness, the wave of subsequent publications could not erase the initial tone he had set. The great birthday therefore passed with barely a murmur of national celebration. Two multimillion-dollar movies about Columbus came and went, largely unattended. Carlos Fuentes presented several hours of televised historical travelogue in Europe and the Americas, ending predictably at the US-Mexican border, where he asserted (at least culturally speaking) Mexico’s claim to the lost northern territories, an irredentism President Salinas must have found singularly illtimed as the debate over NAFTA heated up.
Fuentes’s book The Buried Mirror, like much of its bibliography, in fact appears firmly stuck in the 1960s. His presence seemed intrusive in the otherwise well-filmed and constructed television series with the same title, which would have been much better had it made more use of the originator of the idea, Peggy Liss, a distinguished historian of Spain and Spanish America and author of an excellent new biography of Columbus’s sponsor, Queen Isabella. Fuentes, never one to use two words if more will do, throws in virtually every stereotype of hispanidade propaganda (Bulls, Virgins, Tangos, Gauchos, Don Quixote) while adding little that is distinctive of his own. Latin America, mired in disaster, is somehow to be “rescued by culture.” His book looks attractive, as do parts of the television series in which he appeared, and we are given good views of the crossing of the Andes by San Martín, of the Baroque churches of Mexico and Peru, and of paintings by Velázquez and Goya. Such skillful and expensive packaging is not an uncommon characteristic of the quincentennial year, where the wine is often less impressive than its container.
The Spanish government had earlier set store by the quincentennial (and had subsidized the Fuentes undertaking along with the many other projects, books, and exhibitions in the quincentennial cause); but it virtually banished Columbus’s name from the great Seville exposition as soon as the organizers began to realize that Spain risked alienating Jews, Muslims, and much of Latin America by too direct a celebration of Columbus’s accomplishments. As for the Pope, in arranging his long-planned visit to Hispaniola in commemoration of the evangelization of the New World, some last-minute rescheduling was needed so that he might avoid the controversy surrounding the inauguration of the …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.