As Columbus Day sailed by this year, it left in its wake countless new histories, a handful of novels, two films and an opera. The overwhelming number of these seem to feed, like high school history texts, on the longtime popular myths that have secured for Columbus his own holiday and a lounge chair in the American imagination.
Among the most artful desisters is Homero Aridjis' 1492. This moving picaresque novel-at once a punctilious historical reconstruction of Fifteenth-Century Spain and a dazzling, original work of fiction-magically brings to life the other 1492, the year of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
The novel is narrated by Juan Cabezon, descendent of converted Jews. Orphaned as a child, witness to his mother's violent murder, the protagonist has survived in the Medieval town of Madrid by his wits, with the guidance of some of Castile's most suspicious characters. These include the blind and bumbling beggar Pero Menaque, an accidental prophet who reappears throughout the novel to inflect the protagonist's course. He leads Cabezon through the darkest, dirtiest quarters of Madrid, introducing him to the beggars, scoundrels, prostitutes and pariahs that constitute Madrid's other life.
Cabezon spends much of the first half of his narrative recounting his daily excursions through the city, and plot development is spare. But Aridjis manages to keep-at times enthrall-his readers with a painstaking and prodigious recreation of everyday life. Aridjis' extraordinary research has provided us with lovingly detailed descriptions of everything from Castillian dress-down to the very weaves of the garments-to marriage rites, to the arcane systems of weights and measures.
With Cabezon the reader roams Madrid's narrow streets and the back alleys where chamber pots are emptied, enters an apothecary's shop where the contents of every vial are itemized, and loiters in the city squares-always with an ear to the edicts pronounced by the town criers.
The action begins when Cabezon, now a young man with considerable experience on the streets, puts his life at risk to shelter and then marry Isabel, a Jew fleeing the Inquisition that has already taken her parents. Condemned a heretic for harboring a Jew, Cabezon wanders Madrid only at the deadest hours. When he returns one morning to find his pregnant wife missing, Cabezon undertakes the journey that constitutes the second half of the novel.
Drawing on chronicles, annals, travelogues and other historical documents of the period (from which he quotes liberally), Aridjis masterfully reconstructs the life on the highways, attending to the peculiarities of every town that Cabezon visits. Following tips that he receives in the various Jewish quarters through which he passes, Cabezon traverses a Spain of madness and leprosy, wanton torture and gruesome auto-da-fe's. Ironically, Cabezon intersects the paths of Torquemada himself in Avila.
On the highways in the summer of 1492, Cabezon witnesses the horrific mass-expulsion of the Jews-their lives and possessions are now prey to roadside thieves as they march to the southern ports. Finding his wife and child in Puerto de Santa Maria as they prepare to embark, and unable to detain them, Cabezon promises to make his fortune and find them in Flanders. He then takes the road to Palos in search of a man he has heard of named Columbus. The novel closes, "We left port by way of the Saltes River, half an hour before sunup, on Friday, the third day of August, in the year of Our Lord, 1492. Deo Gratias."
Cabezon is a complex narrator who describes what he sees with microscopic precision, but who generally withholds his own feelings. Aridjis employs a stilted language of stylized historical resonances, slipping only on occasion into the passionate lyricism the reader expects of one of Mexico's foremost poets.
Maintaining this delicate balance of the historical and the lyrical throughout, Aridjis manages both to reconstruct a world and to keep it alight with poetic insight. Fully in command of the irony that drives this novel, Aridjis steers 1492 clear of the countless obstacles that confront a fictional history of this magnitude. This other history of 1492 is one of the most compelling to appear.