The Tale of a Not-So-Heroic Hero

APART from a small, but persistent, scholarly dispute as to whether he, Leif Ericson, or someone else ought to be credited with discovering the New World, Christopher Columbus enjoyed a fairly glorious reputation for most of the five centuries following his famous voyage.

Honored for his courage in braving the unknown, his contribution to proving that the earth really was round, and his role in opening the New World to the Old, he seemed a conveniently nonpartisan hero whom all Americans - North, South, Caribbean, and Central - would admire.

In recent years, however, the enterprising Genoese sailor has been subjected to severe revisionist scrutiny.

Columbus the discoverer is now viewed by some as Columbus the exploiter: He has been denounced as an avaricious fanatic who needlessly robbed, killed, and terrorized the native "Indians" he met, and blamed in more general terms as the spearhead of a massive, manifold movement of explorers, plunderers, conquistadores, slave mongers, and colonizers who destroyed native American peoples and their cultures.

In "Bay of Arrows," poet and novelist Jay Parini offers an intriguing look at Columbus and at current efforts to reevaluate him - and Americans. It's a novel that poses a pair of interrelated questions: To what extent are Americans Columbus's heirs? And do they have the right to judge him?

The scarcely heroic hero of this novel is a 42-year-old Vermont English professor named Christopher Genovese (get it?). Geno, as he's known to friends and family, is coping with a minor midlife crisis, while trying to write a long poem about Columbus. (Parini, himself a poet, furnishes specimens of Geno's opus.)

The book is a veritable network of parallels, many rather obvious and heavy-handed. Parini alternates chapters about the daily life of the professor with chapters retelling episodes from the life of the famed explorer. Although Parini has won praise for his previous work as a historical novelist, his retelling of Columbus's story, while unobjectionable, is uninspired. Relying on a direct, modern style to bring the past to life, he succeeds only in making history seem flat and banal.

Geno's world, however, is portrayed with greater subtlety. His awkward relationship with his young sons, his shaky, but basically solid love for his wife, and his tenuous alliances with his colleagues emerge in a series of deft little strokes that fill in the picture of who and what he is.

In many ways the typical modern academic, Geno cherishes fond memories of 1960s radicalism while battening off a system the soi-disant "revolutionaries" once derided. He considers himself pro-feminist, but dislikes his feminist colleague. He hobnobs with students, including a one-night stand with a young woman whose thesis he's advising, but resents the encroachments on professorial power that enable this same young woman to turn around and charge him with sexual harassment. Happily for Geno, just as thi ngs are getting uncomfortable for him at the college, he receives, quite out of the blue, a half-million dollar grant from the "MacAlasdair Foundation," which allows him to tell the college to "take this job and shove it."

Without properly consulting his wife, he decides to move the whole family to a secluded beachfront property in the Dominican Republic, where he envisions a life close to nature, with plenty of time to work on his poem. Geno's choice, near the so-called "Bay of Arrows" on the island of Hispaniola, not so coincidentally, is one of the places Columbus met resistance in landing.

Employing cheap local labor to help him build his ecologically correct dream-house, Geno achieves a seemingly symbiotic relationship with the islanders. He feels a particularly warm bond with the kindly, reliable Augusto, who becomes his mainstay. The children of the two families, Anglo and Hispanic, play together, and all seems well in this tropical paradise. Geno's long-suffering, clever, and sympathetic wife Susan even learns to overcome her distaste for the gigantic spiders that flourish in the clime .

The serpent in this paradise is Alec Selkirk, a stalwart ex-colonial Scotsman, whom the impressionable Geno sees as the epitome of manly self-reliance. "Don't let 'em rob you," is Selkirk's constant refrain about the "lazy, dishonest natives." Geno knows better, or ought to. But when his wife's favorite short-wave radio disappears and the evidence points toward Augusto, Geno reports his suspicions to the local police.

Augusto, of course, is innocent: Geno's children and their friends had taken the radio as part of a spy game they were playing, and Augusto was only trying to return it to its rightful owners. But having set the creaky, corrupt legal machinery in motion, Geno has a hard time getting poor Augusto released from police custody.

As Geno discovers the extent to which he - wittingly and unwittingly - has exploited people, from the islanders to his patient wife and even the student who accused him of harassment, his perception of Columbus undergoes some modifications.

Initially, Geno considers him to have been "a genocidal monster." By the novel's end, his view has softened: Columbus may indeed have been harsh, brutal, and greedy for gold, but he sincerely believed his enterprise would help fund the Christian conquest of Jerusalem.

If Columbus was woefully deaf to the anguish his actions caused, such deafness is a persistent human trait each generation must battle in itself.

Yet behind the edifying message about the need for self-criticism is a less attractive attitude of self-satisfaction. Geno seems a little too pleased at being able to accuse himself of exploiting other people, and his willingness to admit blame looks suspiciously like a slick way to get him - and Columbus - off the hook in a burst of ill-conceived cultural relativism.

On the whole, "Bay of Arrows" is a diverting and thought-provoking novel, but it is also a lot less profound than it pretends to be.

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