New World Spanish Lessons

NO doubt about it, this is the 500th anniversary of something or other. Books, academic symposia, feature films - all are appearing this Columbus quincentennial year, trying to make sense of what it all means. Yet even the terminology is subject to confusion.

Did Columbus "discover" America, did he "encounter" it, or, as with Prospero in Shakespeare's "The Tempest," did he simply "invent" a New World?

In a book intriguingly entitled The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World (Houghton Mifflin, 399 pp., $35), Carlos Fuentes, the estimable Mexican man of letters, tackles some of the decade's thorniest questions. "The Buried Mirror" is also the name of the Discovery Channel/BBC television series that Fuentes hosts.

A half millennium after first contact with America, just how Spanish still are the Spanish Americans, he asks, and what lessons from the past and for the future might they learn today from the mother country?

For answers he looks to Spain's post-Franco renaissance, which this year is being celebrated in the Seville Expo, the Barcelona Olympics, and in Madrid as Europe's official capital of culture. Spain, he says, "is the European shore of the New World." And, after nearly 400 pages of richly illustrated but necessarily episodic cultural history, Fuentes finds that knowing what is past is less important than knowing what must follow.

If, as he argues, Spain's sudden resurgence was erected upon its own cultural bedrock - that hardened alloy of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim metals - so too must be built the future of Spanish America, where the culture is all the richer for its further braiding of Indian, African, and Old World twines.

For reasons far too complicated for Fuentes to survey adequately, Latin America's politics and economics have floundered, he claims, because they have ignored the region's essence. "Capitalism and socialism," he writes, "have both failed in Latin America because of our inability to distinguish and strengthen our own tradition, which is authentically Iberian and not derivatively Anglo-American or Marxist."

Fuentes finds "buried mirrors" on each side of the Atlantic, using them as eye-like icons to confirm the existence of some long-forgotten mutual gaze. On the American shore, he unearths a pre-Columbian looking glass near where the Spanish first landed.

In the Old World, he ponders the mirror in the background of "Las Meninas," Velazquez's great royal portrait. The painting, which is reproduced on the cover of "The Buried Mirror," reflects two darkened figures who must in fact be standing before the canvas. Could they perhaps be you and I? And what, he asks, does one make of Cervantes's Knight of Mirrors, who failed to cure Don Quixote of his uniquely Spanish form of madness?

In a masterly reading of exemplary Hispanic artworks and life stories, stretching from the cave paintings of Altamira to the mythic personae of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa, Fuentes proceeds to unbury these and other mirrors in order both to reflect upon reality and to project his own imagination.

Thus, Fuentes has chosen to write, as he describes it, "a biography of my culture, which is really (I understood as I wrote it) a biography of myself," seeking, as did Cervantes and Goya, the cultural continuity that might transcend all the economic disunities and political deliria still haunting so much of the Hispanic world.

But Fuentes's Ibero-centric thinking about Spanish America undercuts much of his own argument for cultural syncretism. After praising the intermingled Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew inscriptions on a 13th-century Spanish king's tomb, he seems to give short shrift to pre-Columbian cultural manifestations that rightly deepen Hispanic roots.

We hear of Inca foodstuffs finding their way back to Spain and see how overly hierarchical Aztec institutions resemble those of the Hapsburgs and the Roman Catholic church. But we learn surprisingly little of those uniquely American endowments upon which today's civic society might be renewed - such as the Incan concept of communitarian landholdings and the Mayan respect for learning.

Ever the verbal ironist, Fuentes toys with the concept of "conquest." Contrary to the common view of a smooth progression from the expulsion of Moors and Jews to the discovery of America, he would rather see time as running backward.

From the lofty achievements of the tolerant Castilian King Alfonso the Wise (1252-1284), Spanish intellectual history has seemingly been going downhill ever since. The reconquest of Spain, after all, did precede the conquest of the New World.

And concurrent with the conquest was the counter-conquest, with the conquistadors vanquished racially and culturally by their black and Indian subjects. And Fuentes goes on wryly to subvert the symbol of North America's European melting pot. Speaking of Mexican immigration across the Rio Grande, he writes: "The contemporary equivalent of Ellis Island is in the middle of a cactus desert."

Fuentes elaborates on several historical themes to stitch his broad narrative together. He gives a prominent role to the growth of cities - growing out of Spain's Phoenician trading ports - and how the idea of free citizenship nurtured democracy and advanced learning throughout this hemisphere. He proudly lists the founding dates of Spanish America's provincial towns, mischievously noting that Santo Domingo's university was chartered a full century before Harvard University, where he has long taught.

But the book's most enduring message is psychological rather than historical, taken from the pages of "Don Quixote," the Man of La Mancha, which in English means "the stain." "We are all men and women of La Mancha," he writes. "When we understand that none of us is pure, that we are all both real and ideal, heroic and absurd ... only then do we truly understand" the rise, the fall, and the recovery today of Spanish grandeur - and its meaning for the Americas.

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