Book Review

The Broken Spears by Miguel León-Portilla (ed.)

historical documents on colonisation of Mexico translated from Nahuatl

I have never read The Diary of Anne Frank, but I imagine it is one of the few books with the same amount of – wishing a better term existed – dramatic irony as The Broken Spears, an anthology of contemporary(ish) writing from the indigenous peoples of what is now Mexico, about the Spanish conquest of their lands.

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All the pieces here were written in Nahuatl (the language once known as Aztec) and the vast majority were produced by – or with – Nahuatlan people who had lived through the conquest. Most of these texts were put to paper during living memory of the events they describe, and some of them – particularly poems and lyrics – are likely to have been oral histories that were first written while the events were happening.

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The cliché “History is written by the victors” is mentioned by the editor/translator Miguel León-Portillo in his introduction to The Broken Spears, but this work makes clear that this statement isn’t quite right. History isn’t written only by the victors, but the histories written by the victims often go unread.

Regardless of the faults inherent in this book (see below), its premise conveys to it a great historical and social value: the fact that modern readers are able to access this collection of Nahuatl texts in numerous translations is a wonderful and important thing. But, there is an awful lot going on trust, here.

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León-Portillo does not present the extracts and texts in The Broken Spears in a clear way.

There are sixteen chapters, each with a short introduction describing which manuscripts León-Portillo will be quoting from, but he fails to offer even vague details about where – within each primary text (many of which are HUGE) – these excerpts originate. Rather than provide the complete (or the openly-abridged) text of all thirty or so sources he uses, León-Portillo instead orders short sections in perceived chronological order based on the events they describe.

In the final couple of chapters, there are [more] complete texts from later centuries that are offered with dates and writers, and I couldn’t help feeling that the book as a whole would have benefitted from this approach throughout.

I would have preferred to read the same narrative from multiple sources, rather than from one source León-Portillo has selected without an explanation of his reasoning. León-Portillo behaves in the opposite way to the compilers of The New Testament and their decision to include four Gospels, innit, and this matters much more because these texts describe events that actually definitely happened.

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As time passes in these texts, the Nahuatl words used to describe the Spanish go from “gods” to “monkeys” to “pigs” to “barbarians”.

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Perhaps the bleakest piece of writing in The Broken Spears is a letter written by the surviving aristocrats of a less-dominant local city-state who allied themselves with the Spanish as soon as the invaders arrived.

In this letter – signed and dated and addressed to the Spanish king – these turncoats who provided essential assistance in decimating their own culture and continent, beg and plead for better treatment from the Spanish, because they began “boot-licking” (#soonline) before it was essential. These fellas became Christians before people were being killed if they refused to become Christians: they were on-board with the europeanisation of their continent before anyone had any idea of how unfair a fight it was…

Without their help, they argue, the Spanish would not have had such an easy route to power. “Please reward us for our treachery towards our neighbours.” It’s true, but shows a misunderstanding of the character of those they allied themselves with.

It’s bleak, throughout, to read of people writing about the moments when a different decision or reaction could – or would – have turned things around. Throughout, there is too much trust, a belief in fairness and honour persists within the Nahuatl texts – even after Cortes and his acolytes have demonstrated that their word is worth less than dirt.

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There is writing about the dogs the Spanish brought – dogs which they used as a method of execution when feeling particularly bloodlusty.

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The pieces that describe ritual human sacrifice of Spanish soldiers are oddly – narratively – satisfying; although it is fuel for racist propaganda back in Europe, it is also the way, historically, enemies to the Aztecs, the mexicanos, were treated.

It is this moment, when the Aztecs, the mexicanos, the inhabitants of Tenochticlan, begin treating the Spanish as they would treat any other hostile group, one feels a sudden burst of hope. That hope, though, is immediately dashed because, as a reader four hundred years later, I know exactly how this war plays out: one side will lose almost everything they have ever had.

Then again, what a book like The Broken Spears proves is that the “everything was lost” narrative is also inaccurate. There remain approaching two million Nahuatl speakers today: the language survived, as did all of these manuscripts which León-Portillo was able to study, collate and translate. Though the damage wrought by the Spanish – and then other colonialists – was horrific, it didn’t quite manage to destroy every last vestige of the cultures that existed previous to their landfall.

There’s no happy ending to this story, alas, but I suppose it’s not quite as solidly depressing as the standard narrative seems… Language survived and that, I think, matters.

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This books is well worth your time. Yes, whoever you are. If you have time to read TriumphoftheNow.com, you have time to read The Broken Spears.


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