I spent most of my childhood in Latin America. I grew up with the stories of “La Conquista”, the Spanish conquest of the former so impressive pre-Columbian empires, the Inca in Peru, the Aztecs – or Mexica, as Mr Rickford prefers to call them—in Mexico. Add to this that I had a history teacher who had two major passions in life—England in the 14th century and the pre-conquest history of Mexico—and I count myself as something of an amateur expert on the campaigns led by Pizarro in Perú and Cortés in Mexico.
It was therefore with some trepidation I approached this book. After all, these are complicated events and the main characters are just as complex, and the temptation to simplify must be difficult to overcome. Mr Rickford does not simplify—not beyond what he must to make the story comprehensive to the more uninitiated. He presents us with an excellent portrayal of Hernán Cortés, this ambitious, greedy, driven man who had the temerity to set out to conquer an empire with less than a thousand men. Cortés is not a nice man. But he is brave and resourceful; now and then he even shows a glimmer of piety.
Opposing Cortés is Motecuhzoma, the Mexica emperor. Here Mr Rickford presents us with a man who feels in his bones that the pale people are bad news but who prevaricates, not knowing for sure how to handle this new threat. This is a cultured man, surrounded by his equally cultured generals and advisors who enjoy high-quality alcohol, collect ceramics, precious works of art in jade—all of this in stark contrast to the bloodier side of their culture: the daily human sacrifices to appease the gods.
The Mexica did not come to dominate their world through their enjoyment of art, but rather because they excelled at warfare. At times, I felt the brutal aspects of the Mexica were too downplayed. In The Serpent and the Eagle, the aggressors are the violent, barbaric Spanish—but it is important to remember that other native people allied with the Spanish because they had experienced the equally violent and barbaric qualities of the Mexica in full conquering mode.
Mr Rickford tells his story through various POVs, among which are Malintze/Doña Marina and Solomon. Solomon is an old Moorish slave with little love for the Christians who have enslaved him. His POV adds depth and reflection to the unfolding narrative as well as an element of determinism: Solomon fears that the tribes that flock so eagerly to ally themselves with Cortés will one day wake up to discover that their partnership with the Spanish was never one between equals, and that once the Mexica are defeated, the Spanish will subdue all the native peoples.
Malintze is the single female voice in the story, a young woman sold as a slave by the Mexica who now has an opportunity to get her own back. Intelligent and endowed with an ear for languages she soon becomes indispensable to Cortés, acting as his interpreter. He frees her and treats her with respect and for the first time in her short life, Malintze tastes the intoxicating brew named “power”—and finds she likes it.
The grandeur and complexity of the Mexica culture is brought to vivid life by Mr Rickford. The vicious greenery of the jungle, the colours of the native birds, the harshness of the wilderness—all of it is vibrantly depicted, usually through the POV of the Spanish newcomers, who are both entranced and intimidated.
Ultimately, though, this is the story of how one man and his determination to enrich himself led him to take on a vastly superior enemy in an unfamiliar world. Cortés plays the political game as a chess master dominates the chequered board, both against those among his fellow Spaniards who question him and against the native tribes he encounters. Inevitably, the Mexica will march towards destruction—but The Serpent and the Eagle ends before the final confrontation takes place, making me assume there will be a continuation.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. What is more, I know that my old teacher would have done so as well!
© Anna Belfrage