The Right Hand of the Sun
What is the most dramatic and extraordinary adventure ever recorded? My vote must go to Cortes’s conquest of Mexico in 1521, when 500 Spaniards overthrew a vast and opulent empire, hitherto unknown to Europeans and alien to anything they had ever encountered: the stuff of science fiction rather than history.
The story has not lacked chroniclers, starting with Cortes himself and including Prescott’s magisterial ‘The Conquest of Mexico’ (1843) and the eyewitness account of Bernal Diaz (1580, Penguin translation 1963). No novelist could fail with such a story, but what is there new for a modern novelist to say, or in what new way can the story be told?
Anita Mason tells it from the viewpoints of several different participants, all in the Spanish camp, including Cortes and his interpreter/mistress, Marina. I found this rather confusing, and understandably Mason cannot match Diaz, who was a footsoldier in that terrible campaign. Her originality lies in developing the side story of Geronimo, a sailor who was shipwrecked in Mexico ten years before the Conquest and lived there as a slave until he was ransomed by Cortes for a bag of glass beads. The story of his captivity is imaginatively recreated and gives us a narrator who can understand and sympathise with both the European and Indian cultures. This is an exceptionally good book, the best modern novel on the Conquest of Mexico. You will enjoy this even if you already know the main story, and if you don’t I hope it encourages you to go on and read Diaz.