I don’t often read books twice, but I’ve just read this book for the second time. I first read it in 2007, when I had just started my post-grad studies at La Trobe University. The author, Anna Lanyon had quite a claim to fame within the history faculty at the time for having published not one, but two, books before embarking on her PhD. I enjoyed the book then, but felt that the combined travel/history format with the author playing an active role in the narrative was becoming rather hackneyed (although it may have been more unconventional in 1999 when the book was first published). Now thirteen years later, the historian-as-character is even more ubiquitous and my reservations about this well-worn technique are even stronger.
So who was Malinche, or as she is also called, Malintzin or Marina? She was a Nahau woman who acted as translator to the ‘conquistador’ Hernan Cortez. She had been either sold or kidnapped into slavery to a group of Maya, where she learned the Mayan language. When this group met with Cortez’ conquistadors, she was passed on to Cortez. It was transaction for both Cortez and Malinche that had personal and historical ramifications. When Cortez and his men encountered the Nahuatl- speaking Moctezuma, it was possible to set up a four-way translation chain between the Spanish-speaking Cortez, the Spanish/Mayan-speaking Jerónimo de Aguilar, Mayan/Nahuatl-speaking Malinche and Nahuatl-speaking Moctezuma (and back again). She soon learned Spanish herself, and acted as Cortez’s interpreter, advisor, intermediary and lover. She is variously seen as traitor or victim, and her story has been incorporated into the La Llorona legend.
So why am I re-reading this book now? I was prompted to read it after watching the excellent series Hernan on SBS On Demand, which is available until February 2022 (Spanish, with English subtitles). I’ve been learning Spanish for a few years now, and am far more attuned to the issue of translation, which runs through this book. There has also been increasing emphasis on contact history in relation to indigenous/British history in an Australian context. The BLM protests have raised questions about contested commemorations, and Malinche’s contribution to Mexican history is certainly controversial. I’m more attuned to Latin American history now. While I haven’t been to Mexico City (alas, it was on my to-do travel list which will probably not be fulfilled), I have been to other South American countries and am more familiar with Spanish colonial architecture and town layout, and Latin American culture. So, the book remains the same, but I have probably changed as a reader.
For all these reasons, I think that I enjoyed the book more the second time around. It is very much a travel/history amalgam but apart from some rather clunky dialogue with people she met on her travels, there is also considered, informed reflection on language, representation, memory and agency during first contact. While she does describe her lodgings and her work in the archives, she does not resort to details about the food or the weather as the less adept of these historian-as-character books do. While I recognize the appeal for readers and hence the encouragement of publishers, I still suspect that this genre tends to roll the historian onto centre stage when the historic record is thin. That is not to say that I don’t like seeing the historian at work – I do -, but I prefer eavesdropping on their questions and ruminations as professionals rather than reading their itinerary.
I do have her second book The New World of Martin Cortez and I’ll be interested to see whether the approach is the same.
My rating: When I read it the first time back in 2007, I rated it a 7. It’s gone up in my estimation and is now an 8.
Sourced from: purchased e-book
I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.