Alberto Manguel

In my Buenos Aires High School, alongside thorough readings of Don Quixote and other Spanish classics, we studied the bloody adventures that some call the Conquest and others the Invasion of the Americas. We learned that the literate and illiterate soldiers who sailed for the New World carried with them not only their mythologies and faith – mermaids and amazons, giants and unicorns, and the redeeming god who is nailed to a cross and the tale of the virgin mother – but also the printed books in which these stories were recorded or retold. It was moving to read in Christopher Columbus’s account of his first voyage across the Atlantic in 1492 that, upon reaching the coast of Guanahani, the admiral saw three manatees swimming close to his ship, and wrote that he observed ‘three mermaids emerge quite visibly from the sea, but’, he added with commendable honesty, ‘they are not as beautiful as they are made out  to be’. Antonio Pigafetta, who travelled with the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan on his voyage around the world in 1519–22, described the inhabitants of

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the southernmost part of the continent as big-footed or 'patagones' because he thought he recognised in the tall natives dressed in boots and capes of fur, the biblical Nephilim, the offspring of the gods and of the daughters of men mentioned in the Book of Genesis. Francisco de Orellana gave the river and the jungle of the land he explored the name of Amazon because, in the women warriors he and his men encountered, Orellana recognised the legendary tribe described by Herodotus. All these men were readers, and their books told them what they were going to see long before they saw it.

A number of these readers brought with them not only the recollection of their readings but the physical books themselves, and when these did not suffice, they began making new ones to furnish their libraries in the New World. Juan de Zumárraga, an elderly priest, was proposed by the Spanish emperor as the bishop of Mexico City. Named Protector of the Indians, Zumárraga proceeded to burn thousands of native manuscripts and artifacts that he deemed contrary to the true faith. At the same time, he encouraged the Emperor to allow him to set up a printing press to provide the new converts with catechisms and manuals for confessors written in the native tongues. In a literary twist that Henry James might have enjoyed, the man responsible for the destruction of many of the earliest documents of the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, was responsible as well for establishing, in 1539, the first printing press in all of the Americas. The earliest productions of the press included not only a book by Zumárraga himself, a Brief Doctrine of the Christian Faith, but also a Latin edition of the dialectics of Aristotle and a handbook of Mexican (i.e. native) grammar by the priest Alonso de Molina. Books are often wiser and more generous than their makers.

The imaginary reality of books contaminates every aspect of our life. We act and feel under the shadow of literary actions and feelings, and even the indifferent states of nature are perceived by us through literary descriptions, something John Ruskin famously called ‘the pathetic fallacy’. This contamination, this style of thought, for want of a better term, allows us to believe that the world around us is a narrative world, and that landscapes and events are part of a story that we are compelled to follow at the same time that we create it. This imaginative credulity leads us, as I’ve said, to unearth Troy but also to hunt the unicorn of whom, a Chinese bestiary tells us, we know nothing because its shyness prevents it from appearing before human eyes.

Among the stories that the Spanish explorers brought to the New World were many that dealt with fabulous kingdoms such as the ones featured in the novels of chivalry, kingdoms in which Don Quixote was an ardent believer. If cities of gold and mountains of precious stones populated the geography of those brave, imaginary epics, their emulators believed that richer golden cities and higher precious mountains would certainly exist in the strange and wonderful lands that they thought were the Indies.

In 1516, the explorer Juan Díaz de Solís sailed into the River Plate, landed a handful of men on the muddy western bank, and was promptly killed and eaten by the Charrúa natives. Some of the survivors continued the voyage and sailed along the coast of Brazil to a place they called Santa Catarina, where a tribe of Tupiguaraníes told them about a mysterious White King, Lord of the Silver Mountain. According to their account, somewhere inland, deep in the jungle, there rose a mountain made entirely of pure silver. The king of that realm was known to be a generous and peace-loving monarch who would gladly give travellers part of his treasure to take away as signs of good will. One of the survivors, Alejo García, decided to mount an expedition to search for the fabulous kingdom. García managed to cross the vast green continent and reach the heights of Peru. He was killed by native arrows on his return journey, but his men brought back with them to Santa Catarina a few chunks of silver ore, presumably from the area of Potosí in Bolivia, that were offered as proof of the truth of the story. From then onwards, the Conquest of the New World was fired by the belief that a magical realm of marvellous riches lay far in the interior of the continent, ready for the picking.

García died in 1525. Ten years later an aristocratic knight, Pedro de Mendoza, who had served as chamberlain to Emperor Charles V and fought in Italy against the French, became convinced that he was the man to find the White King and dispossess him of his riches. Mendoza launched an expedition of 13 ships and two thousand men, partly funded by himself, and partly by the Emperor, who stipulated that Mendoza set up three Spanish fortified towns on the conquered land and, within two years, transport a thousand Spanish colonists to inhabit them. However, after crossing the Atlantic, a terrible storm scattered Mendoza’s fleet off the coast of Brazil. Natural catastrophes are often mirrored by human ones. Shortly after the storm, Mendoza’s lieutenant was mysteriously murdered. These were not the ideal conditions to start a colony or undertake a treasure hunt.

On the banks of the same wide and muddy river where the natives had feasted on Solís, on 2 February 1536, Mendoza founded a city he called Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre after the patroness of Sardinia, a name that successive centuries would trim down to Buenos Aires. Mendoza suffered from syphilis and his intermittently confused state of mind was not conducive to an effective government. Five years later, due to Mendoza's failings and to the belligerence of the natives, the city was abandoned. It was to be founded again some 42 years later by Juan de Garay.  In 1537, a sick and wretched man, Mendoza attempted to return to Spain but died on the homeward journey.

Among the crew of Mendoza’s expedition was Ulrich Schmidl, the 25-year-old son of a wealthy German merchant. Schmidl was witness to the degradation and collapse of the new city, and to the struggles of the colonisers to survive under the constant attacks of the natives. After the city was abandoned, he travelled up to what is today Paraguay and was present at the founding of another city, Asunción, and then travelled further to Bolivia. Receiving news that his elder brother had died and that he had inherited the family fortune, Schmidl asked for a discharge and returned to Europe in 1552. There he wrote an account of his experiences, based on a detailed journal that he had kept throughout his adventures. The book was published in Frankfurt in 1557 under the lengthy title of True History of a Remarkable Voyage Undertaken by Ulrich Schmidl of Straubing in America or the New World, from 1534 to 1554, Where Can Be Found All of His Misfortunes of Nineteen Years As Well As a Description of the Lands and Noteworthy People He Saw There, Written by Himself. Several translations quickly followed, in Latin, French and Spanish.

Schmidl’s account, the first of what can be called the history of Argentina, chronicles in lurid detail the atrocious conditions of the life of Mendoza’s men. Under siege by the natives, the famine became such that the colonists resorted to cannibalism: as soon as one of them was hanged for treason or for a petty crime, the others hacked the body to pieces and ate it. Schmidl sheds a different light on the European conception of the cannibal savages by documenting the fact that Europeans too were capable of such acts. Michel de Montaigne, in a famous essay written at about the same time as Schmidl’s chronicle, using cannibalism as his point of departure, attempted to subvert the notion of European superiority. Montaigne had met one of these ‘cannibals’ brought to France from the Americas by a French expedition, and had in his employ a servant who had spent many years living among them. These cannibals, Montaigne wrote, were not the savages we imagine, but people who lived harmoniously, respected the nature that surrounded them, and possessed all manner of technical and artistic skills. They held solid religious beliefs and lived under a perfectly efficient form of government, unlike Montaigne’s fellow Frenchmen. These so-called savages, Montaigne pointed out, had no slaves, no rich and no poor, and spoke a language in which the words for treason and lying, envy and avarice, were absent. If the stories of Greece and Rome, and the literature of chivalry, had fed the explorers’ imagination before coming to the New World, as a foreword to what they would see, Schmidl and Montaigne’s accounts coloured the vision of the Americas in the decades that followed, as an afterword to the immense saga.

Mendoza had brought with him a small collection of books that in a secret way define perhaps the city that he had imagined. Perhaps all cities are founded with a library in mind. The books Mendoza brought with him were ‘seven volumes of a mediumsize bound in black leather’, whose titles unfortunately have not come down to us. He also brought with him a book by Desiderius Erasmus, ‘also medium-sized and bound in the same black leather’, a collection of Petrarch’s poems, a ‘little book with golden covers that says inside “Virgil”’ and a volume by De Bridia bound in vellum. It seems that C. de Bridia (we only know the initial of his first name) was a Franciscan monk who accompanied the mission of the Italian John of Plano Carpini to Mongolia in 1247, and wrote a detailed history of the Mongol people entitled Tartar Relation, a manuscript now in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

This modest list is wonderfully revealing. The books that Mendoza brought with him to found Buenos Aires tell us of an eclectic, generous conception (probably unconscious, certainly not explicit) of what this new city should be. In this founding library we find: a philosopher of a faith that was not Mendoza’s own (Erasmus), poets in tongues other than Spanish (Petrarch and Virgil, though Mendoza’s education would have included Latin), a fellow explorer from another age and another culture: the far north of Tartary as opposed to the far south of the New World. All this is to say that, for Pedro de Mendoza, contemporary of Alonso Quijano, the world of the intellect was all one or, in other words, that any singular undertaking formed part of a universal whole. Symbolically, if not deliberately, the impulse to bring with him these books lent the identity of the city yet-to-be imaginative power and a sort of immortality.

A sort of immortality: this is perhaps what drives us, in the societies of the book, to be literary nomads. Our constant migrations are pinpointed by readings. As exiles, as explorers, as refugees, as settlers, we carry books in our chattel. Our ancestors brought with them cattle, tents, grains, weapons but also their libraries. We travel with our paperbacks or kindles. The custom is very ancient.

The people of Mesopotamia carried their trays of clay tablets to the site of new foundations to transmit the knowledge of their laws and magic rites. The Egyptian kings set up libraries in the farthest cities of their realm and above the entrances had inscribed the words ‘Clinic of the Soul’, which the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus read on their majestic ruins centuries afterwards. In the fifth century BCE, the young Alcibiades, visiting a distant village during one of his tours of the Greek colonies, slapped the face of a teacher whose school library did not hold a single volume of Homer. A hundred years later, Alexander the Great, perhaps in order not to forget that the vanquished also have a voice, always carried on his campaigns a copy of the Iliad. In the tenth century, Abdul Kassam Ishmael, Grand Vizier of Persia, to feel at home wherever he went, would transport his library of 117.000 titles on the backs of 400 camels trained to march in alphabetical order.

Books help to found cities; they also help us to bring our cities to mind when we are forced to leave them. Those who are driven from their homes by war, famine, sickness and other catastrophes, try to carry with them the words of their poets, on paper or in their heart. In the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey, tents have been set up as makeshift bookrooms. In Sweden, the Palestinian exiles come together in the Stockholm Public Library to recite poetry. Mexicans who have illegally crossed into the States escaping the violence in their country have recreated in the suburbs of Los Angeles or Detroit their ‘salas de lectura’, improvised book clubs established throughout Mexico by ordinary readers.

Stories are at the beginning of our societies, and also at their end, and they provide us with an identity for the place we live in and for ourselves as individuals. The relationship between the cities we create on earth and the cities we create in the mind compete for our attention, and it is most often the imagined ones that have the upper hand. Jorge Luis Borges, in a poem entitled ‘Mythical Foundation of Buenos Aires’, summed up this relationship between the fictional and the material city in two magical lines:

I can’t imagine a time when she started to be.

She seems as eternal as the air and the sea.