by Anna Lanyon
Publisher: Allen &Unwin
Review: Paul Burman
I am a greater fan of fiction than non-fiction. That said, I have to acknowledge that it was an old friend – Anna Lanyon – who, many years ago, persuaded me that non-fiction could be as powerful and creative a literature as the best literary fiction. She passionately argued the point over a few meals and bottles of wine, and gave me a copy of Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation, An Argument with my Mexican Father in order to try and prove it. However, she well and truly clinched the argument in 1999 when I read her first book, Malinche’s Conquest (Allen & Unwin).
Following Anna’s extensive travels in Mexico and Spain, Malinche’s Conquest does more than scratch beneath the folklore and vilification of the woman who, as Hernan Cortés’ Amerindian translator, concubine and mother to his son, played a central role in the Spanish Conquest of 1521. What the reader is presented with is a series of vibrant stories, based on painstaking research, that illuminate the woman Malinche was and the many conflicts she experienced. As an historian, translator, story-teller extraordinaire and inveterate traveller, Anna Lanyon takes us on a tour of modern Mexico, but it’s a tour in which she helps us peer beyond the shadows. Through her considerable knowledge and the clarity of her interpretation of innumerable documents, she shows us the colours that shaped that world half a millennium previously. Inevitably, along the way, greater truths are revealed about the world in which we currently live and the decisions we make.
Anna repeated this remarkable feat in 2003 with The New World of Martin Cortés (Allen & Unwin), in which she took up the tale of Malinche’s son, and more recently with Fire & Song, The Story of Luis de Carvajal (Allen & Unwin, 2011), which it was my pleasure to help her launch.
Fire & Song takes us on a sixteenth century adventure from Spain to Portugal to Mexico, chronicling the faith of secret Jews and their persecution in Christendom. More particularly it tells the story of the Carvajal family and the lengths Luis de Carvajal went in order to maintain his faith while being subjected to two Inquisitions by the Holy Office. That we know in such spectacular detail about the life of this family, both at home and while in prison – their routines, the family arguments, the secret messages they passed – is partly thanks to the records maintained by the Holy Office and to Luis’ own Book of Miracles. However, these would remain archived records about long-dead, long-forgotten people, if it wasn’t for the sort of historian and story-teller that Anna Lanyon is; moving beyond the broad strokes that outline the history of religious persecution and settlement in the New World, she takes the time to identify and reveal those nuances in recorded language (and in the record of a person’s actions) which creates an intimate picture of the people involved.
It’s uncanny how closely we get to know Luis de Carvajal. So much so that, despite the events described in Fire & Song taking place over 400 years ago, it becomes uncomfortable to see him pushing ahead with what we (from our 21st century perspective) might see as dangerously reckless decisions – life-threatening decisions. Even though, from the very start, we know much about how his story ends, Anna creates tension in the telling of the story and it’s partly this tension that keeps us turning the pages, needing to keep up with Luis. Nonetheless, before I’d even got a quarter of the way through this book, and having learnt considerably more about the Inquisition than I’d ever known previously (largely based on British school history books and Monty Python!), I found myself wanting to shout down through the centuries at Luis: “No! Stop! Don’t do it!”
In many ways, I wish this was fiction, but it’s not. It actually happened. And, for too many people, such persecution continues to happen. Literature and history combine at their best here, and Anna Lanyon’s gift is that in bringing such stories from the past so powerfully to life, we understand a great deal more about where we’ve come from and where we’re at. What’s more, Fire & Song is a darned good read!
Thursday: An interview with Anna Lanyon