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IN BRIEF

Fiction

February 17, 1991|Michael Harris

SEA OF LENTILS by Antonio Benitez-Rojo , translated from the Spanish by James Maraniss (University of Massachusetts Press: $22.95; 201 pp.) . Columbus: hero or villain? That debate has intensified as the 500th anniversary of the "discovery" of America approaches. Now Cuban-born Antonio Benitez-Rojo gives us a work of fiction, history and economics that holds our grade-school myths about the Spanish conquest of the Caribbean under a clear and pitiless light.

Actually, the Admiral of the Ocean Seas himself appears in only one of this novel's four alternating narratives, which span the whole 16th Century. "Sea of Lentils" (an early cartographer, Benitez-Rojo says, confused that word with "Antilles") is a mosaic of voices and moods, reflecting the fragmentation of Caribbean society to this day.

A common soldier on Columbus' second voyage enjoys a brief heyday as exploiter of terrified Indians before the Indians die off and the feudal order of the Old World is imposed on the New. A young nobleman helps his father-in-law, commander of the expedition that founded St. Augustine in Florida, massacre a nearby settlement of French Huguenots. A dying King Philip II of Spain consoles himself with the thought that his piety--as expressed through the Inquisition--will make up for the defeat of the Armada. A merchant in the Canary Islands entices English sea dog John Hawkins to introduce capitalism to the Caribbean--in the form of the slave trade.

Purists might object that four novellas don't quite make a novel, but a unified impression does emerge--of greed and religious fanaticism, of heedless cruelty, of an economic system doomed to stagnation. Benitez-Rojo handles his material with great control, erudition and stylistic richness. Although "Sea of Lentils" isn't science fiction, it reminds us of the guilty origins of our fantasies about being invaded by extraterrestrials: the caravels from outer space and the aliens in beards and breastplates who once appeared over the edge of the world, bringing death with them.

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