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Discovering Columbus : COLUMBUS, By Paolo Emilio Taviani, translated by Luciano F. Farina and Marc A. Beckwith (Orion Books: $20; 288 pp.) : THE MYSTERIOUS HISTORY OF COLUMBUS, By John Noble Wilford (Alfred A. Knopf: $24; 318 pp.) : KINGDOMS OF GOLD, KINGDOMS OF JADE, By Brian Fagan (Thames & Hudson: $24.95; 240 pp.)

October 13, 1991|Carolly Erickson | Erickson is the author of 10 histories and biographies, including "The Medieval Vision."

Many of the books scheduled to be published on the quincentenary of Columbus' landing in the Americas next year promise a fierce debate over whether the admiral's discovery served the cause of Good or Evil. This year's crop, however, is essentially a sanguine one, suggesting that whatever calamities Columbus ultimately may have precipitated, at least he had the kind of dogged faith in a personal dream that symbolizes the Western ideal of character.

Like other explorers traveling in what Joseph Campbell has called "the Western Way," from Arthurian knights seeking out untrodden paths in their quest for the Grail to Adm. James T. Kirk star-trekking "where no man has gone before," Columbus was a loner, a visionary.

In "Columbus: The Great Adventure," veteran Columbus scholar Paolo Emilio Taviani milks the explorer's romantic heroism for all it's worth. Dreaming in his youth of the sea, of "endless, wide-open spaces," Columbus, Taviani writes, "developed a symbiotic relationship with the ocean and with the constellations."

Columbus became seized by a dream, Taviani says, a "grand design": the dream of reaching the Asian mainland by sailing west instead of trudging the long and politically volatile land-and-sea route east.

Once in the grip of his dream, he was sustained by "an unshakable faith and a limitless desire for glory, a character strong-willed and tenacious almost to the point of foolhardiness." His inner certainty was so firm, his pride so unquenchable that he was able to deal with rulers "almost as an equal," outbraving the contradictions, doubts and even mockery of others who could not grasp the inherent value of his grand design.

Taviani's Columbus is, of course, more icon than man. Instead of being firmly anchored in his time--the second half of the 15th Century; an age on the cusp of modernity, the age of Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci, yet still recognizably medieval in culture and outlook--he becomes, in Taviani's biography, a hero who towered above his contemporaries and soared as far beyond them in his imagination as he did in his achievements.

Relying on nothing but his own observations and his uncanny nautical skills, Taviani insists, Columbus ignored received opinions and did not read geographical writings until after he had conceived his grand design. "Columbus was not learned," his biographer tells us. He followed an intuition that was "brilliant even in its errors."

"Columbus: The Great Adventure" is alternately graceful and engrossing, laced with exotic, extraordinary reversals of fortune as well as battles against the elements. And yet there is no room for failure in Taviani's romanticized portrait, or for disappointment. The chastened, tormented man that Columbus became on his fourth voyage to the New World, a man in pain, crying out for pity, receives scant attention. ("Weep for me," the Admiral wrote while marooned on a beach in Jamaica, weary and bedridden with arthritis, his eyes so diseased that they bled, "whoever has charity, truth and justice.")

The robust modernity and "scientific curiosity" that Taviani claims for Columbus cannot encompass the mariner terrified that Satan might be hindering his first voyage, or the dreamer who, having reached the Venezuelan coast in 1498, believed that he was near the biblical Garden of Eden. Nor does Taviani's heroic portrait accord well with Columbus' treatment of his sailors when, on his second voyage, he forced them to swear that Cuba was not an island but rather part of the Asian mainland. Anyone who expressed a contrary opinion, he threatened, would have his tongue cut out.

If Taviani's biography suggests that Columbus was divinely destined to reach the Americas, John Noble Wilford's "The Mysterious History of Columbus" highlights the play of chance in the admiral's life.

At age 25, Wilford points out, Columbus very nearly drowned when the fleet of ships in which he sailed was attacked by pirates off the Portuguese coast. He clung to an oar and reached shore, but hundreds of his fellow sailors perished. On the admiral's first Atlantic voyage, Wilford writes, the outward crossing, "in the strict nautical sense, could hardly have been a more uneventful voyage."

But the return crossing was stormy, with squalls and heavy seas that threatened to swamp the Nina and the Pinta. And then, when the crews finally reached land, it was in the Azores, where the suspicious Portuguese authorities arrested half the sailors. Later, advisers to the Portuguese king recommended that he kill Columbus before he could spread the tale of having reached Japan (as he believed he had) by sailing west. Had King John been less scrupulous, no one would have heard of the encounter with the new continent.

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