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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION

A New Take on the New World Discovery : SONG OF THE HUMMINGBIRD by Graciela Limon; Arte Publico Press; $19.95, 217 pages

August 19, 1996|MICHAEL HARRIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What would the history of the Earth in the 21st century read like if the aliens in the movie "Independence Day" had won?

They would write that history, of course, as the victors always do. It would be a tale of heroic pioneers and hostile natives, of the triumph of superior technology and the true religion. Earthling schoolchildren would read it and doubt the fading, contrary stories handed down by those of their ancestors who had survived the conquest.

What does this have to do with the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, the subject of Graciela Limon's third novel (following "In Search of Bernabe" and "The Memories of Ana Calderon")?

Everything.

The discovery of the New World is the first and greatest "science-fiction" story, a repository of guilt, fear and denial that has given rise to most of the others--not revisionist nice-alien stories like "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," but the main line of paranoid fantasy that runs from "Independence Day" back to H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" and beyond.

If we did it to them, such stories tacitly acknowledge, why shouldn't somebody do it to us? What three-mile-wide saucer parking its shadow over Manhattan could portend more doom than, in fact, the pretty white sails of European ships did when they first pricked the horizon of the Americas?

Huitzitzilin ("Hummingbird"), the dying Aztec noblewoman who tells her version of the conquest story to her confessor, Father Benito Lara, a young priest newly arrived from Spain in 1583, says her people knew what those sails meant: "Our world terminated the moment the first white man set foot on our land" in 1519.

Limon, a Los Angeles resident who teaches Spanish American literature at Loyola Marymount University, follows roughly the same outline in every chapter of this novel.

At first, Father Lara is excited to hear an eyewitness account that goes beyond what he has read in Spanish chronicles. Then Huitzitzilin offends him by rejecting either Christian orthodoxy or the accepted view of events. She claims, for example, to have heard the Spanish leader Hernan Cortes order the assassination of his Aztec counterpart, Montezuma. Father Lara recoils in a huff. Then his curiosity and sympathy return, and he agrees to hear more of her "confession" the next day.

Given his role--he can't be too smart, or he would have his intellectual defenses at the ready; too tough or experienced, or he would not be so moved by Huitzitzilin's story--Father Lara is necessarily a bit of a stooge.

Huitzitzilin is another matter. Proud, grief-stricken, revengeful, she has wide knowledge of her culture in its moment of eclipse. She experiences the conquest in all its horrors. Even as a destitute, one-eyed old woman, her mixed-race children sent off to Spain, her "Mexica" identity extinguished, the spirits of dead friends and relatives hovering around her, she retains her scornful conviction that the world has not changed for the better.

How did the outnumbered invaders win? Cortes' generalship? Gunpowder? Horses? Through Huitzitzilin's voice, Limon argues persuasively that other factors were more important--Aztec religious beliefs, fear of the unknown, epidemics of European disease, other tribes' willingness to help the Spanish.

"I didn't understand why the tribes surrounding us became our enemies so easily," she says, "but now that I am old, it's clear to me. It was because of the war god Huitzilipochtli's constant demand for human hearts that we became feared, and then detested."

As a novel, "Song of the Hummingbird" is clumsy, didactic, burdened by its good intentions. As a fresh look at history, though, it not only displays Limon's scholarship but allows us aliens to share, as Father Lara does, Huitzitzilin's "melancholy for what was irrevocably gone."

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