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The mestiza Scheherazade

The Conquest, A Novel, Yxta Maya Murray, Rayo/HarperCollins: 288 pp., $24.95

October 27, 2002|Salvador Carrasco | Salvador Carrasco is the director and writer of the film "The Other Conquest."

Sara Rosario Gonzalez is a 32-year-old restorer of rare books at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles who unexpectedly finds herself on the verge of a heartbreak, but as Yxta Maya Murray shows in her latest novel, "The Conquest," the human yearning to overcome loss can sometimes be the inspiration that leads to great art.

When Sara's high school sweetheart, Marine Capt. Karl Sullivan, announces his engagement to another woman and wants Sara to let go of him, she lures him back into her bed by doing what she does best: Like Scheherazade, she reveals to him piecemeal the content of a manuscript she's working on: the saga of a female Aztec juggler abducted to Europe in 1528 by Hernan Cortes after he overthrew the Aztec empire and won Mexico for the Spanish crown.

The untitled folio, which Sara calls "The Conquest," is more than a gambit for Karl's affection. It becomes Sara's attempt to give a voice to her ancestors and to all brown women; in the process, she will rediscover her own mestiza identity and confront the transgressions of the Old World upon the New. But first, there is something of a mystery to be worked out concerning the authorship of the manuscript.

From her first novel, "Locas," to "What It Takes to Get to Vegas," Murray has taken a major step as a writer in "The Conquest," creating a hybrid garden of literary intricacies that might have amused even Jorge Luis Borges. Not coincidentally, at one point in the story Sara impulsively decides to spend money saved for a wedding ring on an autographed first edition of Borges' "The Garden of Forking Paths." While interweaving a modern romance with a 16th century adventure story, "The Conquest" explores one of Borges' favorite themes: that reading is really an alternative form of writing, because when we read, we inevitably rewrite the text and become its true author.

Similarly, Sara will find her life irreversibly changed by reading, discovering in a book written four centuries earlier clues to her own existence and to the mysteries that rule her life. What does she really feel for Karl? What is her place as a Latina in the U.S.? And, most intriguingly, who is the real author of "The Conquest"?

Most experts agree that the manuscript was written by Padre Miguel de Pasamonte, a hedonistic Hieronymite monk known for riotous novels, but in Sara's impassioned reading, this book must have been conceived not by Pasamonte but by an Aztec woman, perhaps the juggler herself, even though there is no proof that she existed. True to her Mexican blood, Sara is out to make the fictitious more real than reality as she embarks on a mission to resuscitate the enigmatic Aztec woman (whom we only know by her converted name, Helen) through her inner compass and bibliographic research.

Helen is the daughter of Tlacaelel, a fierce aristocratic patriot who believes no injustice should ever go unpunished. His final mandate to his daughter was to find and kill "the savages' king" in revenge for the crimes brought about by the Spanish conquest of Mexico. With the aid of her intelligence, exoticness, insatiable curiosity and juggling talent, Helen takes it upon herself to assassinate the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, in whose name Cortes acted. Her journey of revenge begins at the Vatican, where Helen meets Caterina, the nun in charge of converting her. And convert her she does, to the raptures of Eros and the wisdom of banned books in a society in which "literacy did not bode well for the soundness of the mind nor womb."

Helen's flamboyant and labyrinthine adventures take us from the corruption of Rome to Titian's lustful Venice, the alluring depths of lesbian love, the beginning of the end of Charles V's hold on the Ottoman Empire, Helen's years as an ascetic juggler in Barbarossa's Al-Jazirah, and the reunion in Rome with her true love, Caterina, who has been persecuted by the Inquisition for her unspeakable blasphemies. At long last, there is the confrontation with the dying Charles V in a cloister in southern Spain, in which Helen grants the emperor what he and the conquest would never bestow on her people or her father, namely, mercy. Christian mercy, one could even say, as sublimated by a heathen Aztec woman.

The journey has mixed results. The more Murray delves into the specificity of Latin American culture, the more she discovers values with which many of her readers will identify. However, when it comes to expressing those values in a universal context, "The Conquest" is somewhat uneven, as the author seems more comfortable and persuasive in bringing to life contemporary Los Angeles than 16th century Europe. At times, the novel contains brilliant premises that are not executed in a satisfying way.

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