Cortés And Montezuma by Donald Barthelme, 1977
The magic trick:
A meta moment of history writing during a story about history rewriting
There is a very brief moment in “Cortés And Montezuma” that I enjoyed very briefly. It goes:
“Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who will one day write The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, stands in a square whittling upon a piece of mesquite.”
It’s just enough of a meta-reference to draw you out of the story and consider how ridiculous this whole notion of history is. I say that as someone proudly married to a professional historian. But, I mean, really. What happened anywhere ever? Do we really know?
This story, especially in that miniature meta moment, puts those questions in your head.
And that’s quite a trick on Barthelme’s part.
Dona Marina is walking, down by the docks, with her lover Cuitlahuac, Lord of the Place of the Dunged Water. “When I was young,” says Cuitlahuac, “I was at school with Montezuma. He was, in contrast to the rest of us, remarkably chaste. A very religious man, a great student – I’ll wager that’s what they talk about, Montezuma and Cortés. Theology.” Dona Marina tucks a hand inside his belt, at the back.
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