‘Cortés And Montezuma’ by Donald Barthelme

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.

The selection:

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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