Cortes and Montezuma
A short story by Daniel Barthelme

Now I know how my students feel when I throw at them a piece of literature which perplexes rather than enlightens. It's frustrating. And you don't feel as bright as you want to be.

But I reread it, put it away, reread it again, looked in the encyclopedia on the conquest of Mexico, put it away, and read it again.

How did 350 Spaniards conquer the Aztec nation? It's an unlikely, dramatic story of at time when Evil won over Good and won big. It's barbarism winning over civilization. That's more difficult to understand than this story. And that is probably not a coincidence.

So what is the author of this short story doing with this immense historical tale?

He's retelling it in a surrealistic style in a matter-of-fact, diary tone. The actual history is surreal in itself but this author adds to the surrealism and gives it his own twist. He has Cortes and Montezuma casually walking down by the docks hand in hand. They treat each other like gentle friends, not adversaries. They are two players in a historical drama who have arrived on the scene to play out their predestined parts in a civilized fashion.

As you read this story, the author weaves back and force between the historical and the surreal. Historical facts are mixed with incidents that could be true. And some things that couldn't be true still have an underlying metaphorical truth to them.

They talk casually about how father Sanchez is overturning idols. "He does that everywhere we go," comments Cortes.

There is something about this story that reminds me of the imaginary woman that Hemingway talks to in Death in the Afternoon. The talk is formal and polite while they are in a barbaric setting. It's a humorous contrast but also thought provoking.

Though very polite to each other, Cortes and Montezuma are still adversaries. Montezuma keeps information from Cortes and hires a detective to spy on Father Sanchez. Cortes does hear Montezuma complain about Father Sanchez knocking over idols but proceeds to do it himself. They have their parts to play out, even though while they're with each other, they're exceedingly polite and treat each other like dear brothers.

How are they different and why does one defeat the other? It has to do with spirituality.

Montezuma is a spiritual man who is determined to lead his people and his own life based on either spiritual beliefs or spiritual illusions. Cortes's purpose and mode of operation isn't so lofty. Cortes wants gold, all of it. And he also wants sex. He's an anti hero whose has enormous physical desires which are undiluted by spiritual beliefs.

Montezuma wants to know the future so he can manipulate it to his advantage and to show his people he has that wisdom and power. He believes Cortes might be able to tell him the future so this is one of the reasons he avoids conflict with him. Cortes does seem to be in touch with his destiny. Cortes tries to avoid conflict with Montezuma because the Aztecs outnumber him. The author exaggerates the historical truth of these motives and has them holding hands down by the docks.

Cortes's belief in the future does not have spiritual roots. Cortes believes in himself and he believes he will obtain enormous amounts of gold. Cortes marched from Vera Cruz with only 350 men to conquer the Aztecs. Who in their right mind would attempt something so impossible? The answer is somebody with religious determination or a religious vision of a favorable outcome or somebody with psychopathic self confidence combined with a fanatic single-minded greed.

Cortes was devoid of all spirituality. That was Father Sanchez's department, and even he is somebody Cortes got rid of. Sanchez tells him something he doesn't want to hear so he has him sent to Cuba in chains.

Cortes does get a vision, but not directly. It is from Doña Marina. It has no value for him, it being a vision, though it would have value for Montezuma. It's a vision of how Montezuma dies.

Doña Marina, the translator and lover of Cortes and a high ranking Aztec, is the one person who knows what's going on. What does she do? Continue to sleep with Cortes and fixes food. She's a survivor. She has knowledge instead of faith. She doesn't conquer anybody, but she's still around at the end of the story.

We see at the end, when Montezuma and even Cortes are ghosts, that Montezuma still doesn't quite comprehend how Cortes can be so devoid of spirituality. He's asking why Cortes didn't catch the fatal stone that was thrown at him. True, Cortes knew, even though the vision was second hand. But Cortes didn't care, which is practically incomprehensible for Montezuma. And what's more, even if Cortes did care, he wasn't really the god Quetzequatl, someone who would have the power to intercept the stone.

Another reason why Cortes did not catch the stone might be that he totally dismissed Doña Marina's vision as being nothing more spiritual nonsense.

Montezuma and Cortes just can't understand each other's gods. Montezuma is pantheistic at least partially believing Cortes is Quetzecuatl. But he isn't a purist--he sees how religion can be manipulated and managed so that he can maintain his political power. Cortes has no god, only gold, and this isn't something Montezuma is able to comprehend. The desire for a lot of gold is one thing. A desire for all the gold is another. It's qualitatively different. Being an absolute, it transcends desire, just like a god is supposed to.

Because gold takes the place of God for Cortes, his appetite is insatiable. Cortes is the only character who was bit by one of the green flies, a symbol for evil and greed. Cortes, to maintain this special power, politely brushes away other green insects who are about to bite people.

Montezuma mistakenly makes offerings to Cortes, but Cortes is not a divinity nor does he have a trace of spirituality within him. Cortes' single minded purpose does not allow for gratitude.

Who are the winners and losers? Doña Marina is a winner because she plays both sides and seems to understand both sides (she knows that Cortes isn't interested in theology). Father Sanchez is a loser because he is narrowly defined by religion (he declines to give Doña Marina absolution and he tells Cortes the truth which Cortes didn't want to hear).

Montezuma is a loser because he has at least one foot in the spiritual world.

Cortes is a winner because though he allows people around him to be steered by theology, he is unencumbered by it himself. Cortes, though, is not a complete winner. At the end of the story he's just as dead as Montezuma.

Is to be spiritual and civilized mean to be weak? Is barbarism with a civil tongue an unconquerable force? How advanced is a civilization if it can't defend itself? What good is the spiritual world if it is vulnerable to the physical world. Does history always tells us that "might makes right?"

Several people I know with roots in Mexico have strong emotional feelings about the story of Cortes and what it implies about the human condition. This story is a way of further probing those emotions. The surrealism lifts it out of the historical constraints and the humor, while it entertains, also helps us loosen our grip on preconceived notions of good and evil.

Morrill Books