Luis López Nieves’s La verdadera muerte de Ponce de León:
(The True Death of Ponce de León): Reinventing His Story
Dra. Estelle Irizarry
Georgetown University, Wáshington, D.C.
Luis López Nieves, author of the very original novel Seva (1984), again demonstrates his great inventiveness as apocryphal historian extraordinaire in these five short stories situated in the sixteenth century. Unlike “official” history, these versions of factual historic events reveal a secret or resolve some mystery–although not entirely. Thanks to skillful storytelling, clever manipulation of time, ambiguity, and unrevealed information, each story is an exquisite puzzle that places the reader in a position no less difficult than that of the experienced historian.
Reinventing history is López Nieves’s answer to the mysteries caused by scarce, missing, hard-to-access, and even, at times, falsified documents that oblige even professional historians to be detectives. In the introduction to his Biblioteca histórica de Puerto Rico, the nineteenth-century historian Alejandro de Tapia y Rivera observed that to fill gaps in the history of Puerto Rico, the historian looks for original sources in a labyrinth of documents and private correspondence, trying to get to the bottom of his investigation (San Juan, ICP, 1970: p. 3). The reader of López Nieves’s stories finds himself in a similar situation, having to make conclusions based on the documents provided by the author, which, although they may not be true, are true-to-life and impossible to refute.
The first story, “El gran secreto de Cristóbal Colón” (The Great Secret of Christopher Columbus) can be compared to Juan Manzano Manzano’s book entitled Colón y su secreto (Columbus and His Secret, Madrid: Ediciones de Cultura Hispánica, 1976). López Nieves resolves in a little over four pages the same secret that Manzano develops with extensive historical documentation in 743 pages. At the same time, the story raises more questions than it answers. The secret is revealed by the narrator, who obviously understands what the Indian whispers to Columbus “in a language that no Spaniard could understand”, yet the details remain shrouded in mystery.
The second story, “El Conde de Ovando” (The Count of Ovando), is a sort of “urban legend” (recalling Ricardo Palma’s Tradiciones peruanas and Cayetano Coll y Toste’s Leyendas), about Governor Francisco Ovando Messías (or Mexía, according to some books). The geographic authenticity of places and buildings in San Juan–-the Bishop’s Palace, the Cathedral, the Dominican Convent, the “Fortaleza”–and its streets (San José, San Justo, San Sebastián) make the events seem genuine. Ovando’s daughter mounted on horseback brings to mind Campeche’s painting of the elegant and delicate damsel mounted on her horse decorated with bows and tassels, but this image soon dissipates before the creole amazon of the story who, racing her father’s proud stallion, falls into the mud, a symbolic detail that indicates the strange relationship with her father.
The author pieces together the simultaneous events surrounding the daughter and the father in alternating narratives. The dates are as precise as the events are ambiguous. We observe a power struggle between the Bishop and Ovando, the latter’s scientific experiments and use of human subjects, the daughter’s resistance before the Inquisition, and the punishment of Ovando’s intellectual defiance and of his daughter’s moral defiance. The history books give a contradictory ending: that Ovando, returning from Hispaniola, was captured in 1579, was held hostage by the French for ransom (which Juan Ponce de León II did not pay), and died in captivity. Yet, one can see why ecclesiastical historians of the time would keep the scabrous details of López Nieves’s story buried in silence. We remain faced with the question of whether official history in an inquisitorial era is more reliable than the version told to us by a novelist.
“La verdadera muerte de Juan Ponce de León” (The True Death of Juan Ponce de León), the third story in the volume, fills another gap in history. Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s 1535 chronicle provides the laconic notice that the first governor of Puerto Rico was wounded by an arrow and, on the way back from Bimini, died on the island of Cuba” (Tapia, pp. 49-50). Tapia justifiably speaks of “the imperfect vision” of historians, even when they write about events of their own time (p. 7); ironically, López Nieves overcomes this from a distance of several centuries, filling in details that were unknown, or perhaps forgotten.
Historical memory is poor: the Cardinal in the story laments that no one remembers that his library is the oldest in the land and that his diocese was one of the most extensive on the planet and the largest in America. Indeed, the vestiges of history are fragile and subject to the slightest alterations: The contemporary narrator, Eugenio, notes that “when we take a piece of furniture that has been in a corner for 300 years, and we move it to another corner, in a way we are altering or rewriting history” (p. 51). Likewise, author López Nieves, by moving words around, manages to undo some four centuries of history in his version of the death of Ponce de León, a figure less admirable here than in Manuel Méndez Ballester’s 1937 novel Isla cerrera, which is surprising, given the fact that López Nieves traces his lineage to Ponce (see his Web page, http://CiudadSeva.com.)
The use of multiple narrators–-Professor Eugenio Aristegui Arzallús, the Basque Monk, and the 94-year-old Taino Indian Danuax–and the retelling of events out of order make this a mystifying story. There are convincing reasons for believing: Eugenio has a doctorate in History from Spain’s Complutense University and has done postgraduate studies at prestigious universities in Europe and in Mexico. However, there are even more reasons for disbelief. A document written in Basque, hidden for over 300 years, and transmitted through successive caretakers, transcriptions, and editors is hardly reliable. A contemporary Spanish transcription prepared by a Basque with a Moorish surname (Boabdil, the Moorish king vanquished in 1492 at the battle of Granada, where Ponce de León fought) is also suspect and suggests centuries’ old revenge as a possible motive for subverting Ponce’s image. Furthermore, how reliable are the remembrances of a confessor half a century distant from a confession concerning events that took place a half century before?
The tacit agreement in reading fiction is that authors tell lies and readers believe them while the story lasts, but a story that purports to be a “true” historical account places this convention in question. The reader is expected to believe. Thus, the fact that Ponce de León is betrayed by his credulity, a defect, according to the Indian, of the Spaniards who “will believe anything” (p. 64), extends to the reader too. The ending presents yet another mystery: what the lesson is when the narrator says that the words of the Indian Danuax “should serve as a lesson” to all (p. 75).
“La última noche de Rodrigo de las Nieves” (The Last Night of Rodrigo de las Nieves) offers revelations surrounding a key event in Puerto Rican history. Although the author doesn’t give the year, the date–December 23–and the question “Is it Drake?”, identify the failed 1595 attack on San Juan by the feared English corsair. According to historians, Drake tried to force his entry at night, setting fire to the Spanish frigates in port, a strategy that backfired, since the glow helped the defenders to better aim their canons and inflict heavy losses on the English. In López Nieves’s version, San Juan is saved, not by the bad decision of the British pirate, but rather by the unknown sacrifice of the Puerto Rican Rodrigo de las Nieves, for his homeland and his wife. The name “Nieves” suggests a vicarious participation on the part of the author in the heroism of his “ancestor” (the wife’s surname, Adornio, is also listed in the genealogy of the author). The hero is seen in a very human dimension, as “husband of doña Pilar de Adornio”. Again, we are confronted with an unknown “true” story, unrecorded in the documents of the period. The story bears some similarity to the real experience of the author’s genealogical “Grandfather 12”, García de Torres, Sr., who died of wounds received at the walls of San Felipe del Morro, during the virulent Dutch attack of 1625 that left San Juan in ruins and whose death, according to López Nieves’s Web page, remains unavenged.
“El suplicio caribeño de Fray Juan de Bordón” (The Caribbean Torture of Brother Juan de Bordón) is a sort of detective story that underscores the difficulty of documenting history. A French historian, Henri de Bourdoin, seeks help from the Director of the National Archives of “Porto-Rico” in his search for genealogical information about a mysterious “Guy de Bourdoin”. The story incorporates two “real”, living persons. The first is the author himself, remembered by Bourdoin as a Puerto Rican who went to Constantinople and whose description coincides with that of López Nieves. The other is UPR-Bayamón professor and historian, Elsa Gelpí Baíz, to whom the story and the book’s epilogue are dedicated.
The story is filled with mysteries. There is a letter sent unread to the peninsula because nobody could understand French, that “Lutheran Huguenot language” (p. 90), a supposed partial transcription of the well-known report of Melgarejo, secret archives of the Inquisition hidden for centuries, ink visible only under ultraviolet light, the stubborn silence of friar Bordón himself before accusations of being an impostor. The end is even more mystifying, as the dates don’t add up: ¡A document dated May 17, 1583 written by Bordón awaiting his execution by the Inquisition in Seville is followed by a document dated in February that reports that he hanged himself in March!
Just as the French historian searches for Bordón, the reader searches for clues. “Bordón” sounds much like the surname of Enrico Boudoyno, the Dutch pirate responsible for the fire that destroyed San Juan’s civil and ecclesiastical archives in 1625. Ironically, there are too few documents in San Juan, due to early censorship, pillage, and fire, while in the General Archives of the Indies in Seville, there are too many, unindexed and inaccessible. Like the Spaniards in the story who try to recover El Greco paintings dispersed throughout the world, Puerto Rican historians do not have ready access to vital documents of their patrimony, and while this is a big problem for a historian, for the creative writer López Nieves, it is a grand opportunity to reinvent history.
In an essay about History as inspiration, Hispania 81.1 , 60-63), López Nieves says that his Columbus story is based on papers he discovered in Seville’s Indies Archives and the Ponce de León story on documents he found in the archbishoprie of San Juan. There is no doubt that in the creation of these historically themed stories, fiction and history maintain a symbiotic relationship, mutually enriching each other. Luis López Nieves’s fictions make us doubt history and send us to the history books in search of answers, for only by comparing the author’s fictions with the official versions of the same events, incomplete as they may be, can we appreciate his art of (re)invention–or subversion.
Historians distinguish themselves by what they find; novelists by what they invent. The historian says “this is how it happened”, and the novelist, “it could have happened like this”. “The only duty of a writer”, says López Nieves in the previously quoted essay, is “to be credible and entertaining… and to have something to say”. This he does in a superb way in La verdadera muerte de Ponce de León.
La Dra. Estelle Irizarry es catedrática de literatura hispánica de la Universidad de Georgetown, en Washington, D.C., Estados Unidos; autora de 29 libros sobre literatura (9 de ellos sobre literatura puertorriqueña); miembro de número de la Academia Norteamericana de la Lengua Española y correspondiente de la Real Academia Española; dirigió Hispania, la revista de la Asociación Americana de Profesores de Español y Portugués, durante los años 1993-2000.
“Reinventing His Story”, Estelle Irizarry,The San Juan Star, San Juan de Puerto Rico, 19 junio 2000, p.62.