What is a good written history? Is it something dry and formal, laying out all the potential facts in finite detail for the reader to make up their own mind—an entire display of the known? Or is it an interpretation and consolidation of potential facts into a likely narrative? The former certainly more appealing to scholars and the latter to casual readers, it rests in the hands of the writer at what point in the spectrum they would like to approach the historical material they are presenting. Let’s have a look at Buddy Levy’s Conquistadores: Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (2008).
If anything, Conquistadores is a very focused work of history. More precisely, a tight look at a major transitional moment for two cultures in one setting. Levy begins the narrative just before Cortes arrives on modern day Mexican soil, details the steps he took to subdue the Aztec nation, and ends just after as New Spain is established. Levy fills in relevant details as they affect the steps of this transition, but by and large it’s a streamlined history of action-reaction, situation-decision, and opening-outcome, like a story. Another way of putting this is: one man’s dogged determination to take a nation for himself under the name of god and king.
Like a lot of A.D. Mexican history, the story of Cortes’ takeover of Mexico is filled with blood and battles. Similar to modern day warfare in the Middle East, it portrays a time when one side with significantly fewer numbers but vastly superior technology is able to subdue a larger nation in a relatively short amount of time. A very polarizing figure throughout this takeover, Cortes makes a lot of rules and breaks a lot of rules, pays homage to god and king but only as they support his desires, and makes a number of shrewd military and political decisions even as his humanitarian choices leave a lot to be desired. They say tension makes for suspenseful reading, which indeed Cortes’s story in Conquistador is.
And therein lies a (personal) issue with Conquistador. Levy has constructed the book as a story. He selects the potential facts and information as they fit the narrative he would like to give the reader, rather than letting the subjectivity of what is known speak for itself. For example, there is little to no doubt expressed throughout the book. It’s a text that doesn’t question itself. 99% is stated as fact. You read direct statements like “His plumage of quetzal feathers shimmered and shone as he leapt into battle.” Really? Who recorded that “fact”? Is this a novel, or history? On what authority are we able to say with such certainty that such a thing happened? And further questions arise. For example, when looking at the clear megalomaniacal attitude of Cortes, it makes one wonder: are his journals to be trusted? And when contradictions in recorded history are present, isn’t it the historian’s duty to present them to the reader to make up their own mind? It leads the reader further to ask: where does fact begin, and subjective interpretation end? At times, unfortunately, Conquistador gives the feeling of modern day investigative journalism on Fox. It uses dialogue, for example. Was Levy standing by with a tape recorder?
In the end, Conquistadores does an entertaining job capturing the downfall of the Aztecs. It does not make a hero of Cortes, nor does it vilify him (as many post-colonial reactions would want to). It does a good job staging the critical moments of Cortes’ advance, and indeed captures several amazing moments of agreed history. From a cynical perspective, however, Conquistadores is a work of pop history. Levy plays fast and loose with facts, picking and choosing events as they suit the narrative, highlighting the details that generate drama as unblemished truth, rather than taking a more realistic, tactful approach the historical material he utilized. As such, it’s a book that needs a slightly more formal, reserved approach to be taken beyond anything other than pop history. Enjoyable, but questionable.