18. Bernal Diaz del Castillo - The Conquest Of New Spain (Historia Verdadera de la Conquista de Nueva Espana) (1632)
Well this isn't exactly a novel, or even a book of fiction, although I am sure that parts of it are fictionalised. It is, however a fascinating account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas through the eyes of a footsoldier.
The fact that it is a footsoldier telling the tale is what makes this precious. Del Castillo has little need to embellish the story, he isn't writing for glory or political gain, he is an old man writing what he remembers. He has little to gain from it, he has little education and it shows. The text is plain, but the story is fascinating, he is not above reproaching his former military leaders and pointing out mistakes.
The fact that he seems to have little reason to lie kind of gets you on the side of the Spanish throughout, yes the decimated a culture, and in this book it is the Aztecs who are killed, but the Aztecs are bloodthirsty bastards, the gruesome human sacrifices are depicted vividly, and there was no way that the Spanish could conquer them by themselves coming across the ocean on crappy boats. The Aztecs are decimated because the Spanish rally all the other people of the area who positively hate the Aztecs, who regularly invade them, sacrifice their people to their gods and make them pay tribute, only a small amount of the Spanish army consists of actual Spaniards. It is a fascinating antidote to the Leyenda Niegra that later colonising powers created around the Spanish conquest of America as a way to say "hey we just sit in the plantation and watch you work while we have a Gin and Tonic, the Spanish were worse". Yeah but the Aztecs weren't nice.
Written at eighty-four years of age on his encomienda estates in Guatemala, Díaz wrote his work to defend the common conquistador history of the conquest. He wanted to provide an alternative to the critical writings of Bartolomé de Las Casas who emphasized the cruelty of the conquest and also the hagiographic biographers of Hernán Cortés, among them Francisco López de Gómara, who he believed to be downplaying the role of the 700 common footmen who were instrumental in bringing down the Aztec empire. Accusing these chroniclers of speaking the truth "neither in the beginning, nor the middle, nor the end", Díaz vociferously defended the actions of the conquistadors, while at the same time bringing the elements of humanism and honesty to his eyewitness narrative, famously summarised in his famous throwaway line; "we went there to serve God, and also to get rich".
Díaz is not always charitable to Cortés. As with many of the other soldiers involved in the conquest, Díaz found himself among the ruins of Tenochtitlan little richer than when he had arrived, a state for which many of his comrades blamed Cortés, accused by some of taking far more than his previously-agreed 'fifth' of the Aztec treasury as loot. Certainly, the compensation many conquistadors received, both in land and gold, was a poor return for the months of marching and hard fighting across Mexico and Anahuac. Other readings of The Conquest of New Spain have noted that Díaz was one of a number of relatives serving with Cortés of Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, governor of Cuba and mortal enemy of Cortés, many of whom ended up plotting against the conquistador. Díaz may have deliberately played down this relationship because it played a more prominent role than he pretends in the text; his involved relationship with Cortés and his captains suggests that he may have been the representative of the Velázquez faction, and was one of the few who remained loyal to Cortés to the end. There has even been speculation among historical sources that Díaz's account was entirely fictional. But disregarding some of his possible omissions, Díaz's narrative is widely acknowledged to be a true one, and that his attitude to Cortés expresses no more ambivalence towards the conquistador's legacy than it has since inspired among many others.
The Conquest of New Spain is a vivid account of one of the most startling episodes in colonial history, and Díaz stands "among chroniclers what Daniel Defoe is among novelists".
A little bit on Human Sacrifice: