Author: Inga Clendinnen
Publisher: New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, 242 pages
(Toledo, OH) The ability of the Maya to successfully evade complete subjugation by the Spaniards has fascinated historians, and Clendinnen’s work weighs in on the subject. The “ambivalence” in Clendinnen’s title refers to both the Spaniards’ lackluster efforts at conquering the peninsula and, more importantly, the superficial acceptance by the Maya of the practice of Christianity.
The seemingly half-hearted process of Yucatan conquest can be traced, according to Clendinnen, to the earliest years of contact between Spaniards and the Maya. The author argued that this is in part due to the existence of a much bigger prize to the north - the empire of the Aztecs:
The Cortés expedition effectively ignored Yucatan…That pattern was to persist for the decade it took to dismember and to distribute the spoils of the Aztec empire. With the prospect of Mexican riches the inhospitable coasts of Yucatan lost all attraction.
The text is separated into two sections – “Spaniards” and “Indians”- although the reader would be making a poor assumption to think that the book is as simplistic as this dichotomy might suggest. The chapters on the Spanish follow a chronological approach, while the Mayan chapters are more thematic. Both sections lead into an examination of the crux of the book: the 1562 idolatry trials conducted by the Franciscan friars.
One of the strengths of the book is the superb prose with which Clendinnen narrated the early history of the bitter conflict and uneasy coexistence between the Maya and the Spaniards. The author successfully wove thorough research with evocative rhetoric in a way that is intellectually satisfying. The following passage is representative of the kind of inscribed beauty that permeates this book:
But colonial situations also spawn multiple realities, and that painful fissuring within the Spanish world is perhaps better caught by a different image: a hall of distorting mirrors in which each individual sees himself, as he thinks, truly reflected, while those about him are disquietingly altered into grotesques, as familiar gestures and expressions are exaggerated, parodies, even inverted.
In my initial perusal of the author’s work, I was puzzled by a reference in the text to British labor historian EP Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class: “most men in all ages have expressed themselves more fully in actions than in words, and in words – sung, chanted, or shouted as well as spoken – more fully than in script.” The reference fit the model Clendinnen constructed, whereby the Maya should be understood as much through a close reading of their recorded actions as through texts such as the Chilam Balam. However, the reference also showed a debt of gratitude to graceful writers like Thompson, who helped debunk the notion that historical writing must be dry, quasi-scientific treatises.
One drawback in the book is the abbreviated index; terms such as “Chilam Balam” and “balche,” though referenced in the book, are not to be found in the index. However, this is a minor quibble, and certainly does not detract much from an especially well written work that is as useful for the scholar as it is for the general reader.