It was an expedition that would end in murder and madness, an expedition that would come to embody the cruelties of imperial conquest and presage nationalistic struggles for liberation.


Aguirre : the re-creation of a sixteenth-century journey across South America New York : H. Holt, 1994      Stephen Minta South America , Discovery and exploration , Spanish,      Aguirre, Lope de, d. 1561 Hardcover     1st American ed. and printing. 244 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.      Includes bibliographical references (p. [231]-234) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/G

Don Lope de Aguirre was a 16th-century megalomaniac and renegade who set out on a doomed expedition through the jungles and mountains of Peru to find the mythical gold-rich realm of El Dorado. It was an expedition that would end in murder and madness, an expedition that would come to embody the cruelties of imperial conquest and presage nationalistic struggles for liberation.

In his absorbing new book, Minta sets out to recreate Aguirre’s arduous journey, weaving together an account of his own recent travels with a historical chronicle of events in 16th-century Peru. This results in an anomalous and highly readable volume that’s part travelogue, part history, part philosophical meditation.

Drawing upon assorted eyewitness and second-hand accounts, Mr. Minta does a succinct job of sketching in the historical backdrop behind Aguirre’s fantastical quest, and conjures up the political and personal tensions that surrounded his expedition.

We are introduced to the unfortunate Pedro de Ursua, the expedition’s original leader, a handsome, youthful and much honored soldier, who often seemed the very epitome of all that Aguirre was not, and who made a series of stupid — and ultimately fatal — misjudgments. We meet Dona Ines, Ursua’s beautiful mistress, who accompanied him on the ill-fated trip and who was accused of bewitching him with her charms. And we meet the feckless Don Fernando de Guzman, the vain, aristocratic dupe, whom Aguirre would use to topple Ursua and then mercilessly slaughter himself.

As for Aguirre, he emerges from Mr. Minta’s account as a ruthless but strangely charismatic madman, almost 50 at the time of the expedition, crippled by earlier injuries and possessed, in Mr. Minta’s words, by “an anonymous rancor and extravagant hope.”

A man with an almost unerring sense of the theatrical, he would proudly defy the authority of the Spanish crown and proclaim himself “the Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom and of the Kingdom of Tierra Firme and the Provinces of Chile, Lord of all South America, from the Isthmus of Panama to the Strait of Magellan.” In Aguirre’s story, Mr. Minta reads not only a parable of imperial adventurism run amok, but also a fable of New World revolutionary fervor in the making.

“This traitor would sometimes say,” writes one firsthand witness to his crimes, “that he already knew for certain that his soul could not be saved; and that, even while he was alive, he was sure he would burn in hell. And, since the raven could be no blacker than its wings, that he must needs commit acts of cruelty and wickedness by which the name of Aguirre would ring throughout the earth, even to the ninth heaven.”

During the expedition’s long and fruitless quest for El Dorado, in a remote Indian village, Aguirre and his co-conspirators deposed Ursua as leader, then brutally hacked him to death. In the next months, as the expedition wound its way deeper and deeper into the Amazonian wilderness, Aguirre embarked on a series of further killings that would continue until the end of his life.

The earlier murders, writes Mr. Minta, seem to have been calculated by Aguirre to instill terror in his men: they were a tactic meant to help him maintain control of the expedition. Later, as the hopelessness of the quest for El Dorado became apparent and Aguirre’s own madness metastasized, his violence grew more random and frenetic. By the time he died in 1561, Aguirre had killed at least 39 of those who had gone with him to Peru, along with countless others who had had the misfortune to cross his path.

Writing in limber, allusive prose, Mr. Minta does a splendid novelistic job of conveying the drama of Aguirre’s shocking tale, and he proves equally adept at situating Aguirre’s adventures in context with the history of Latin America. His account of his own travels through the Peru of the late 1980’s — in which the threat of cannibalistic Indians and death by starvation and disease have given way to the threats posed by the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas — is also colorful and vivid, providing the reader with a resonant counterpoint to the story of Aguirre’s mad journey into the heart of darkness.

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