The Assault on Paradise — Tatiana Lobo (1998)
There are two major crimes of the last millennia that are criminally underrepresented in modern literature: the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the genocide of the Amerindians. This book takes on the latter.
Setting: Central America of the early 1700s
What it’s about: A languid, charming adventure story depicting early colonial society in Costa Rica — officials and politicians, the conquistadores, the church, the inquisition, the adventurers, the soldiers and above all their victims — the slaves and Indigenous Peoples.
It follows a Spanish scribe Pedro who comes to the “New World” to hide from the Inquisition. The first thing he sees when he lands is a slave market. He gets drawn into the intrigues of colonial society, but eventually develops sympathy for the short-lived Indigenous uprising.
He starts as a rogue but by end of the novel he is transformed by his Mayan encounters, particularly a core part of the novel when he maroons himself on a remote strip of beach with two Mayan women and two runaway slaves.
Pedro developed an aversion to wards them either because he could not abide suffering or because those Indians were so submissive. He was deeply disturbed by their sullenness, their sadness, silence, and their mute rancor camouflaged as servility.
Pedro is paid for his work in cocoa beans, which become a sort of de facto currency. But when he stores them under his bed they rot and attract cockroaches – as clear an image of tainted wealth as you could imagine. The metaphor is taken further when we see the Inquisition skimming cocoa beans of the payments taken from their flock:
“He sometimes called upon Pedro to help count the number of cocoa beans collected for the right to go to heaven and then invited him to have a cup of chocolate.
Upon hearing the whooshing sound of the beater in the kitchen of the priestly residence, Pedro imagined the souls of the faithful being ground up, pulverised, dissolved in milk and then gulped down by the officer, to finally end up, after a tour through intestines, in the drainage ditch where the slaves and servants emptied their masters potties.”
Why you should read it: It is a fine blend of dark, comic humour (for the base, often petty intrigues of colonial society) and poetic lyricism (for the desperate, hopeless attempts of Indigenous societies to maintain against the brute force of the invaders).
“The lands here in America are a nest of maniacs how are our descendants going to recover the wits lost in this enormous insane asylum?” “Lunacy is worldwide.”
The definitive book from Costa Rica? The accumulation of petty details create a vivid picture of life in the newly-conquered Americas.
Read this if you liked: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Candide by Voltaire.
Still on the list: Mamita Yunai by Carlos Luis Fallas on harsh conditions suffered by workers on banana plantations.