AZTEC by Gary Jennings
This book may change you. At the very least, it’ll excite your imagination and insult your senses. Full of lust for life, written “in the field” in Mexico, the book is polarizing, and has drawn both admiration and outright disgust from a few generations of readers.
It was the very first book I found when doing the competitive market research for my own writing about 10 years ago. Back then, I wanted to write a novel called “The Aztec”.
Imagine the depths of my emotion when I found an immensely successful title of the same name by the late Gary Jennings, a well-known historical novelist.
Since then, I’ve re-read the book at least three times, and loaned it to many good friends. Predictably, some of them loved it, while others felt compelled to toss it into my face.
Here’s what I learned from this work
+ The Knowledge Shines Through:
Per the official website of his estate, Gary Jennings wasn’t able to afford the life in New York after deciding to focus on his writing. So he went south to Mexico where he lived, travelled and wrote for 12 years.
His fascination with the country and its people comes across wonderfully in AZTEC, and his genuine joy at telling the story makes me come back to it over and over again.
His writing style seems to have been formed by the very life he led. Having fought in a war, and having travelled widely across several continents, Jennings weaves his insights into human behaviors into the intricate plot that takes us to all the corners of the world known to his characters.
His specific, visual writing leaves no doubt about what he wants to convey. No misunderstandings are possible, and he treats the most controversial subjects with confidence.
The words are chosen with care, the scenes are complete, and the text is easy to read. He was having fun writing, and the fun comes across and draws the reader into his world.
That world isn’t only unique and engaging; it’s colored with nostalgia for the wealth of cultures, languages and peoples of the old Mexico, erased from our society’s collective memory by the self-serving Spanish priests and warlords.
From the first pages Jennings grounds us firmly in one of the classic scenes of the time. An elderly ‘native’ relates his life story to a group of scribes in service of the Catholic Church, which seeks to understand the native mentality to make its conversion efforts more efficient. However, this native goes well beyond the usual recital of ritualistic incantations that fill so many Aztec codices.
From the awing descriptions of the Mexico’s lands, to the minute details of flush toilets, the sights, smells, and sensations of the time are reproduced impeccably. The level of detail may slow the story somewhat; but every time I read this book, I forget about time. The text is so visually and sensually compelling that the experience is like that of watching a movie, or having a vivid dream.
I’ve read a lot of the source material, and I guarantee that many facts follow the established scholarly tradition. Jennings had discovered some delightful historical episodes that truly add to our understanding of the world we have lost.
+ The Strong Character can Carry 1036 Pages … and more:
Love him or hate him, but Mixtli (“Dark Cloud”) is a joy to get to know. He’s one of the richest literary personages that I know of. The insights into his nature are deep and disturbing, and his no-nonsense, observant and humorous voice temps you to keep the pages turning in search for new revelations.
Some people complained that Mixtli tends to find himself in all the right places at the right times, ala an Aztec Forrest Gump of sorts. He draws maps of foreign lands for his nation’s rulers, he’s in the midst of every juicy political scandal of the time, he meets Hernan Cortes and Dona Marina, and he even invents the modern Mexican flag.
I don’t mind.
Way larger than life, Mixtli guides us in our explorations of almost all the known aspects of his world. Over his shoulder, we see the beauty of Tenochtítlan years before its destruction, we explore the little tribal villages on the many trade routes, and we witness the sacrifices and the feats of Aztec medicine.
The secondary characters may not be as rich, but they’re believable, and their eventual deaths still disturb me.
The book is honest and brave in diving straight into the deepest temptations and dilemmas we humans face. A lesser author couldn’t have done it, but Jennings excels.
+ The Plot can be Life Itself:
Some folks seem to expect a fast-moving plot from this book which is probably a “milieu” novel rather than an event-driven story.
The plot is the life itself, and every scene is in its place, following the stages of Mixtli’s life. He’s a warrior, a travelling merchant, a diplomat, a leader of a doomed group of settlers and even a historical researcher; and each life stage is explored in loving detail, almost becoming a novel in its own right.
Even the most bizarre scenes (e.g. Mixtli puking onto the old whore, or having intercourse with his sister) move the story forward in more than one way, showing Jennings’ superb planning and execution.
This brings me to the three grudges that I have with this novel. Because of these, to be honest, I refuse to read any of his other stories.
Here come my 3 grudges
– It’s Easy to Succumb to your own Vision of Women:
There’s one aspect of the book which I couldn’t quite stand by the end, and this is Jennings’ trademark cookie-cutter women. I hate it when things become predictable.
However in this novel, every lady even of a fleeting importance to Mixtli is a beauty of unbelievable grace, all too ready to inundate our well-endowed hero with her unconditional love, only to die an untimely and horrific death.
Over and over again.
When his incest-inclined sister dies (and her death still haunts my nightmares), Mixtli finds a lover. When a lover dies, he finds a wife. All breathtaking, of course. And between them, there’s a procession of other beautiful women. Over and over again.
Every such lady ends up worshiping his male member and indulging into all sorts of behaviors with him from regular incest to casual adultery. Over and over again.
– There CAN be too much Sex:
I have to diagnose Mixtli with a compulsive sexual disorder and a bad case of narcissism.
I found his fixation on how every woman’s “tipili” looks and feels, and his unrestrained fascination with the size of his own “tipuli” tiring to no end. I’m no Puritan, and I’ve done my share of wild things in my travels, but even I was surprised.
In this book, Jennings doesn’t go to the extent of some of his Aztec sequels where every inch of a woman’s genitalia is described in loving detail; but as it stands, some folks may find it a bit too much.
There’s temptation . . . and then there’s smut.
Here we come close to smut.
– Historical Mistakes can be Forgiven . . . to a point:
I’ll be brief on this one, because I can’t make up my mind on how much inaccuracy can be acceptable. Jennings does’t make a singe silly mistake, as far as I can tell; he doesn’t place Petra an arrow flight away from Sphinx, so to speak, like some writers do.
But I’ll just say this: the flow of conquest is distorted; Montezuma, whose rich and conflicted character is well-documented, is made into an impotent buffoon; Doña Marina comes across a bitch. Which is a shame, because these things are clearly done to serve the plot.
I guess this can be forgiven, as our character has suffered as a direct consequence of Montezuma’s and Doña Marina’s actions. But I didn’t find all that mockery to be fair.
Overall, AZTEC is an engrossing book and a compelling read. It affected me deeply, and possibly changed me. How many books have done this to you?