There are times when only the guilty pleasure will do: the ice cream sundae, not the mixed-green salad. The torpid height of summer is such a time, and Conquistadora is such a sweet: dense with empty calories but easy to consume. This sprawling novel, covering the historic decades of Spain’s settlement of the distant and wild Puerto Rico, has it all—pirates and prostitutes, booty and cruelty, hurricanes and history. It also has the ring of familiarity of another absorbing read of similar heft: Gone with the Wind, which was obviously closely studied by Esmeralda Santiago, author of the popular memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.
In the role of Scarlett O’Hara, she has cast Ana Cubillas, a feisty, intelligent feminist avant la lettre who is born at the tippytop of “Spain’s vertical society,” just as her literary forebear was to the planter class of the American South. In the case of both families, “Their wealth and power was, and continued to be, erected upon corpses”—the expendable bodies of slaves. Since Conquistadora is written in a more enlightened time, and by a more enlightened author, ever conscious of the hypocrisies and abominations that made possible the exquisite trappings of genteel society, the role of chattel is here more prominent, and more terrible. Ana’s own conscience, sometimes forcibly subdued by its owner so that she may have what she wants most dearly in the world—a profitable sugarcane hacienda brought forth with blood and sweat from the same land that her forefathers conquered in the late fifteenth century—emerges periodically, until it becomes a mirror reflecting the vainglory that she sees only at the end has persisted at dreadful cost to her, her family, and those who forcibly served them.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The story must be laid tile upon tile, like those imported for the clay roof of the casona the heroine will inhabit as well as rule. And there are many of these, interleaved. First comes Ana’s birth, in 1826, and her development into a wiry young lady of small stature (barely five feet) but large spirit—she has “a competitive spark in her eye,” and she is given to unladylike thoughts: “I’d rather be surprised by one moment every so often to remind me that joy is possible, even if I have to pay for it later.” Even more unladylike is her friendship with the lovely Elena, who helps provide the inevitable interludes of a titillating nature. (“Tentatively, Ana caressed, and as Elena responded, she kissed, then used her tongue…”) Next comes marriage, to Ashley Wilkes, I mean Ramón Argoso, scion of a shipping magnate with the appropriate lineage and the inappropriate habit of sharing his new wife with his identical twin. Naturally, they are both unfeeling, which opens the way for the dynamic Severo Fuentes—one can practically smell the testosterone rising from the page when he appears—who is the majordomo of the Puerto Rican plantation to which the newlyweds sail from Spain in 1845. He is Ana’s equal, in both drive and animal appetite, and it is clearly their destiny to be married one day (and to live in a house called El Destino). Only the continued existence of her husband stands in the way, but not for long, especially when a fall from a horse is readily conjured.
A house this ornate requires many tiles, and they are duly laid: much action that gives off the scent of blood and leather; obligatory educational content, such as a primer on sugarcane production; the sweeping history of colonization; the exotic flora of this fertile island domicile, mangoes and rosemary and aloe; cholera’s relentless scourge; stories of many slaves, Mandinka and Pygmy and native, the “nuestra gente” whose lives and mother’s milk flow into those of the Argoso family to color both foreground and back; the progress of abolitionism, which causes complementary conflagrations in America and Puerto Rico from the ashes of which will rise a new society.
For a tale this rooted in specific time and place, one made mysterious by the distance of years and miles, a distinctive sense of realness is curiously missing. That is because the interior life of its characters is rarely glimpsed, passed over in the industrious march of fact. But when they appear, as in this passage describing Ana and Ramón’s young son after a bedtime story, they show that Santiago is capable of giving deeper refreshment:
He felt heavy and at the same time light, as if he were floating over the streets of San Juan. The air was clean, the sky bright blue and clear. Below, El Morro fortress with its parapets and cannons faced the vast ocean. He gamboled in the wind, sometimes racing toward the soft green mountains, sometimes dipping to tease a ship with sails like pillows. He dreamed he was Perseus, riding upon Pegasus, battling monsters, saving princesses chained to rocks battered by the sea. But when he woke up he was just a little boy who’d spent the night chasing a dream.
In the absence of more like this, the book retains its status as momentary satisfaction. Like ice cream on a hot day, it begins to melt. And then it’s gone.