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The Conquest, by Whiting Award winner Yxta Maya Murray, is a book lover's fantasy brought to vibrant life. This story within a story contains all the best elements of memorable literature -- romance, adventure, mystery, and scandal -- bound together by history and one woman's search for validation.
The ancient world and modern technology collide when rare-book restorer Sara Rosario Gonzales comes across a 16th-century folio that she believes may unlock the secrets of a heritage consumed by fire and buried long ago. The narrative of an Aztec slave girl who was brought to Europe as a gift, it describes her life as an adventurer, a concubine, and an assassin. While this fairy tale of murder and magic draws Sara ever deeper into its elusive beauty, the outside world, including the man she has loved since high school, begins to slowly pass her by.
In order to understand her mother's legacy, Sara must prove that the text is fact, not fiction, the memoir of a girl who has hidden her true and secret name. And to find the way to her own future and claim her lost love, Sara must relearn the past, and in doing so she makes a discovery of incredible proportions.
In a sensual blend of myth and reality, two "word mad girls" whisper tales "for all of the dark women of history [who] have lost their tongues." With lyrical language and characters that resonate, novelist Murray makes us believe in possibilities.
(Fall 2002 Selection)
Moving away from the urban barrio settings of her previous works, Murray (Locas; What It Takes to Get to Vegas) entwines the tales of two Latin American women separated by centuries in her third novel. Sara Gonzales is a rare-book restorer at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. While working on a 16th-century manuscript, she becomes engrossed in its story of an Aztec woman captured by Cort s and sent to Europe to entertain the pope. The narrator of the manuscript, "Helen," describes her encounters with the painter Titian, for whom she served as a muse; her many female lovers, including the adored Caterina, a bluestocking nun; and her ever-burning desire to avenge the deaths of her own people by assassinating Cort s, the pope and Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor. Sara's boss and the scholarly community consider the manuscript to be a work of fiction, but Sara believes otherwise-and endeavors to prove Helen's existence and authorship. Meanwhile, there is the issue of Sara's on-again, off-again relationship with Karl, the man she has loved since high school, who is set to marry another woman because Sara has never been able to fully commit. Sara's life, so claustrophobically focused on her work, stands in effective contrast to Helen's swashbuckling escapades across Mediterranean Europe; Sara's quest for personal satisfaction-as well as her thoughtful musings on history and her own sense of displacement as a Latina-are echoed on a grand scale in Helen's encounters with the Europeans. The subplot about Sara's literary sleuthing ties the two stories neatly together and gives the book a satisfying edge of suspense. (Oct. 4) Forecast: Murray's switch to historical fiction may bewilder her fans, but she acquits herself well and could pick up a few readers looking for the Hispanic version of powerful-women-in-history offerings, like Susan Vreeland's recent novel The Passion of Artemisia. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
What does the edgy, uncertain young Sara Rosario Gonzalez have in common with Helen, an impassioned Aztec woman whom Cort s enslaves and eventually gives to the Pope as a gift? In fact, though they are separated by centuries-as are the alternating parts of this book-Sara and Helen share a profound sense of displacement that resonates throughout. Sara, a restorer of rare books and manuscripts at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, has been assigned a 16th-century manuscript featuring Helen's exploits, from dalliances in Titian's Venice to an attempt on the Pope's life. Everyone else believes the manuscript to be a fantasy penned by a mad monk, but Sara demurs, insisting that whether or not the story is fancy, Helen herself is the author. As she digs deeper into the manuscript, Sara battles cultural confusion and an inability to commit to Karl, aptly summed up by her spending money for the wedding ring on a rare book. Whiting Award winner Murray does a splendid job of evoking the passions of both women, and she effectively fuses the two halves of the story. Helen's passages in particular could have sounded didactic or forced, but they are in fact vibrant-and for once, the italics used to set them off are easy to read. Recommended for most collections.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal" Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Another ponderous and trendy novel from Murray (What It Takes to Get to Vegas, 1999, etc.), this one about a museum curator's search for the identity of a 16th-century memoirist. Sara Gonzales may seem like one of those West Coast girls who just can't get her act together, but don't be misled: She's more of a misplaced Latina who can't get her act together. A restorer of ancient manuscripts at the Getty Museum, Sara lives in a quaint neighborhood in Pasadena and has a boyfriend of sorts, a Marine Corps officer named Karl Sullivan-who has a fiancée named Claire O'Connell. Sara escapes from this unhappy situation by immersing herself in a 16th-century manuscript describing the life of an Aztec princess captured by Cortez and brought to Europe as a present for the pope. Helen (the name given to the princess at her baptism in Rome) amuses her captors by performing as a juggler in a kind of traveling Aztec circus and becomes the lover of Titian (for whom she serves as both model and muse). The manuscript is attributed to a Spanish monk, but Sara believes (against the opinion of virtually every scholar who has examined it) that it was written by Helen herself. As she sets out to unveil the author's true identity, Sara must also contend with her ambivalent feelings toward the soon-to-be-wed Karl, as well as her own sense of dislocation as a Latina living in the US and working for an Anglo institution. Can we choose our own place in the world, or must we forever fall back on the dictates of fate? History doesn't offer too many examples of a resilience as strong as Helen's-but that's why they are so intriguing. A fluid and genuinely interesting story badly weighed down by leaden prose ("If I provemy hypothesis I will be as clever as any necromancer, for all the dark women of history have lost their tongues") and a thoroughly hackneyed view of Latin American history.
Washington Post Book World
“Clever and spellbinding.”
Read an Excerpt
The museum is dark tonight. The shadows are cut by a few lamps, which cast a veil of light on the bronzes displayed in this gallery. Naked, shimmering girls and bearded satyrs turn supple in the glow, almost as if they might come alive any moment and turn a discerning eye upon their observer. I move from the room and out of the wing, stepping onto the courtyard with its flower and water gardens floating in blue light. Beyond the precipice of the hill upon which the museum stands lies the black ocean indistinguishable from the sky. It is a white-air, January evening, perfect weather for Jean Paul Getty's ghost to wander, dazzled, through the limestone halls his money built. I stretch my sweater tighter around my shoulders and enter the library.Even at midnight a few scholars' lamps burn from various corners, and the silence is threaded by the sound of a pencil on a page. Ancient, magnificent books sleep on the shelves, such as these medieval medical texts dispensing deadly advice on leechings and applications of mercury. I pass the fading tenth-century copy of Epicurus, with its recipes for sea urchins with honey and roast flamingo with mint. Here are the fifteenth-century chivalric novels in their lovely cameo bindings. And the eighth-century Aztec calendar with its themes of blood and grain.
I reach my desk. I turn on my lamp and pick up the old book that lies here. I run my fingers on the spine, the rotting leather. The tooled headbands and marbled papers, the rippled vellum leaves filled with beautiful script. Centuries ago a tawny fugitive dipped her pen into an inkwell and wrote these words long after the soldiers and bondsmen gave her upfor dead. Later, the eons bit their teeth into this book. In a few years it will die unless this hinge is reglued and the tattered parts of the leaves and covers are patched.
That is my job. My name is Sara Rosario González, and I am thirty-two years old. I'm a rare book restorer.
Every day I come here to do the slow and painstaking work on this volume. It often takes me into the early hours of the morning. As I examine the flaws on a leaf I will become distracted by the words written on it. The story. I have no trouble imagining its author. The tawny woman bent over these leaves, slowly painting the letters in their telling style. After two pages she raised her head to watch a bird outside of her window. The green hills of Spain stretched farther than she could see. A soldier with a red plume in his helmet whipped his steed across the knolls, but such sights did not frighten her any longer, as she had learned to take refuge in disguises. She smiled, and returned to the book that now rests under my hands.
It is a late sixteenth-century folio, untitled, and bound in oxblood morocco; the text of vernacular Spanish is written on vellum in formal Rotunda script. The narrative tells of a female Aztec juggler brought to Europe by Hernán Cortés, and she has many adventures including fighting with the Ottomans, abandoning herself to the pleasures of Titian's Venice, and plotting the assassination of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. We believe it was composed in Cáceres, Spain, circa 1570, and because of stylographic similarities to other texts most scholars agree that it was authored by one Padre Miguel Santiago de Pasamonte, a hedonistic and probably insane Hieronymite monk who wrote a series of scandalous novels a full twenty years before Cervantes penned Don Quixote. My boss here at the Getty, Teresa Shaughnessey, is in these theorists' camp.
It appears that I am the sole dissenter to their hypothesis. I believe, as I've said, that a woman wrote this folio, and an Aztec woman at that. Perhaps it is fiction, perhaps not. Historical accounts of Aztec slaves' passage from Tenochtitlán to the Vatican will be found in annals from that era. And although this book contains accounts of magic, it was written in a credulous age, when the passionate still saw spirits and monsters mingling with human neighbors.
I've also dared to give it a title: The Conquest.
If I prove my hypothesis I will be as clever as any necromancer, for all the dark women of history have lost their tongues. If I show my colleagues that an Aztec woman wrote this book, it will be as if I'd tapped on the shoulder of the great volcano Ixtacihuatl and bade her speak.
And that's exactly what I'll do.
The night is deepening. Saturday night, so that this place is a clock-stopped island beyond which lies an electric and protean Los Angeles filled with revelers. I am the last of the scholars left here, and it is my favorite time in the museum, when I can fancy the duchesses and devils stepping down from their canvases and waltzing together through the black halls.
I can work now with no distraction but my own imagination. My tools are simple. White gloves, a bone folder, knitting needles, glue, and thin, milky sheets of linen and Japanese paper, which I will graft to the book's body in much the same way the surgeon repairs the body of a patient whose heart has been punctured by illness.
No, I will say that the process reminds me instead of a sweetheart reconstructing a destroyed love letter. The first time I held one of these relics -- it was a thirteenth-century manuscript of an Aztec poet, for I tend to seek projects that relate to my race -- I remember the impression that I possessed a message from a revenant suitor pining for the love of a beautiful woman. I glanced up, then, at these shelves of sleeping books and thought how each hid the ember of a hot heart that beat after passions now long forgotten.The Conquest. Copyright © by Yxta Maya Murray. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.