Friday, July 27, 2012

"The most original of knights errant" - Ángel Ganivet’s The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya

"Flying Hippo," photocollage by Kleemass, used with his kind permission. 
More of Kleemass' work can be seen at

I’d find it difficult to dislike any work where in the first pages the protagonist declaims a line like this one:

...there are difficult moments in the life of a man, during which he finds himself constrained to abdicate his sovereignty and calmly obey the first pachyderm that comes along.

The pachyderm in question in Ángel Ganivet’s hugely entertaining and disquieting 1897 novel, The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya (La conquista del reino de Maya, por el último conquistador español, Pío Cid), is a hippopotamus. More precisely, it’s a sacred hippopotamus allegedly capable of flight, and astride it rides the intrepid Spanish entrepreneur Pío Cid into the hidden heart of Africa to be welcomed as a divinity by the tribe named in the title. If the name Maya and the story (minus its pachyderm and African setting) sound familiar, it’s because Ganivet’s picaresque novel is also a lancing, Swiftian satire of Spain’s colonial enterprises, with allusions to the conquest of Mesoamerica (the ghost of Hernán Cortés even makes an appearance) as well as a broader view of colonialist exploits, given that Ganivet began the novel while assigned to the Spanish consulate in Antwerp as Belgium was conducting its genocidal conquest of the Congo. The Sanskrit meaning of “Maya” as “illusion” holds perhaps greater significance (as a student, the polylingual Ganivet wrote a thesis on Sanskrit), since the illusions of Europeans’ aspirations regarding those they colonized form the novel’s center of gravity.

Given the protagonist’s name and his self-identification as “the most original of knights errant,” The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya also consciously addresses itself to its great predecessors in Spanish literature, most evidently The Poem of the Cid and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, situating itself firmly in the tradition of the chivalric and picaresque.  But in its mixture of acidic irony; absurd, surrealistic elements; and presciently modern themes, Ganivet’s novel looks towards the future of literature. The “magical realism” of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez begins to look a bit threadworn after plunging into Ganivet’s world of hippopotami-borne chevaliers, oracles who interpret parrot songs, velocipede-peddling pygmies and a spiritual mythos in which worlds are stacked one upon the other like a layer cake, the terrestrial tier awaiting a rapture when a race of half-human/half-monkey slaves will descend to liberate humankind from toil.  

I don’t recall where I first heard of Ganivet – almost certainly in an on-line forum regarding worthy works not yet translated into English. Thus my copy of the book is in French (La Conquête du royaume du Maya), translated by François Gaudry and with a terrific introduction by novelist Álvaro Mutis. Mutis describes Ganivet’s work as occupying “a singularly premonitory place upstream of the vast amount of literature that irrigates, up to the present, the Spanish imagination – and perhaps even more so, the Hispanic-American imagination.” An early member of the “Generation of '98” and close friend of Miguel de Unamuno, Ganivet matriculated from the university in his native Granada before leaving Spain to spend his adult life in the Spanish diplomatic corps, serving in Antwerp, Helsinki and finally Riga, where, at age 33, suffering from depression and syphilitic madness, he drowned himself in the icy waters of the Dniva. An essayist and playwright as well as novelist, he’d authored several idealistic treatises exploring the qualities of Spain’s national character and proposing a vision for the country’s future, noted by Mutis as constituting - along with the correspondence between Ganivet and Unamuno - “the most significant works of Spanish thought of the last two centuries.” This overarching concern for the development of a nation lies at the heart of The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya, the first of Ganivet’s two novels, both of which feature Pío Cid (the second, The Works of the Indefatigable Creator Pío Cid, appeared a month prior to Ganivet’s death and seems to be unavailable in English or French translation).

Pío Cid, a patriotic Spaniard of “independent and proud character,” has honed his practical and commercial skills in various European capitals before taking a position in Zanzibar, where tedium and the exotic travel accounts of European explorers lure him to take leave to explore the African continent. Accompanying a group of Arab traders as they leave the coast for Africa’s interior, Cid is separated from the group and captured by head-hunters. Narrowly escaping with his life and fleeing into the jungle, he stumbles upon a hippopotamus adorned with a bridle of vines which carries him into the hitherto unknown land of the Maya, rulers of a kingdom “the size of Portugal and shaped like a salted cod.” Using his wits to profit from the Maya’s belief that he is a long sought Igana-Igaru, or divinity, Pío Cid re-invents himself as the embodiment of a previous such “divinity” who went missing 20 years before under suspicious circumstances. This set-up, dispatched in the first chapters, provides the platform from which Cid launches into a lengthy account of his intimate life with the Maya. He describes in detail their history, customs, religion, government and social institutions before embarking on a self-appointed attempt to reform all of that, as Ganivet’s satire now subtly turns its focus from the Maya’s primitivism (it need hardly be said that the Maya are presented as completely over-the-top caricatures of early European explorers’ accounts of “the Dark Continent”) to Pío Cid’s efforts to introduce a “superior” civilization. Of unshakeable confidence, Cid lets no fleeting doubts regarding his assumptions and decisions hold him back. Through his blinders (and blunders), Spain itself, its colonial adventures, and a broad swath of European attitudes and behaviors are revealed in their ignorance, arrogance and cruelty. Never does Pío Cid fully recognize his own role in sending ripples (and tidal waves) through Mayan society, which result in not only a coup d’etat but eventually in his own assumption of power as a kind of prime minister pulling the strings behind an easily malleable, ineffective, alcoholic king.

Through a series of ruses that exploit the Maya’s gullibility and susceptibility to new technologies and the promise of commercial gain, Pío Cid institutes major reforms. These include the creation of a Constitution (temporarily abandoned due to its unwieldy length, not to mention the illiteracy of most of the inhabitants); a top-down reorganization of government (with an expansion of the power of the Maya’s religious clerics and teachers, formation of a vast bureaucracy of useless administrative functionaries whom Cid sees as the glue that provides stability in government, and increasing concentration of the country’s resources and riches in himself). He inaugurates massive infrastructure projects including the building of new cities, the canalization of the territory, and the installation of nighttime lighting, as well as a panoply of other efforts such as replacement of loincloths with multicolored robes, the introduction of soap, establishment of a laundry, development of the arts and sciences, and the transformation of a society of ritual into one of spectacle. These efforts to “civilize” the refractory and backwards Maya, introduced with lofty intentions and convoluted rationalizations, somehow always accrue to Cid’s personal advantage (during his stay, while proclaiming only the best and least prurient of intentions, Cid acquires an exponentially growing number of wives, which for matters strictly of manageability he finally caps at 50). His efforts also spawn complications that require even further reforms. Initial misgivings that introducing an industry of alcohol production might create detrimental side effects are dismissed by Cid’s racist assumption that the Maya will react to drink differently than his own countrymen (predictably disastrous consequences ensue). Cid proudly sums up his accumulated reformist efforts as a “tableau,” suggesting that for him (and underscoring the Sanskrit meaning of the title) they have served primarily an aesthetic role. The end result of Pío Cid’s impact is neatly represented in the book’s final pages by a crudely drawn map of the Kingdom of the Maya pre- and post-Cid, the most noticeable change being that the map has been turned upside down.

To succeed, satire must hew close to the truth; what makes The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya so devastatingly effective is that it reads, with tremendous seductiveness, like an actual explorer’s account. Ganivet never breaks character in his serious narrative façade, even as his protagonist, like a blindfolded person holding a match while walking down a corridor stocked with fireworks, sparks plenty of shock, awe and hilarity. I found it difficult to isolate – for purposes of quoting in this post – passages that succinctly conveyed Ganivet at his most satirical, for he develops his attacks painstakingly and at such length that their objects manifest themselves belatedly. One can read along for pages before a subtle accumulation of incredible details reaches a tipping point, and the absurdity of what’s just been described suddenly becomes apparent. The solemnity with which he describes an ink used by the Maya seems plausible until one pauses to reflect on the farcical quality of its ingredients: palm oil, the tint from a giant yellow flower, and the blood of a rabbit. He accomplishes a similar sleight of hand with his larger themes, inviting identification with Pío Cid’s more magnanimous and altruistic ideas - Cid is, after all, a complex and often sympathetic figure - then stringing his readers along until, too late, we recognize we’re on extremely shaky terrain just at the moment the bottom falls out.

Ganivet’s treatment of judicial processes ably demonstrates his ability to deliver his barbs with subtlety, patience, and blistering humor. The judicial system of the Maya is introduced in Pío Cid’s first decision as Igana Igaru, in which he’s called to pass judgment in the case of a farmer who’s allowed his mule to wander into a sacred temple. Playing to the crowd, Cid rules in favor of the mule, condemning its poor owner to swift decapitation, with the mule left braying madly “from joy or from distress, I could not tell.” Years later, driven by an idle calculation of the number of persons he’s condemned, he begins to seek ways to mitigate the barbarity of these executions, a section of the novel that fiercely lampoons both the inhuman theatricality of judicial processes as well as the inhumanity of incremental reforms in matters of life and death. After unsuccessfully trying a gradual introduction of symbolic animal sacrifices to stand in for the human ones (resulting in little more than a co-mingling of bovine and human blood he fears will offend the Maya), Cid replaces decapitation with an idea borrowed from his beloved bullfighting, with the condemned forced to do public battle with angry bulls (and later, to enhance the show, a panther). Acknowledging that the end result – dead prisoners – is the same, Cid expresses pride in having turned justice into an energetic, cathartic, participatory activity that offers the added bonus of generating heroes out of those few fortunate enough to vanquish their animal foes. Beneath a lot of Ganivet’s humor, there’s as much madness and horror as can be found in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which appeared a mere two years later.

The Conquest of the Kingdom of Maya wowed me with its inventiveness, panoramic vision, subtle but scorching satire, rich language, and sustained ironic tone that made reading the novel a nearly delirious experience (and a challenging one; the many Mayan terms devised by Ganivet would have made a glossary helpful). There’s a warmth and lack of righteousness in Ganivet’s writing that makes his satire palatable even as it’s piercing, investing the reader in questioning his or her own assumptions and motivations, bringing to the surface the myriad ways people can rationalize their most altruistic intentions to unconsciously serve themselves. Lancing human foibles and frailties with an eye on the profound and the eternal, the broad sweep of Ganivet’s novel lights on targets easily recognizable in today’s world: racism and xenophobia, the treatment of immigrants and minorities, the rush to war as a means of fomenting patriotism, the hidden injuries of class, governmental bureaucracy and corruption, the pernicious effects of capitalism and commercialization, the seductions of technology, the arrogance and self interest of imperial power, the destruction of traditions and rituals, the patriarchal organization of societies (I have not even touched on Ganivet’s confounding treatment of gender in the Maya’s polygamous, polyandrous society). Ganivet’s novel seems far ahead of its time, addressing global issues, melding satire and idealism, introducing elements of the surreal and magical, parodying ethnographic assumptions and imperializing aspirations, and undermining narrative authority in the unforgettable, beguiling, ridiculously sublime and increasingly mad voice of the last Spanish conquistador, Pío Cid. Here’s one major work of Spanish literature long overdue for translation into English. 

Read as part of Spanish Literature Month co-hosted by Richard of Caravana de Recuerdos and Stu of Winstonsdad's Blog.

For biographical details, I am indebted to Judith Ginsberg's outstanding monograph, Angel Ganivet, Tamesis Books Limited, London, 1985. 


  1. It seems unfair somehow to write about books that you have invented yourself.

    I mean, I am impressed at your ingenuity, but come on! I am not fooled.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You know what's even better? This may well be an outstanding example of "clerk literature," given that Cid is recounting his story after contracting a fever while leaving Africa and after finding himself reduced to a functionary position not unlike those he rationalizes in his account. The final scene is one of hallucinatory madness. I am ruining nothing with these revelations.

    Oh, and in approaching Spanish Literature Month, I wasn't about to let the 19th century go unnoticed.

  3. In recent weeks I've been toying with the idea of translating something of Ganivet's (maybe _Travails of the Tireless Creator_; haven't read _Maya_) and your excellent review reassures me that perhaps that idea isn't so mad, after all.

    1. Fario - Thanks. I don't think it's a mad idea at all to get Ganivet into English translation. so let this reply be a note of encouragement. I'd be most grateful if you'd let me know if you do end up doing one.

    2. Any Ganivet I do will have to wait until I clear the table, so to speak, but I'll be sure to let you know if I get one done. I suspect, for the rest, that I, in my redneck guise, am the author of the forum post about Ganivet that you refer to in your review.

    3. That may very well be possible, so I feel doubly indebted. I recall only a line or two suggesting that it was a pity Ganivet's work was unavailable in English. I hope that when your table finally gets cleared, you'll be able to rectify the situation. All best, Scott

  4. You had me at flying hippo ;)