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The Orange Tree

A Mexico book by by Carlos Fuentes

Reviewed by Allan Cogan

orange tree
Orange tree in Mexico
© Sergio Wheeler, 2011

Here's Fuentes at it again, publishing short stories and novellas under a single title and trying to interlink them into a cohesive whole as he tried to do in The Crystal Frontier. The connection here is the orange tree, the symbol of Spain. "Could any image verify a Spaniard's identity better than the sight of a man eating an orange?" asks one of the characters early on in the book. I have to admit that that would never have occurred to me. However, I won't argue the point. The orange tree appears in each story but doesn't provide much more than a nice title and some superficial linkage.

The main connection between these five stories is really Fuentes playing - and having whimsical fun - with history. In The Two Shores, for example, he describes how Cortes finds a Spanish sailor who was stranded in Mexico for several years before Cortes's arrival and who speaks the Indian languages fluently. The joke, however, is that the sailor, Jeronimo de Aguilar, respects the locals and loathes Cortes's goal of conquest and deliberately mistranslates much of what Cortes says. However, there are conversations between Cortes and Moctezuma that provide possible insights or interpretations of both men, as seen through the eyes of the translator who, of course, is playing his own game.

Further conflict is provided by the presence of a second translator - Cortes's girl friend La Malinche, who has no qualms about her lover's dreams of conquest.

In the second story, Sons of the Conquistador, we meet the two sons of Cortes. They're both named Martin. One is the child of his Spanish wife. The other is the illegitimate son of his Indian mistress. I don't know if Cortes had two such sons, but that isn't important to the story. The real point of these tales is to show the many ways in which history can be interpreted, mainly depending on the point of view of the person doing the interpretation.

The story concerns the two sons' dispute over the disposition of their father's will. However, for this reader, the most satisfying aspect was finding out that Cortes had so many legal problems after his years of conquest. He was never accepted in his native land and never received the glory he obviously yearned for. The story mentions, for instance: "…expenditures for scribes, scriveners, messengers. More than two hundred royal documents relevant to our father, denying his grievances, putting off his claims, paying him in chilly gall for the blazing gold of the conquest. A world of shyster lawyers, of laws obeyed but never carried out, of ink-stained hands, pyramids of legal briefs, quills plucked to write a thousand legacies - more feathers in the inkwells than geese in the ponds!"

Gee! - it all sounds almost like something that might happen in today's Washington - and fitting payment, I would say, for the misery Cortes caused during his years of conquest.

In The Two Americas, Fuentes takes us for a huge imaginative romp where he muses that Columbus didn't really land in the America we all know. Instead, he landed in a kind of Eden where he seemed destined to live forever. At least he lived for 500 years. At the time of his arrival in this paradise he put a message in a bottle. The bottle floated all the way to Japan, where it was discovered 500 years later, by modern-day Japanese entrepreneurs who came looking for him. And because of all their modern mega-bucks Columbus's Eden underwent massive change.

Columbus muses about it all as follows: "Dazed, I signed the various contracts, including clauses relating to fried chicken and soda water, gas stations, motels, pizzerias, ice cream parlors, picture magazines, cigarettes, tires, supermarkets, cameras, cars, yachts, musical instruments, and a list of etceteras longer than the list of titles belonging to the monarchs of Spain for whom I had embarked on my voyage of discovery."

The story ends with Columbus returning home - on a jet! "What shall I find when I return to Spain?" he asks himself. "I shall open the door of my home again. I shall plant the orange seed again."

As you can see, our legs are being thoroughly pulled here as Fuentes has fun with the history we all know and accept.

"Apollo and the Whores" doesn't quite seem to fit into the overall context of all this historic playfulness but it's fun. It concerns the exploits of a grade-B movie actor who visits Acapulco and finds himself out at sea with seven prostitutes. What you expect to happen certainly does happen and our boy even dies in the process. The description of the scene in which this occurs must've presented an incredible challenge to the translator. You'll find how he handled it on page 174, by the way.

I mentioned at the start that there are five stories in this volume. However, I found with one of them, "The Two Numantias", that I was simply getting nothing out of it. So I just gave up. It's concerned with the Roman conquest of Spain. I confess that, at my ripe old age, I don't waste time struggling with books. There are just too damn many of them. I remember seeing a t-shirt years ago with the printed motto: "So little time…so much to read." How could you possibly say it better?

Verdict:

"The Orange Tree" isn't for everyone. But if you're looking for a change of pace and if that kind of whimsical playfulness sounds interesting to you, then give it a try.

The Orange Tree
By Carlos Fuentes

Harper Perennial paperback, 1994.

Available from Amazon Books: Hardcover

Published or Updated on: April 1, 1999 by Allan Cogan © 1999
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