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Death in El Dorado: The Anthropophagous Jungle in One Account of Lope de Aguirre's Revolt

From: Hispanófila
Volume 160, Septiembre 2010
pp. 43-59 | 10.1353/hsf.2010.0023

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

DEATH IN EL DORADO: THE ANTHROPOPHAGOUS JUNGLE IN ONE ACCOUNT OF LOPE DE AGUIRRE’S REVOLT by Kimberly Borchard Randolph-Macon College I. OBJECTIVE THE trope of the jungle as an abyss where man is overwhelmed by the abundance of nature and slowly degenerates into a state of moral perversion is one of the hallmarks of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature . Critics have alternately praised the novela de la selva as a desperately needed critique of colonial exploitation and attacked it as the origin of an endless series of facile literary clichés. Though it is commonly accepted that the genre emerged as a retort to utopian discourses rooted in the ideology of colonial domination, many of its antecedents in early colonial letters have thus far been overlooked. In the present study, I will demonstrate that the motif of the anthropophagous tropical wilderness began to take form less than a century after Columbus’ arrival in the New World. This representation of nature as a hostile force came about in response to a specific set of politically volatile events, through a unique merging of techniques from distinct narrative traditions . In his Relación muy verdadera de todo lo sucedido en el río del Marañón (1561), Gonzalo de Zúñiga presents the Amazonian rainforest as an infernal morass, which empowers the evil and the corrupt as it devours the virtuous few.1 Zúñiga was not the first to depict the destructive potential of the American jungle. However, the personal interests at stake in his relación were great; 43 and his highly stylized portrayal of the rainforest is more complex than a strictly empirical nature report or relación. As he wrote, Zúñiga anticipated punishment by the colonial authorities for his involvement in an armed revolt against the king of Spain, Philip II. Accordingly, he used his topographical description of the Amazonian river valley as part of a broader justification of his apparently treasonous conduct.2 But unlike the typical author-narrator of New World relaciones – or the typical trial witness – Zúñiga conspicuously cancels himself out as an agent within his narrative. Though his report abounds in the “prosaic detail ” that most often provides the foundation of narrative authority in the relación de Indias (Mayer 101), Gonzalo de Zúñiga all but expunges his own presence from the text. While utilizing the framework of the New World nature report as the model for his self-exculpation, Zúñiga thus overturns two of the most discussed conventions of Spanish American colonial literature: the invocation of eyewitness authority and the supremacy of the first-person narrator. In this article, I will first consider the verbal map of the Marañón river with which Zúñiga begins his account. Studying Zúñiga’s use of empirical description as a rhetorical device, I will explore the significance of his topographical report in the broad context of New World relaciones in general, and in the narration of Aguirre’s rebellion in particular. In so doing, I hope to answer the following questions. How does this apparently disruptive digression help substantiate its author’s innocence? In what ways does it differ from previous verbal “images” of colonial American topography? Next, I will examine the author’s excision of himself from the events described in the Relación muy verdadera and his avoidance of the role of first-person eyewitness. Since the author’s function as eyewitness arguably constitutes the foundation of both geographic description and textual authority in early accounts of New World exploration , the rejection of eyewitness status constitutes a deviation from the narrative conventions of the time and potentially undermines Zúñiga’s authorial credibility. This leads us to the final issue to be addressed here. How does Zúñiga’s account fit into the larger tradition of Spanish New World nature reporting ? Does it represent a true anomaly, a new genre, or simply a variation on the prevalent literary forms of the sixteenth century? What is the place of this account in the canon of early New World letters? II. MAP OF AN INSURRECTION Against the backdrop of Spanish imperial expansion glorified by cronistas and cartographers alike...