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  • Worlds of Libraries:Metafictional Works by Arlt, Borges, Bermani, and De Santis
  • Cynthia Gabbay

La historia suele quemar la historia. Y nos transformamos en la sombra que se apaga con la letra. Las bibliotecas pueden ser una prisión, un refugio, o una hoguera.

Emmanuel Taub, “Tesis sobre la escritura”

The culture of Spanish America was marked by the white man’s effacement of the indigenous cultures when the colonizers occupied the lands of “the New World.” Occupiers saw the Mayan and Aztec cultures as meaningless and pagan. Led first by Hernán Cortés (1519), they set fire to texts of the Mayas, Aztecs, Zapotecs, and Mixtecs. In 1529, at Tlatelolco, Juan de Zumárraga, who was by then New Spain’s Bishop, ordered whole archives containing folk tales, works of history, science, economics, agriculture, theology, and astronomy, as well as holy scriptures, to be burned. Polastron describes the holocaust of the indigenous archives:

Juan de Zumárraga, Bishop of Mexico, then high inquisitor of Spain outside the walls between 1536 and 1543, proudly burned all the Aztec codices that the conflagration of Cortez had missed—all the tonalamatl, the sacred books that he sent his agents to collect or that where found gathered together in amoxcalli, the halls of archives. […] Thus in 1529, Zumárraga had the library of the “most cultivated capital in Anahuac, and the great depository of the national libraries”1 brought to the market square of Tlatelolco until they formed “a mountain heap,” which the monks approached, brandishing their torches and singing. Thousands of polychrome pages went up in smoke. The conqueror was there to kill and capture, the cleric to erase…


Immense amounts of knowledge, acquired by different cultures over the centuries, disappeared within a few nights under Western fire, consumed by the spirit of the Inquisition. In 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa burned large numbers of pictograms in Yucatan, believing they were letters of the devil. His testimony says: “We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which [End Page 241] were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction” (169).2 Following this, the Maya themselves were defeated and their oral culture—a transmitter of ancient wisdom—was rejected. Western culture and literature arrived in this “new territory,” seen as a void without history or literacy.

Further library burnings were repeated across the continent. As Alberto Manguel says in his book The Library at Night,

Libraries, in their very being, not only assert but also question the authority of power. As repositories of history or sources for the future, as guides or manuals for difficult times, as symbols of authority past or present, the books in a library stand for more than their collective contents, and have, since the beginning of writing, been considered a threat. It hardly matters why a library is destroyed: every banning, curtailment, shredding, plunder or loot gives rise (at least as a ghostly presence) to a louder, clearer, more durable library of the banned, looted, plundered, shredded or curtailed. Those books may no longer be available for consultation, they may exist only in the vague memory of a reader or in the vaguer-still memory of tradition and legend, but they have acquired a kind of immortality.


Indeed, libraries turned out to be powers that threatened the foreign occupiers. The unfathomable library, written in hieroglyphs and mysterious signs, was seen as a double threat because it contained a magic power terrifying to the conqueror. The burning practices of the Inquisition were founded on the belief that fire was the only means of undermining ‘satanic’ books. However, the very disappearance of indigenous literature turned it into an eternal presence, floating like a ghost, feeding a constant thirst to decipher the ashes.

The few remaining autochthonous texts taught us the nature of the writing systems that horrified the conquerors. Different from the Romanic alphabetic system, indigenous writing methods were mixed: the Mayan system was mostly syllabic; Nahuatl was prominently ideographic, produced on long strips of deer...


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pp. 241-262
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