Carmelo Sáenz’ well-written book makes a notable contribution to historical criticism of the True History. While the True History is one of the literary classics of the era of the Conquest, its chivalric style of writing makes it suspect to the modern scholar. It is, nonetheless, a major source which has been made more significant and vital by Sáenz’ work. Sáenz illuminates the value of a highly subjective account which can, however, preserve the emotional impact of living history. Through his careful, penetrating evaluation of the original manuscripts of the True History, the author has thus added a new dimension to the historiography of the Conquest.
Sáenz leads the reader through an analysis, manuscript by manuscript, paragraph by paragraph, and even word by word, searching carefully in the whimsical spelling, the indifferent punctuation, and the confused syntax for Díaz’ original meaning. Evaluating the three manuscripts, “Guatemala,” “Remón,” and “Alegría,” by both internal and external criticism, he scrutinizes their discrepancies through one episode after another: the discovery of New Spain, the expedition of Grijalva, Cortés at Veracruz, the Noche Triste, the pacification of the tributary tribes, the expedition to Honduras, and the death of Cuauhtémoc. By careful study of the paper, print, and nik, Sáenz gleans evidence of changes made by copyists, thus bringing new interpretations to the annotations made in the manuscripts. The author also evaluates various editions and translations of the manuscripts, as well as critics of the manuscripts and their translations.
The weakest section of the book is that in which the author involves himself in the typical speculation of Bernal Díaz’ historical identity and his official position in the Conquest and later in Guatemala. To substantiate his arguments on these matters Sáenz cites such official documents as death certificates, the credentials of the encomienda, the testimony of Hernán Cortés, and the records of the Council of the Indies.
The entire work is characterized by thorough scholarship. Sáenz approaches his subject with care, utilizing the archival holdings of Spain, Mexico, and Guatemala, and his analysis, as described above, is painstaking. Despite the amount of detail, the book is both clear and concise. Moreover, the section concerning Díaz’ life does not detract from the value of this work, for it is strengthened by Sáenz’ critical erudition. In addition, the annotated bibliography of manuscripts, documents, letters, and works on Díaz and the True History will be of use to all who are interested in Hispanic American studies.