War God by Graham Hancock: Book Review

Graham Hancock’s epic novelisation of the Spanish invasion and conquest of Mexico is a masterwork in all respects: it melds historical factuality and levelled appraisals of its real personalities with an enveloping fictional narrative, bolstered by an informed nod to the supernatural, which is never to the deficit of the non-fictional event story.

The historical setting of the story is half a millennia ago, when a cavalier captain, Hernán Cortés, set off to the ‘New Lands’ of South America from recently Spanish-conquered Cuba, against the will of his Governor. Cortés is driven by fame and fortune in this life and the next. He has a close communion with his patron saint and sees the attempt to conquer newer lands as destined to succeed for it is deigned by, and in the name of, God.

The empire dominating the New Lands are known to us as the Aztecs, to themselves the Mexica: a grand and ghastly, proud and excessive empire—as all tend—which exerts its power well beyond its own borders, extracting tribute from many other much weaker peoples. The leader of the Mexica, its ‘Great Speaker’, is Moctezuma, essentially a king whose privilege it is to commune with the War God, Hummingbird, and who commands total respect and subservience from his subjects.

The point of view characters caught in between this haughty historical war are, on the side of the indigenous, Tozi, a stubborn and remarkable teenage witch, Malinal, a beautiful Mayan polyglottal sex-slave, Moctezuma, the psychotic and (seemingly) omnipotent leader of the Mexican empire aforementioned, and Shikotentka, the noble, savage and fiercely independent battle-king of the neighbouring Tlascalan people. On the side of the Spanish, Cortés, the brilliant, fearsome and complex Machiavellian operator behind each diplomatic and military masterstroke attributed to the Spanish, Pepillo, the aspirant and honest teenage page of the ghastly paedophile, Father Muñoz, who is also a point of view character in the first novel.

The Spanish are set on finding the fabled city of gold in Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. They must conquer or cajole or bargain with the indigenous to secure a path there, facilitated by Malinal’s translation and the godly aura clouding the Mexica and Maya’s view of the Spanish’ arrival, which they play along with to their advantage. The military encounters between them are as savage as are the diplomatic encounters courteous; both sides learn of the capacity of the other to be both unsparingly vicious and surprisingly civil.

Nevertheless, Hancock is unsparing in his characterising the brutality of both, which makes for perfectly feasible accounting of what is an often too simplified or valorised epoch. On the Spanish account, whole villages were burned to fiery ruin, women raped, children unspared. The Mexica found its infamy and renown in human sacrifice, which was as regular as it was rife, but otherwise was much like the archetypal empire, overzealous and overstretched, meeting a fate which was not due to their being undermanned, but outmanned and overwhelmed by better tactics and technology. This latter point is something about which Hancock writes brilliantly: the fear felt by the indigenous when first encountering cannon (“fire serpents”), men on horseback, first described as half-man-half-beast, and boats which “move without paddles.”

Hancock’s research into the lives lived, thoughts thought and beliefs believed by both the Spanish and indigenous has informed these novels. One can, despite their being opposed in total war, empathise and sympathise with both sides, since Hancock shows the stark similarities between them, despite being balanced by equally stark dissimilarities. For example, when each approach their Gods in altered states of consciousness: Cortés in lucid dreams, Moctezuma by way of magic mushroom, Father Muñoz by flagellating himself into a lurid ecstasy, etcetera. Likewise with the absolute tenacity the fearsome warriors of each side confront the other with; the pride of the victories and the shame of defeats.

What most grasps me about this book, though, is its truth: this shit went down! Hancock’s descriptions of pitched battles, of human sacrifice, of the misery left in their wake rightly leaves some to your imagination, but without letting it get away thinking that these conquests were in any way pretty, or wholly noble, or in any sense humane. You learn much from this book in history and in philosophy—and Hancock doesn’t force either down your throat. The novelist’s task is not to tell, but to show; this Hancock heeds expertly. The novel flows smoothly in a gripping narrative canvassing history, politics, action, love and the supernatural. I assure you, you shan’t be able to wrench yourself from it. I eagerly await the third and final installment.

Schoolyard Scrap

Year 12! The first year of Sixth-Form, in which you are told that you are an adult, now—one obliged to continue wearing a certain uniform, abiding bollockings for untucked shirts and imperfectly knotted ties. For want of any compelling alternative, many wander directionless into this educative, social and sexual gauntlet when at their spottiest, stupidest and angriest, so sparks flew; here’s one.

My friends and I went to play basketball down the courts one lunchtime, and started jamming with some lads in Year 10. They told us that a guy assaulted a friend of theirs the weekend before, twatting him over the head with a skateboard. This I found enraging: the dude is harmless! He and his mates roundly surpassed my skill level on the court; I outplayed them by outshoving them with shoulders bigger than they had to shove with. It’s not fair: exploiting your age and physicality to win, especially so when it comes to violence. I was angry. So, what does an angry seventeen-year-old do?

I took to Facebook, that evening, which back in the day was a wild interwest as yet unpolluted by parents; full of posing and pissy teenage arguments and ‘tag a friend who…’ photos. I went on the culprit’s Facebook page and gave him some jip. The next evening, after having had a beer or five, I saw his understandably jippy replies. So I posted a ‘status’ saying some spectacularly cringe-worthy things to the effect: “Such and Such says he can kick my ass?! He is a pussy c**t t**t etcetera.” The next day or so a plethora of irretrievably embarrassing things were said each way, I cannot recall (only Facebook, the NSA and God have such power), but the gist of his response was: fight me, then.

And so it was. With every Facebook friend of each of ours as witness and soon-to-be audience, we were deigned to dance at 1 o’clock in the Sixth-Form car park. Some friends of his posted on my wall commiserating my loss and friends of mine congratulating my win in advance. I just remember a local and successful boxer’s comment that he would ‘bow down’ in front of my foe before fighting him, that streetfights are his game as boxing is his. I clearly remember thinking: fuck. Equally clearly: too late, now. I had an opportunity to ask my Dad to teach me how to punch, as he had done with my sister when the need urgently arose, but thought that my request would give it away. How so many people had wind of this over so many days in an open domain without a parent or the school being informed is beyond me and doubtlessly wouldn’t happen nowadays.

The day of the scrap was a school day, which started as one usually did. My friends mentioned the fight constantly and my nervousness was unwillingly fed by their excitement. Morning lessons were a blur, until the bell rang. I nabbed by sports bag and went alone to the changing rooms. I put on my Ireland football shirt, blue basketball shorts and trainers. I haven’t prepared, have no clue how to throw a punch and am about to fight with a purported street fighter in front of his and my friends. What the feck am I doing, I thought, making my way to the car park. I am fit and strong and play rugby and basketball, but I’m hardly going to punch him with a jump shot or rugby tackle.

Crossing the road from Sixth-Form, I caught sight of people, loads of people. My stomach dropped. I felt sick. My mind whirred impotently as I turned the hedgerow to enter the car park, seeing a legitimate crowd. People older and younger, some people I recognised from St Sampson, La Mare. I made eye contact with an older guy with tattoos I’d never seen before. I hope that’s not his friend. A mate approached me and passed me a cigarette, which I took and dragged on heartily, still walking, heart pounding sickly in my throat. I spotted my foe, stood with a group of his friends, smoking too. Not the nutter warming up boxing shadows like I’d imagined. Maybe this could be amicable, maybe he’d apologise for his actions, we all make mistakes, maybe—oh, no, he’s turned and is now sprinting dementedly toward me across the car park.

Pivot on my left foot, load it, left check hook in to the right side of his jaw, pivot out of his way as he falls unconscious to the floor. Precisely what didn’t happen. I’m glad I didn’t box then—feck me I’m glad he didn’t either. I was stood square on, didn’t think to set myself and didn’t throw anything as he jumped at pace to head-butt me. Being a head taller and going backward with his momentum, his forehead harmlessly hit the lower part of my chin, and we fell to the floor for a scrappy, gravelly grapple. I think it would look hilarious to watch, now. He managed to pin an arm as I attempt to get up with the other, and he bites the lower part of my neck. I remember yelping, “He’s biting me!” More a cry of ‘foul’ than anything else. A friend of his shouted back, “No rules!” I manage to get to my feet and he goes to rugby tackle me. I set my feet so he can’t get me down, but he continues to try, driving in to my midriff. I stand awkwardly and decide to start punching, throwing one, two, five, ten punches into the side of his head until he gives up the grapple. My turn to rugby tackle: much more successful, lifting and ragdolling him on to his back. He gets up a little slowly and as he goes for me again I swing a couple of punches, loosely and sloppily from the hip, stopping his advance. Christ I don’t like fighting, and I’m shit at it. I offer my hand, as much to end it for me as him. His mates offer more uninspiring slogans, a couple of fuck you’s, and he goes once more. I throw another couple of looping punches, one of which makes a horrible sound on his forehead, whether it’s my knuckle or the sound of impact I’m unsure. He looks dazed, bloodied and tired. I offer my shaking hand again, and he shakes it. Thank feck.

You hear the crowd when you’re fighting, I’ve come to learn through boxing in later years, but you don’t often see them. Looking at the scores of possibly underwhelmed but indubitably entertained students filling the car park, I finish a mate’s cigarette and walk toward the school. It’s all over in less than ten minutes. Walking past a teacher, who has obviously seen the commotion, she asks me what’s going on. “No idea”, I say, rushing off. She thought I should be suspended. Another teacher shook my hand.

The sort of thing I might fantasise about being able to gloat about on Facebook, when it came to being able to, I didn’t want to and decided against it. I felt humbled, and frankly scared by the whole ordeal. The dude and I made up and have chirped since. My girlfriend at the time, as all good women have a tendency to do for men, tended injury but not ego. “Nice camp boxing skills there, Liam”, she says as we watch a grainy video of my undeniably and flamboyantly camp attempts at punching, throwing from my leg in awkward arcs, before extending my hand to shake on a ceasefire. As scrappy and silly as educative and humbling, I haven’t had any car park contests since. Perhaps because I deleted Facebook, though.

 


After deleting Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which I used to publicise this site, visits dropped considerably. If you enjoyed this article, I’d really appreciate your clicking the title and sharing the web address on social media. Peace and chirps, Liam.