Antonio de Herrera, the royal chronicler of Philip II, writing about the conquest of the New World in Historia General, included these lines:

The nations of New Spain preserved the memory of their antiquities. In Yucatán and Honduras there were certain books in which the Indians recorded the events of their times, together with their knowledge of plants, animals and other natural things. In the Province of Mexico, they had libraries of histories and calendars, which they painted in pictures. Whatever had a concrete form was painted in its own image, while if it lacked a form, they represented it by other characters. Thus they set down what they wished.

The image of a lost library, of graphs, codices and, subsequently, alphabetical transcriptions of oral tales, is suitable in the quest to imagine, even partially, the wealth of knowledge and spirituality that the Spaniards sought to dismantle. For what is a library if not a depository of memory? The past was important for the Nahua and Maya people, among other pre-Hispanics. They fathomed the need to record their inner thoughts, to make “history,” to reflect on the nature and impact of human existence. That they “set down what they wished” is accounted for in the myriad inventories of colonization left to posterity.

As a teleological arrow, History, of course, is an invention of the nineteenth century. The lost library was a myth in the early stages of the conquest, heavily inflected by a somewhat twisted sense of nostalgia. In Mesoamerica–understood as the stretch of land that includes a large portion of Mexico today as well as Central America, with a population influenced by Olmec culture–the accounts of that loss were colored by a Zeitgeist that was unstoppable and merciless. In particular, the destruction of both the magisterial metropolis Tenochtitlán, by Hernán Cortés, and the Aztec empire were delivered with a sense of inevitability.

The events come to us mainly through Cortés’s own correspondence with Charles V and also through Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of Mexico. The natives might be portrayed at best as generous and allowable. But the reader is biased toward the mighty Iberian army–only 600 men, who, even if faulty, are seen as fateful in their determinism. It wasn’t until Europe began to pay attention to the vanquished that an elaborate cognizance of the epic period emerged. But it took time and a decision to go beyond an easy racial favoritism. To historians like William Hickling Prescott, the choice of heroes in the epic was unquestionable. In his The Conquest of Mexico, it is not Moctezuma, the Mexican leader, but Cortés, the brave, white, adventurous knight, who was the appropriate figure to describe in a view that fit the embrace of the “civilized” by a barbarous, idolatrous empire.

Then came Salvador de Madariaga’s Hernán Cortéz. In a tone sensitive to the age of anti-imperialism that swept Europe in the early twentieth century, his biography is decidedly humane, aware of Cortés’s self-righteous acts of immolation. The Iberians are still at center-stage, though, and remained thus until after World War II, when other historians, such as Maurice Collis, pondered the deprivation of life and the degradations of memory in a more evenhanded fashion.

How did the Indians preserve their own interpretation of the conquest? Is it possible to unravel the way in which the pre-Columbian mind approached the universe? What were its ethos and pathos? Which obsessions was it overwhelmed with? How did it use language to explore its own condition? These questions were initially asked, albeit obliquely, by Alexander von Humboldt around 1813. Interest awakened in Italy, France, Germany and the United States, inspiring a solid tradition of archeologists, ethnographers and philologists, such as Léon de Rosny, Eduard Seler and Franz Boas, to explore the pre-Columbian condition.

In Mexico per se, influential work to open up the pre-Hispanic mind was done by Manuel Gamio, Pablo González Casanova, Angel María Garibay K. and Fernando Horcasitas Pimentel. This tradition, seeking to give voice to a voiceless people, has at present its most distinguished practitioner in Miguel León-Portilla. Since 1956, when his doctoral dissertation was published as La filosofía náhuatl estudiada en sus fuentes (in English in 1963: Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind), onward to the ever-popular Broken Spears, and up until the Cantares Mexicanos, edited with the help of Librado Silva Galeana and Francisco Morales Baranda, he has produced more than three dozen books that help us decipher the labyrinthine inner and outer paths of Mesoamerica.

The apex of his contribution–and a testament to its depth and entanglement–is In the Language of Kings, the most authoritative and inspiring anthology of pre-Columbian cultures to appear in any language other than Spanish. In browsing through its pages, I had a disconnected thought: León-Portilla resembles GershomScholem, a scholar of Kabbalah and a friend of Walter Benjamin, whose books provided an unexpected door to the hermetic theories of the divine at the heart of Judaism. Like Scholem, León-Portilla has shown that other viewpoints have persisted, beneath the surface of our Eurocentrism, from the time of contact. He too has unearthed documents that were within our reach but that needed a lucid, patient mind to be explained in full. He has made use of a silent, comparatively marginal field of study that, in his hand, acquires unparalleled importance.

The difference between the two is clear: Scholem was a paradoxical figure. How else to explain the lifelong effort of so enlightened a scholar to make every effort to uncover a heritage whose secrets have survived in a sealed form? In contrast, León-Portilla’s quest is unambiguous: to delineate, coherently and forcefully, the map to a psyche eclipsed by the accidents of history, not by its own metabolism. Furthermore, the delineation is performed not in Nahuatl, a variety of Mayan, or in Spanish, but in English, the lingua franca of academic debate today and irrefutably the only language that holds the key to ending the eclipse.

To that end he is helped by the educator and writer Earl Shorris, whose work in the former field has won presidential recognition and whose writings include an elegy for the American Indian and a polyphonic history of the Latino population in the United States. This time around his job is to shape the material in lucid, inspiring English. Shorris, in turn, is aided by his wife, Sylvia, whose knowledge of Spanish and Ladino–also known as Judesmo and Spanioli, which is close to medieval Spanish–proved an essential resource in the translation process. (Others responsible for this anthology are Jorge Klor de Alva and Ascensión H. de León-Portilla, and countless interpreters, archivists, folklorists and village memorialists both north and south of the Rio Grande.)

I met León-Portilla some fifteen years ago at a Jewish wedding in Cuernavaca, Morelos, and we had a brief conversation about his quest. He struck me as a subtle person whose great erudition is not paraded ostentatiously. Subtle, too, is how I would describe the perspicacious message of this anthology, delivered patiently, in installments, the way León-Portilla himself has been accomplishing his objective over the years: Pre-Columbian civilization, the book proclaims, is neither dead nor gone, and it ought not to be seen as a museum curio, a set of frozen items on display for curious, uncommitted eyes to observe.

In a section titled “The New Geography of Mesoamerica,” León-Portilla and Shorris suggest that after the Spanish invasion, the spread of Nahuatl and other pre-Columbian cultures occurred through mass immigration, across a vast expanse of land. A connection is made here to the Chicano movement, especially with figures like Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, whose columns in 1970 on what it means to be a Chicano incorporated aspects of “Indian” pasts. (One of my few minor complaints is that this connection with Mexican-Americans might have been developed further: Other Latino authors, and a handful of Chicano activists in the 1960s–Rudolfo “Corky” González, author of the poem “Yo soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín,” comes to mind–also tackled the issue. And then there is Carlos Castañeda, the UCLA-trained anthropologist whose oeuvre, from The Teachings of Don Juan onward, is in desperate need of re-evaluation and rescue from New Age hands.)

In the Language of Kings makes some unpredictable connections between the past and prominent political leaders that spring from, or have found a source in, the pre-Columbian Weltanschauung. The impact is sometimes startling. Perhaps most significant is the emulation of the indigenous revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. A couple of manifestos of April 27, 1918, are included here. In one, Zapata states that “our great war will not come to an end” until the dictator Venustiano Carranza is defeated and until “Christians [i.e., hacienda owners and caciques], those who have made fun of us, who hate us,” allow the Mexican people to reconnect with their ancient roots. The anthology also highlights the endorsement of Zapata by Subcomandante Marcos and other insurgents in Chiapas, as well as the fear that these guerrilla fighters create in the aboriginal population.

A prayer to Kajaval (Lord) by the Chamulas, who are fearful of the Zapatistas for past sins, is excerpted; it shows the religious syncretism that permeates the Indian population:

Have Mercy, Kajaval,
Have Mercy, Jesus.
Make yourself present among us, Kajaval,
Make yourself present in our incense,
Jesus with us, your daughters,
With us, your sons…
What sins have we, Kajaval?
What guilt have we, Jesus?

Anthologies are cut-and-paste artifacts. To survive, they depend on the voices of a handful of luminaries, whose light enables other minor voices to speak out as well– and even their empty, forgettable spots, as Henry James suggested was true of structure in novels, help establish a sense of continuity. Six-sevenths of this volume’s contents are devoted to Nahuatl and Mayan literatures; the remaining seventh covers Mixtec, Otomi, Purepecha and other Mesoamerican languages. I read parts of it with disinterest and others, whose echoes resonate in my mind, excitedly. The section on Nahuatl letters I found especially inspiring: It contains metaphysical poetry, sacred narratives, huehuetlahtolli (discourses of the elders), proverbs, historical narratives, diaries and Christian proselytizing literature. Some of the proverbs, mostly taken from the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún, I recall from my school years in Mexico. They brought back to mind the cryptic forms of wisdom Indian friends of mine used in daily language: Among the Nahuatl people, for instance, “a page is sent” is an aphorism used to refer to a person who is asked to deliver a message and fails to return with a response; and the maxim “a word is his meal” describes a person who is wounded easily and immediately starts quarreling with others.

Here and elsewhere one gets the impression that León-Portilla is enamored with the knotty paths of language–paths that ought to be appreciated not only for their literal meanings but also for their conjectural value. More than anything else, he gives us the language of dignity by going beyond the politics of compassion; there is never an attempt to generate pity in us. Pityarises from a slight contempt, and contempt involves a sense of superiority that is thankfully absent here–our technological superiority is only that, after all. This anthology also rejects the naïve suggestion that pre-Columbian civilization was somehow “purer” than ours, as well. The collection’s overall effect is breathtaking precisely because it doesn’t force judgments about its object of scrutiny. It tells us that the material it contains was conceived in a milieu radically different from ours, and that our awareness of time and space, of life and afterlife, makes us foreigners to it. What León-Portilla provides us with is the set of tools necessary to appreciate–and yes, to understand–this complement reality.

In his general introduction, León-Portilla gives us a quick sketch of the Mesoamerican ethos. The reader is told, for instance, that in the pre-Hispanic pantheon gods came in pairs, such as Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of the terrestrial waters. Tonalli (or destiny) depended on what the gods chose to concede to a person at the moment of birth. And to live attuned to the rhythms of nature was thought to be of primary importance. The skein of ideas León-Portilla lays out–the way pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica “read” itself, in rich detail, free of the false sense of “primitiveness” forced upon it by Western civilization–allows us to follow the traces of aboriginal thought in Mexico’s postcontact intelligentsia. From Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora to José Vasconcelos to Andrés Henestrosa, an embrace of the Indian legacy, from lukewarm to operatic to emphatic, has been unavoidable: The aboriginal face is in the mirror at all times, even after repeated attempts to blur it; it is as ineradicable as its European counterpart, an essential component of the mestizo self.

Many but not all of Nahuatl poets of the past are anonymous, in part because the pre-Columbian civilization wasn’t permeated by a sense of individualism. Still, there are recognizable names, like Axayacatl, Nezahualpilli and Cacamatzin. The most talented of them, the one capable of extreme varieties of feeling and thought, is Nezahualcoyotl, king of Tezcoco. This poet alone justifies In the Language of Kings. A product of a mix of Chichimeca and Toltec cultures of the early fifteenth century, he is a proto-existentialist who might remind the modern reader of Kierkegaard–yet at the same time he remains a power-drunk warrior and tortured political leader.

The education of Nezahualcoyotl was that of a prince; he witnessed the assassination of his father at a tender age. His poetry is ingrained with a philosophical inquisitiveness that makes it surprisingly modern. Not that he was a likable person–among other things, he is known to have arranged the death of his loyal follower Cuacuauhtzin in order to marry that friend’s wife. But he was also a promoter of the arts and a strategist whose energy was devoted to the construction of a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, as well as an aqueduct that brought spring water to Tenochtitlán. Consider his poem “I Shall Never Disappear”:

I Shall Never Disappear
I am intoxicated,
I weep, I grieve,
I think, I speak,
within myself I discover this:
I shall never die,
never disappear.
Let me go to the place
where there is no death,
where death is overcome:
I shall never disappear.

Or “Song of the Flight”:

Live peacefully,
pass life calmly!
I am bent over,
I live with my head bowed
beside the people.
For this I am weeping,
I am wretched!
I have remained alone
beside the people on earth.
How has Your heart decided,
Giver of Life?
Dismiss Your displeasure!
Extend Your compassion,
I am at Your side, You are God.
Perhaps You would bring death to me?

Is it true that we are happy,
that we live on the earth?

The time of Nezahualcoyotl was bloody yet unapocalyptic. After all, he lived before the arrival of Cortés, seen by the Indians as a reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl. It is that encounter that changed forever the world of its participants. (Barbara Tuchman has a lucid, unforgettable chapter on it in The March of Folly.) León-Portilla, in the section on historical narrative, includes the visión de los vencidos, a Nahuatl representation of the conquest of Tenochtitlán, that begs to be read against Cortés’s correspondence and the chronicle of Bernal Díaz. It is in this section that the reader is fully and unreservedly exposed to the other side of the coin: the arrival of the Iberian knights from the viewpoint of the natives. Descriptions of how Moctezuma sent witches, wizards and sorcerers to face the Spaniards abound, along with a scene in which Moctezuma is found crying, a chronicle of the Tlaxcalan conspirators who helped Cortés, the epidemic of smallpox (“an illness of pustules of which many local people died”) that broke out after the Iberians left Tenochtitlán, the use of a catapult at the top of an altar to hurl stones at the population and the surrender of Moctezuma.

Where the focus is on the Maya, León-Portilla and Shorris include the Popol Vuh (an astonishing sixteenth-century work written in Latin script, which records the secrets of Mayan civilization) and Chilam Balam of Chumayel (in which a Mayan priest delivers astrological reckonings). They also collect the drama of war, sacrifice and loyalty known as Rabinal Achi; this work was part of oral tradition “found” in Guatemala by a French priest and first staged to Westerners in 1856. There is also discussion of myths, legends, songs and incantations. Though the translations feel fluid, I was less enchanted with this portion of In the Language of Kings, though perhaps this is because my Mexican upbringing in the capital and my friendships were influenced by Nahuatl folklore, not Maya.

León-Portilla includes a version of the conquest recorded in Chilam Balam of Mani, a Chontal version of the death of the king Cuahtemoc, some songs of Dzitbalche discovered in Merida in 1942 that were drafted in Yucatec Maya, as well as a bunch of kennings (the poetic form called difrasismos by Leon-Portilla). Selections by various contemporary Mayan poets also appear, and one worthy of attention in particular, for his commanding voice, is Humberto Ak’abal. He is a representative of Indians not only linked to the past but to the word processor too. A handful of the authors featured in In the Language of Kings were students of León-Portilla in a seminar on Nahuatl culture. Their inclusion signals a literary revival that is, as much as anything, a manifestation of the way Mexico as a nation is repositioning itself in this millennium. Here is Ak’abal’s poem “Learning”:

In these “spurts”
the urge to write comes upon me,
not because I know something, but
because doing and undoing
is how I learn this craft,
and in the end
something stays with me.

The knolls,
the hills,
the canyons,
the old villages
have bewitching secrets
and I wish to extract these
to transfer them
to sheets of paper.

I must treat this beautiful craft
like an avocation although it pains me,
because I cannot give it as much time as I would like.
(I must work at something else in order to survive.)
My verses are as wet as rain,
or the tears of the evening dew,
and it could not be otherwise,
because they have been taken from the mountain.

On occasion the entries in the anthology seem incomplete, even fractured. The reader, dumbfounded by the sheer abundance of substance, might get lost. But volumes such as these are preambles to further explorations. The ambitious, chimerical aspect of In the Language of Kings makes me think of it as León-Portilla’s Book of Creation. It is also a summa of his oeuvre: Through the hundreds of entries we are allowed, magically, a rendezvous with the past and an appreciation of the future. The reader sees the Indians eat, love, fertilize the earth, go to war and dream. That Cortés makes merely a cameo appearance and Moctezuma fares only slightly better is a plus, for the actual protagonists of this odyssey are the aboriginal people as a whole. Indeed, the book’s publication–its heft and scope–is a historic occasion that allows for a glimpse of the sunken wealth of pre-Hispanic civilization. It is an invitation to reconsider as a whole the scholarly tradition since Humboldt, and to re-evaluate the modes of history that permeate our worldview. More important, perhaps, it is a declaration that the object of such study, the civilization in focus, should not be looked at as a fait accompli; that the pre-Columbian past lives in the postcolonial future. The lost library was never lost, yet bears revisitations such as this.