Sunday, November 01, 2009

Fiction that has changed my life (1)

AZTEC, by Gary Jennings

My wife read this in grade seven. She went to give a book report on it and the teacher stopped her partway through and asked her to give the presentation after school, on account of the 'adult' nature of the novel. There was, Eva says, also some doubt as to whether she had in fact read the whole thing. She had.
Jennings was the second author Eva introduced to me and my first exposure to historical fiction. He remains the standard by which I judge the genre, and so far everything I've read has come up wanting.

Jennings immerses you in his cultures to the point where you start thinking the language and dreaming the set pieces. You'll come out the other end of any Jennings novel with a deep appreciation for the sweep of human history and the human beings who have lived it. And fair warning: you'll be exposed to sex, at times perverted, and violence, often casually graphic. Those of a prurient nature will undoubtedly question the explicit sex scenes. I'm pretty sure Jennings would respond that (a) each one is integral to the plot (which is true) and (b) humans are sexual animals. Ditto the violence: the author is, if anything, understating the brutality of the Aztec era.
Aside from being a hell of an epic well told, AZTEC gifted me with a whole new level of empathy and understanding towards other cultures. We look upon human sacrifice as repellent in the extreme, for instance. So did the priests who came to "civilize" the Aztecs. Through Mixtli's detailing of his life and times, we are given to understand and maybe even accept that his people saw things differently. To be sacrificed to a god was, in that time and place, a great honour to which anyone would quite naturally aspire. People almost always went to their deaths willingly, even joyfully.

Now I am by no means suggesting that maybe we ought to kick off Vancouver 2010 by throwing a few dozen people into the cauldron that contains the Olympic flame. I am suggesting that there remain cultures in which human sacrifice is considered an honour and a duty. One such culture is currently at war with ours, and our media tends to portray Islamic terrorists as evil and/or stupid. They are neither: just ask them.

At this point you're probably sniggering and sputtering and calling me a traitor to my society and civilization. That's fine and quite understandable. But having read AZTEC, I feel as if I've lived Mixtli's life, seen what he's seen, believed (for the time I spent in his world) as he did. And so I've come away with--not a moral equivalence--but the idea that different societies (indeed, different individuals in societies) have different morals. This, in turn, has helped me immeasurably in my day-to-day life. I try never to dismiss anyone's thought process without at least an attempt at getting in their head and thinking it for myself. On matters with any complexity at all, I'm far less apt to unequivocally agree or disagree with anyone than I once was. In short and generally speaking, I no longer see the world as black and white but in shades of grey.

Which doesn't mean I'm incapable or unwilling to make moral judgments: I do so all the time. I do, however, strive mightily not to impose my morals on others, or indeed assume they believe as I do. In AZTEC, this imposition happens on a grand scale and the results are nothing less than tragic.

Thanks to AZTEC, I've come to believe it is never my place to rob a person of an opportunity to define themselves. That quite possibly may be the strongest insight I've had in 37 years of life and it's surely a big debt to owe a single book.

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