The author of a weighty tome on a 16th-century attempt to create a Utopia in Mexico might well expect to be exempt from Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘leave out the parts readers tend to skip’. A book that runs to 60 pages of footnotes, bibliography and index might even be required to have such parts. But Toby Green’s tale of Vasco de Quiroga bills itself as ‘genre-defying’ and so we shall judge it accordingly.
The bits the reader is tempted to skip are — of course — the same bits that ‘defy’ easy categorisation by genre. What Green does is to tell a good and captivating story of great interest and resonance in the modern world. But he punctuates it with flights of fancy in which a semi-imaginary author converses semi-philosophically with a series of semi-grotesque characters in an attempt to demonstrate the ‘relevance’ of the subject (and therefore of the book) to the world we know today.
This is unfortunate. The story does not need this ‘hybrid of biography and utopian narrative’ and these passages — which take up perhaps one quarter of the text — spoil it in much the same way as golf ruins a good walk.
The walk itself is highly enjoyable and illuminating. Green begins his quest in Madrigal, where the Vasco de Quiroga is the third child of noble parents. We do not know his date of birth, but we know that his parents died young and that he was able, through connections and wealth, to pursue his studies in law. By the early 1520s he is a judge-in-residence in Oran, in what is now Algeria. He soon returns to Spain where he works on the fringes of the court of Charles and Isabella. In due course — having shown the requisite characteristics of determination and sympathy ‘to the oppressed as well as to the crown’ — he is appointed ‘oidor’ to Mexico and in 1530 he sets sail for the Americas.
‘What can the New World mean but hope?’ the author wonders on Quiroga’s behalf. ‘Is not the suffering of those distant peoples a route to paradise?’ Well, perhaps. Quiroga’s first impressions are not good. Plague, disease, rape, pillage and carnage are the order of the day and Quiroga might well wonder whether ‘this barbarism really is essential to the nature of conquest’. Inspired by a sense of religious calling, and by the writings of Thomas More, he spends the rest of his life — and he lived another 35 years — trying to do something about it. His lasting achievements — a commune on the outskirts of Mexico City and another in neighbouring Michoa