Book Review: The Fifth Sun

I recently reading the Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend and if you’ve seen me in the past few weeks you probably already know that I can’t stop talking about it. The release of this book coincided well with my desire to learn more about the history of Mexico generally and about life for the pre-conquest peoples of Mexico more specifically. Before reading Fifth Sun I had a very rudimentary knowledge of pre-conquest Mexican culture but had struggled to find any sources that gave me a holistic picture of the current state-of-knowledge about the Aztecs and also held my interest — I had read a mixture of academic articles, wikipedia entries, and the excellent Aztec Empire comic series but I still felt like I didn’t have a very good sense at all about what life was like for the Aztecs and what exactly happened during the 16th century conquest of Mexico.

A few things I’ve learned to start:

  • The “Aztecs” is a misnomer that has permeated popular history / culture. There never existed a group of people who would have collectively referred to themselves as “Aztecs”. The people who founded modern-day Mexico City (then called Tenochtitlan [TAY-know-ch-TEET-lan]) were known as the Mexica (me-SHE-ka) and, at the time of Cortés’s arrival, controlled the most powerful city-state in the region (meaning that they had conquered and required tribute from other city-states covering a fairly large swathe of central Mexico).
  • The Mexicas (and many other people in central Mexico) spoke a language called Nahuatl which is still quite widely spoken (~1.7 million speakers). We get the words for tomato (tomatl), avocado (ahuacatl), and coyote (coyotl) from the Nahuatl language.
  • A lot of what is commonly known about the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the beliefs and histories of the people who lived there before the arrival of Europeans are likely fabrications created by the colonizers to both justify their conquest (spiritually, politically, and legally) and to portray the conquered peoples as naive and unsophisticated. For example, the Mexica did not in fact believe that the Spanish were Gods when they arrived in Mexico, and in fact Moctezuma acted strategically and politically throughout his dealings with the Spaniards.
  • “La Malinche” is a figure mostly unknown in the US and served as Cortés’s translator; in Mexico, her name is synonymous with traitor-to-Mexico. However, with a full understanding of her history and the geopolitics of the region before the arrival of the Europeans, her story becomes much more sympathetic and much more compelling.

What I found really incredible about this book is the way that it really captures and brings to life what life was actually like in pre-conquest Mexico. Townsend achieves this by relying primarily on sources written by Nahuatl historians and scribes during the first 100 years after Cortés’s arrival in Mexico. These documents were written in Nahuatl but using roman script learned from the Spanish, and for many years have been generally ignored by historians or sitting dust-covered in European libraries.

In what must have been a truly gargantuan effort, Townsend (who knows Nahuatl) pulled together a full understanding of the geopolitical and royal-family drama that occurred during the 100 years prior to the conquest. Using this context, she is able to craft a history that is able to capture not only the events that occurred (which makes for a very boring adam-begat-seth type of history) but also the motivations of the key players. Townsend’s knowledge of both the political power struggles and the family histories of the characters allow her to reconstruct plausible motivations for what would seem like totally unfathomable actions otherwise.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a modicum of interest in the topic. It’s highly readable while also being very clearly a well-researched work from a respected academic. One tip that I’d give to a reader which helped me quite a bit is to try to get a handle on Nahuatl pronunciation before jumping in. While Townsend does a good job of avoiding an overwhelming soup of incredibly foreign-sounding names, I found that actually pronouncing the names out-loud while reading the book helped me keep track of the characters.

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By michael