“Las Casas” by Patrick Somerville
Two men sit in a booth at a bar.
One’s a little older than the other.
The older one says: “Have you ever heard of a man named Bartolomé de Las Casas?”
The other says: “I don’t think so.”
“Dominican monk named Bartolomé de Las Casas, writing in the sixteenth century, Bartolomé de Las Casas. Okay. No. He was Spanish. He came over to see the New World. And he was totally and immediately fucking horrified by what he saw the soldiers and the conquistadors doing and so he just went right to the notebook and tried to record as many of the atrocities as he could? Just knee-jerk This is what I can do. Someone needs to remember this. Someone needs to see it and remember it and bear witness. And his reaction was completely against the standard ideology of the time, completely, with like a contemporary universal-human-rights human-dignity point-of-view thing. And this is a monk in like 1550. A monk, Benjy, this bookish dude on an island in the West Indies that’s stacked with a few thousand meatheads, just like a complete army of human monsters, and he’s there saying, ‘No.’ So dignified. ‘No.’ I mean, he can’t stop anything, and he’s way out of his element and not advocating a very popular point of view, so there’s no way he should have seen things the way he did, but he knew what he knew and he was all about just recording it. A mirror, I guess. Or not a mirror, because no one cared then, but a record. I mean, with him it was all bound up with God, but whatever. He recorded the atrocities and slaughters that he saw. That’s what I’m trying to say. Sort of in real time, as they were happening. And so he eventually put them in this book called A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies, right? He has more, but that’s what I’m talking about, that’s what I read. You haven’t heard of it? No? Seriously? I mean right, sure, St. Helens Fucking High is not exactly gonna be pushing A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies on sophomores, I guess, I don’t know what I’m saying. But not for the reason you’re thinking, right, not because it’s too subversive to them or will rile up your 8 Ho-Chunk kids for a couple of weeks. Not that reason. Mostly because the shit is X-rated levels of violence, like way way way worse than anything on TV or in movies, way way worse than anything that really happens to people anymore, much worse than those Faces of Death things you were talking about before, I’ll tell you that much. And it makes those horror movies like Friday the Thirteenth or whatever seem like they’re made by a bunch of children with ketchup packets and pitchforks? I mean, I just laugh at those movies now. The banality of the illusion. The try behind the banality of the illusion. And those movies used to make me so scared I couldn’t sleep, Ben, I used to go wake up my mother when I was like fifteen because they scared me so bad. But not anymore. That’s not real horror, dude, and I can think of two reasons right off the bat to support that thesis, okay? Totally accurate, good reasons. Dispute them if they’re wrong or something, I mean, maybe there are holes, but I don’t know what you can do with these. First, one: Las Casas is more gory. More gory. Than Hollywood. For starters, every page of the thing there’s some poor fucking Caribbean Indian tied up to a gibbet—you know what a gibbet is?—tied up to a gibbet and some Spanish soldier is down there stoking a fire by his feet and everybody’s laughing it up. Not the worst thing you’ve ever heard, right? But hold on, okay? It’s not like Oh, we’re going to burn the bottoms of your feet for a little bit and make you uncomfortable. No. I mean that’s how they killedthe dude. Yes. Get it? Slow. They cooked people. But they kept the flame little so they wouldn’t die. Thirty minutes, an hour of this. I don’t know. They got the fire going and cooked his feet forever until the bottoms of his feet melt off and the bone cracks up and fractures and the bone marrow drains out of the guy, and I’m saying this is what’s in this book, this Las Casas book. You know? And that’s just—that’s just like the default death in the book, Ben, Las Casas is just throwing those in every other line to remind you. It’s like filler. ‘Gibbet.’ ‘Gibbet.’ ‘Oh, another gibbet.’ ‘Then they brought out the gibbet.’ ‘He sent for the gibbet.’ But the gibbets are like the punctuation marks of the real slaughters in there. I mean, I don’t know. What are some examples? Lemme think. There are like a million. Okay, off the top of my head, Indian gets away somehow, runs, but he gets caught. Soldiers drag him back and they lay him out in the dirt in front of his family and saw off his legs and leave him there. Saw them off. Set them by his head so he can look at them while he dies. Or, okay, yes, this: Soldiers hanging around with nothing to do, just free time, they’re stuck posted in a village, and they decide to have a contest, they wager on who can do the cleanest, slickest job cutting a dude in half from his skull down to his groin in one hit. In one huge sword swing, I mean! So like they bring out a dude, tell him to stand there, position him, everyone’s hanging around watching, probably feeling the exact same feeling you feel when Jacke’s running up to the tee to kick off and start a game for the Pack, and Juan, amid this anticipation, comes up to bat, sizes the guy up, and then Juan fucking bifurcates a human being with one swing, and all of his friends just start laughing and going crazy, and Juan’s doing his little soldier jig, using his sword like a cane or whatever, just dancing around and truly elated because he just won a gold ingot from his pal and he’s done something super-impressive. This is leisure time, Benjy, this is downtime on Hispaniola in 1510. Okay? And right over there is the captain, and all the authorities, all the men in charge, the moral scions, and they’re hanging out and chuckling and clapping about the game. Dude’s wife is screaming right there. Whatever. Her soul’s been crushed. Whatever. Everything she cares about on Earth has been converted into amusement and it’s entirely arbitrary and there aren’t going to be any consequences and there sure as fuck isn’t going to be any justice around any of this. So she’s screaming. And Carlos, who’s irritable already because he hates Juan and now Juan’s all popular, goes over, grabs her hair, gets her in a headlock, and cuts off her nose with his dagger—his thumb’s the anchor, like when you’re cutting off a piece of banana—lops it off, chucks it, looks at her, kicks her down, and then rapes her so she really learns her lesson about screaming about the death of her husband, and of course now all the dudes start to laugh at that. Hey! Whoa, check that out. Carlos has a new game. Cut off the noses and then rape them immediately. Everyone starts running around looking for a woman. Natives run, scatter. They all get caught because they don’t have horses. They’re brought back. Again with the legs. Back to that. So on and so forth. Do you see what I’m saying? And I mean, this is a sampling. It’s grotesque on almost every page, yes, I apologize, but it’s kinda the point, and yet you get the sense that Las Casas is even skipping stuff and just doing a light dusting with it. And gore’s not even my good reason why this is real horror and those movies are just child’s play. Right? I’m going on forever but I said there were two reasons, I think. You with me, cousin? You doing okay? I’m noticing that you don’t look so good. Is it the subject matter? The shrooms? Which? You’re nodding. Combo? You’re saying combo, okay. I’ll stop talking about this in a sec. Did you puke down in the bathroom, by the way? Did you actually puke or just gag a little?”
“I’m okay. But yeah. Puke.”
“Did you see your shrooms in the puke?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Probably digested by now. That’s totally normal. You’re good. Do not feel embarrassed. I am not a hard-ass about this stuff. I can’t stand it when people get all hard-ass. I mean, it’s about this, it’s just about talking, you know? It’s about exactly this. So many kids at this school are into some kind of complex drug porn thing that really misses the point.”
“You’re feeling okay then?”
“Because I’ll be honest with you, and this is the only reason I’m sticking on this point, but you’re green right now. You’re literally green. I mean, we’re sitting in a bar and one of us is a seventeen-year-old green person drunk and high and about to start tripping so long as he digested those shrooms before he puked. You don’t even need to trip right now, actually. Just tell me you’re okay, all right? Thumbs-up or something. I’ll stop with the mother hen.”
“Okay. The other reason. Boom. Two. Why is this real horror and Jason not real horror? Simple, Ben. I’m glad you asked. This is real horror because this is fucking real,Ben. This is how it went down. This is the origin story of Europeans in this hemisphere. Your roots. My roots. Really. I really mean that. That’s us. The sound track of life here in America is those screams. Always. These guys, Christians, exact same Bible as the one you can look at wherever you go today, right on the heels of Columbus, almost right away, these guys just poured over into these gorgeous, peaceful, bucolic, pristine islands—this is heaven, is what I’m saying, Ben, I’m making an argument that Europeans, all of them Christians, entirely against all expectations about reality, metaphors, everything, actually located the heaven of their own religion on Earth, they located it, it was justover there, and the people who already lived there were like Hey, sure, come on. It’s amazing to swim in this really blue water. These people didn’t have any real weapons; these people could not conceive of the scope of brutality that was the everyday status quo just across the pond, and I mean they were not dumb, Ben, I’m not saying it was because they were dumb that they were so vulnerable, I’m saying they were nice, Ben, the culture of these islands was built around being nice, and I mean they lived it, they didn’t espouse it, they lived it, they couldn’t even stop themselves from slapping together one big outrageous fruit basket after another and running out to greet murderous, insane soldiers whenever they saw a galleon floating up; for years and years they would do this, it’s all in the Las Casas, and for years and years Spanish soldiers were just like falling over themselves, they couldn’t believe it, just completely climbing over one another, trying to get out of their boats and get to their swords fast enough to get a quick, easy lead-off beheading of a holy tribal king without even thinking that maybe it might violate, oh, I don’t know, the entire Christian moral code or, that whole thing aside, that it might go against just obvious, timeless, and basic human good versus evil restraint, you know, something like that was around even with cavemen, the totally simple idea that maybe needlessly causing excruciating, savage, horrifying, life-ending pain to another being, to a brother, to somebody like yourself, might not be the thing you should do. They found their heaven and they turned it into a hell. On purpose. Intentionally, Ben. That’s the legacy. That’s your legacy. That’s what we are. That’s what we believe in. We believe in making hell. We are male descendants of Europeans who make hell, which means we are monsters, Ben. Think about that. I’m not just saying this. I mean it’s real. We are monsters. I’m not saying it satirically. We are. It’s like a let sleeping dogs lie situation, but the dog is so brutal and huge that if we did wake it up, it would just ravage everything, so we just can’t. That’s where we’re stuck. That’s the boat we arrived on. An army from hell, we’re like like like like terraforming the rest of the Earth, Ben, making it hell too, and that’s what we’re still doing. We! You and I, Benjy…because we’re Euros, we’re members of that army still and we can’t help it. Us. That is reality. So if you take that to the next step of thinking, then none of it—nothing really actually mat—”
“We’re not Spanish. We’re from now.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“Why did you read this book, did you say?”
“I had to read it for this class I took. And I’m sorry I keep jumping scopes on you here, but this is just the Las Casas, this is just the first fifty years. I can’t remember how many they killed. Fifty million, I think. I mean, with smallpox, all of that, which was worse numbers wise than the actual murdering. But that’s the first few decades, and that’s just the islands. There’s a whole continent here, you know? That’s just the Spanish. Are you feeling something? You look like you’re starting to feel something. Sit there, feel it. Lemme get a pitcher. We just may as well get a pitcher. We have much more to discuss.”
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“Las Casas” is excerpted from Patrick Somerville‘s novel This Bright River, out June 2012 from Reagan Arthur Books/Little,Brown.