What is this book? It first appears to be an academic history of the activities of Vasco de Quiroga, the influential colonial official and bishop in 16th C Mexico; it has the requisite footnotes, documentation, etc. But perhaps this reader should have heeded the subtitle: "A Novel Account of Utopia in Mexico." Silly me, I took the word 'novel' in its root meaning of 'new' or 'unusual.' I was halfway through the first chapter before I divined that author Toby Green had 'fiction' in mind for me. In fact, the book is about half-and-half -- half an interesting though highly conjectural history of Quiroga's activities, and half a series of surreal dialogues between the author/researcher and personages that range from a cranky New England codger, to a sainted Mexico City cabdriver, to a shamanesque market vender. The interfoliation of these two formats is imaginative but ultimately frustrating. About 200 pages into the book, I discovered that I could skip the dialogue chapters, just read the historical account, and thus 'get on with things.'
My interest in Vasco de Quiroga stems from my affection for the state of Michoacan in Mexico. Michoacan is a large state, south of Jalisco, west of DF, which stretches from the mountainous inland through the lush midlands to the fully tropical lowlands on the Pacific Coast. The topography of Michoacan is varied and enchanting, including Mexico's most beautiful lake and most awesome forest parkland. The main cities, from east to west, are Morelia, Patzcuaro, Uruapan, Apatzingan, and Playa Azul, all of them fabulous tourist destinations. When I first visited Mexico in the late 1960s, Michoacan was virtually a country of its own, culturally and economically distinct from any other state. The most obvious difference was the thriving village culture of the indigenous people, the Purepecha, who at that time still carried on their lives in their native language, dressed in clothes made in their homes and of their own styles, subsisted on local farming, and carried themselves with pride and independence. They were far from rich by visitors' standards, but they were obviously not miserable and degraded like the poor of most regions of Mexico. And they had a fantastic artisanry and music. Several villages around Lake Patzcuaro were renowned for specific crafts, while Uruapan and Apatzingan were centers of traditional music, particularly a style of virtuosic harp playing. While most people, including locals, considered these traditions of clothing and crafts to be indigenous - "Indian" - it was obvious to me that they were astonishingly European. Not of recent Europe, however! Rather, they were replicating the styles and workmanship of Renaissance Spain, styles which have largely been forgotten in the homeland.
A little curiosity soon told me that the vibrant independence of the Purepecha was a legacy of their unique colonial history, in which the key figure was the founding bishop, Vasco de Quiroga, one of the very few Spanish governors of the 'conquistador' era who concerned himself for the welfare of the "naturales." I learned that Quiroga had established 'collectivized' communities, protected his 'naturales' from enslavement, and initiated programs of Christian education, instruction in European agriculture and crafts, and health care - programs which had thrived and remained successful until modern times. I did not learn much about the man himself, or anything about his 'utopian' vision derived from his reading of Thomas More. For such information, I was delighted to find this book, "Thomas More's Magician," which does amply recount Quiroga's triumphs, troubles, and disappointments.
The other facet of this "novel account" has little to do with Quiroga and less to do with modern Michoacan. Instead, it's a curiously meandering mumble-ification of the author's anxiety over the relevance of utopian thinking in the 21st Century, a awkwardly self-conscious effort to distinguish ideology from idealism, and to preserve some grounds for the latter. Toby Green introduces himself as a "green" idealist and activist, and his fascination with Quiroga derives from his perception of shared ideals. Nevertheless, as the book evolves, both Green's greenery and Quiroga's utopian humanism become increasingly ambiguous, compromised by their inherent inconsistencies. Quiroga has to be recognized, in fact, as an effective agent of imperialism, however humane and saintly in comparison to others, and his attitude toward the ecology, human and natural, of Michoacan was that of conquest and domination.
All of this sounds, I realize, rather thoughtful. Even profound. I suspect that Green had a subtle literary model in mind for his ruminations, the archaic model of philosophical dialogues in the manner of Renaissance humanists like Eramus, Bruno, Galileo, and of course Thomas More. If that's so, I admire Toby Green's audacity. I laud his conception. But I lament his lack of editorial judgment. The book in hand is hard to read, confusing, at times quite sophomoric.
Read it if the subject attracts you and if you have patience.