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Back in the 1960's, the Lovin' Spoonful had a big hit with the song "Did You Ever Have To Make Up Your Mind?" in which the lead singer plaintively asks, "Did you ever have to finally decide, say yes to one and let the other one ride? There's so many changes and tears you must hide, did you ever have to finally decide?" This could be the theme song for Yxta Maya Murray's latest novel.
In The Conquestís complex story-within-a-story, Sara Gonzalez, an old book restorer for the Getty Museum, becomes obsessed with her current project, which awakens bittersweet memories of her mother. She is charged with the restoration and classification of a Renaissance manuscript about an Aztec woman taken to Europe by the explorer Cortez as a present for the Pope. Although the manuscript is allegedly by a monk, Sara believes that the Aztec woman herself wrote it, and she digs untiringly into old letters, and faded, molding manuscripts seeking any scrap of evidence that would corroborate her theory. Her research keeps her working late into the night, seriously harming her relationship with her long-time boyfriend, Karl.
The secondary story is the tale told in the ancient book, which Sara dubs "The Conquest." The young Aztec woman relates the pain and rage of seeing her people conquered and their culture destroyed, and her determination to revenge the Aztec nation by killing the invaderís king, as she promised her dying father. She maneuvers herself through the courts of Europe, waiting for the moment to strike. But then, she learns how much she likes to live. Surrounded by the beautiful and voluptuous, she is unable to keep the rage to kill alive in her heart, and many long years pass. She makes occasional, half-hearted attempts to fulfill her mission, but finally, more European than Aztec, devotes her life to her love, the beautiful Caterina.
Saraís love is more complex. What does she really value most? Karl is in training to be an astronaut - a career he is passionately dedicated to, and which does not allow a lot of leeway. He must live where the program is, or else. Sara also loves her career. Stories have been her refuge since her difficult, painful childhood. Her motherís stories of their pre-Hispanic heritage haunt her, as does the memory of the day her mother walked out of a museum with a priceless ancient Aztec codex in her pocketbook. Her manuscripts fire her imagination. The museums that would call for her services exist only in certain cities, and moving with Karl could leave her unemployed.
For years, she has hesitated, reluctant to make a definite commitment, and that vacillation has taken its toll. Karl is now planning to marry another woman. Sara wants him back, but she clings to her job. She swings back and forth, between two intense longings. Her love or her identity, her life or her history - she canít decide.
Both stories are romances, sort of. But the real, underlying theme in both is choice. Murray's highlights the eternal problem of how to live a full life Ė how to be content on all fronts, home, family, work Ė with her haunting words. The young Aztec, bewitched by the pleasure of love and the rage for blood and the young Mexican woman, torn between cultures and possibilities, are both baffled by the decisions facing them. They want to have their cake and eat it, too - but as the old cliche plainly states, you canít do that. The image of Sara's mother, telling her young daughter that all the artifacts in the museum are stolen, tells us: Value your past. But don't live in it. Let it go.