Writing About the Aztecs

Aztec Scribe

The Aztecs are a gift to a crime writer: a people whose lives were well ordered (you can't really have crime unless there are laws to be broken) but whose attitudes towards life and death were completely at odds with our own.  Anybody who went to the wonderful exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2002-3 and saw the sacrificial flint knives, the statue of a man wearing a flayed human skin, the skeletal figure of the Lord of the Dead with his liver exposed and all the other gruesome items on display will have come away with a powerful impression of a society in which licensed violence was commonplace.  But what about unlicensed violence?  Did the Aztecs kill because they had scant regard for human life - or, on the contrary, did they do it because human blood was a worthy gift for the gods and not to be shed carelessly?  I can think of no more entertaining way to explore these questions than through crime fiction.

The Aztecs' remoteness from us extends to their physical surroundings and way of life.  Central America in the early Sixteenth Century saw a rich mixture of peoples jostling each other over one of the most varied landscapes on Earth, from the Mayans whose cities dotted the steamy jungles by the sea to the Aztecs themselves and their neighbours, seven thousand feet up in the highlands.  These peoples created beautiful artwork and poetry, built great cities and raised immense monuments, and used their often poor and scarce land ingeniously to yield an amazingly wide-ranging diet.  In many ways - from empirical medicine and personal hygiene to elementary schooling - some Central American societies were ahead of contemporary Europeans.  But they lacked the wheel and the plough and their tools were made of flint and obsidian.  And their religions, which blended superstition, magic, shamanism and a belief in a bewildering variety of gods, often called for human beings to be sacrificed and eaten.

By the early 1500s, every facet of life in Central America was to be found, thrown into sharper relief than ever, in one place: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire.  Law and religion governed the Aztecs' lives, but there were underlying strains.  There were tensions between commoners and nobles, indistinguishable not long before but now separated by strictly enforced sumptuary laws; between warriors, jealous of the merchants' wealth, and merchants, keen to enjoy the warriors' privileges; and between Mexico-Tenochtitlan and its neighbours, including even the city's own northern quarter, Tlatelolco, taken over by force as recently as 1473.  And over everything loomed the threat, scarcely understood, of the White Men...

Of course, writing about the past always poses problems.  Some are peculiar to the Aztecs.  The details of their lives are often surprisingly obscure.  There are few sources for the period before the conquest and they sometimes contradict each other.  There are gaps which a historian would hesitate to fill in but which a novelist has to; and where there is more than one valid interpretation of events, the writer of fiction has to come down firmly on one side or the other.  Since I am an entertainer, not an educator, I am likely to chose the version which best suits my story rather than the one which is necessarily the most probable - but I try to avoid taking outright liberties.

Then there are the names!  When I began writing "Demon of the Air" I searched assiduously for authentic Aztec names for my characters, and rendered them all in their own language, Nahuatl.  However, my agent and my editor told me that readers would be put off by tongue-twisters such as "Tlilpotonqui" and "Miahuaxihuitl".  Even translating them into English was problematic, as I was told this would make my book read like a work of fantasy.  It does not help that most Aztecs were called after their name-day, and only those days considered lucky were ever used, so in practice many ordinary people might have the same name.  I could see readers getting fed up trying to work out which "One Flower" was the killer, and which was the victim...  So I settled for giving them the sort of nicknames that they might have given themselves.

Finally, the bloodthirsty customs that help to make their society so intriguing can also make writing about it difficult to take.  This is a universal problem, which I don't think any author will ever be able to solve completely satisfactorily.  Aztecs are hard to depict in fiction precisely because their attitudes to things that matter to all peoples, such as sex, death, nature, power and wealth, were so unlike ours.  All writers of historical fiction have to create characters that modern readers can identify with, and whose motives, desires and sensibilities will make sense to them.  Even if I could write a story about people who genuinely behaved like native Americans of five hundred  years ago, I doubt that anyone in twenty-first century Britain would want to read it.  A real Aztec in Yaotl's position, even if he lacked the "Heart of Stone" that his people saw as ideal, would have been far less concerned about the fate of the murder victims he comes across than my character is.  Some sort of compromise is inevitable, and if Yaotl, his friends and his enemies speak, act and think a little bit like modern Londoners, that is not completely accidental.

What I hope I can do is shed some light - I hope not unflattering - on a remarkable people.  And have fun telling a good story.