SEA OF LENTILS

By Antonio Benitez-Rojo

Translated from the Spanish by James Maraniss

University of Massachusetts Press. 201 pp. $22.95

ANTONIO BENITEZ-ROJO's geography in Sea of Lentils is the Caribbean sea during the Spanish conquest, a sea of astrolabes and horoscopes and charts, where islands rot like mistreated wounds while men busy themselves in the pursuit of gold. The author has composed four intertwined tales or variations (there are more similarities here to Milan Kundera's style than is first apparent), and in them we witness the height of 15th- and 16th-century folly unfolding in the region that French cartographer Guillaume le Testu -- mistaking Antilles for Lentilles -- once called La Mer de Lentille.

Benitez-Rojo, the former director of the Center for Caribbean Studies at Casa de las Americas in Havana and now professor of romance languages at Amherst College, lets us slide with the flow, the flux and the lust of these "lentils of gold, silver, pearls, hides, scents and tastes, and colors unsurpassed," and complete our own historical revision in the process. We do arrive someplace at the end, but first we have to counter with the whims of those who misnamed and took possession of the sea and its islands -- Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola.

At the start of the novel King Philip II of Spain is dying, and so are his dreams of heaven and angels and cherubim and sainthood. Spain has "conquered" the Antilles politically, economically and religiously, yet Philip's sins -- both of commission and omission -- gnaw at him, and the joy at his triumphs now duels with the unmitigated guilt he has repressed through the years. While Philip waits for his deliverance, a perfectly vulgar fly, "perhaps made drowsy by the dusk, falls from the near window and gets tangled in one of his fuzzy eyelashes" and interrupts his musings. The uninvited guest disappears only to repeat the visit at the end of the book, but the tangles in this novel never cease.

From Philip's deathbed in 1598 we go back in time to the new surroundings of Anton Babtista, a soldier-turned-sailor who follows Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Babtista starts out his voyage nervously fearing death, overcome by his wish to "memorize the shore's outline" before leaving, lest he might die far away. But he shares the dream of idleness and gold with his shipmates, and quickly becomes a ruthless captain of greed.

Relentlessness is more a character trait than a symptom of the circumstances of the men in Columbus's lands. Since laws are constantly changed by the Spanish crown, the settlers quickly learn how to undermine the effects of those capricious waverings, and their disregard for the islands and their inhabitants becomes evident. Even love is expendable. Sometimes especially love.

Upon learning that the Franciscans would excommunicate any Spaniard "living flagrantly in a state of sin with an Indian lady," Babtista hurriedly marries his native lover, only to find out that the rules have been changed again and that he stands to lose his lands and fortune because marriage to an Indian now renders him a traitor to his country:

"As soon as Anton Babtista heard the announcement, he hurried home, found dona Antonia, and strangled her forthwith by the cotton strip that she wore as a tiara. He called the notary and six witnesses immediately to update his civil status, but the sagacious Brother Nicolas had foreseen that evasion and, even as the notary sealed the document, a decree divesting the widowers of Indian women was announced in the plaza."

And so a new class of men is born in the Sea of Lentils, men who share Babtista's vicious longing for perpetual fortune. Merchants pose as priests, Lutherans are killed for daring to follow the new religion, a captain is duped by the "magic powers" of a priest who, we later learn, is no priest at all. And we also get a close look at the beginnings of the perpetual agony of slavery when the Spanish wine king Pedro de Ponte and the English merchant John Hawkins become partners in the clandestine slave trade after the defeat of the not-so-mighty Spanish Armada by the English in 1588.

Hawkins, facing his uniformed men for the first time, finally breaks the news of their secret mission at sea as a footnote to his pep talk: "I remember now that I had also meant to tell you what we shall do with the Negroes . . . we shall leap ashore and seize them by their necks and thrust them bound into our hold, where there is room enough, and if they run in terror from our hackbuts and are hard to catch, we'll come down like Saint George's sword on some big-bellied Portuguese ship that's transporting them."

Sea of Lentils is a complex book. Carefully crafted and thoroughly researched, the book navigates the myths of Spanish dominance, Indian servility and black rebelliousness. It is to Benitez-Rojo's credit that these myths expand and then shrink before our eyes, exposing the fatigued and drowned pieces of history the reader never knew before.

Felix Jimenez has written about politics and culture for the Village Voice and the Nation.