In June 2005, Lee Siegel writes, Juan Ponce de Leon, legendary discoverer of Florida, inventor of rum, popcorn and cigars, 540 year-old beneficiary of the Fountain of Youth, commissioned, to ghost-write his autobiography, Professor of Indian Religions at the University of Hawaii, Lee Siegel. A story unfolds of an author who will not believe his subject – cannot write his autobiography – for fear that no one will believe this incredible history. Professor Siegel, at a loss, resolves to tell the truth at least as he has experienced it: the story of his commission; the stories Mr de Leon has told him; the women he has loved through the alphabet, through the ages, each one more than the last; a ‘truthful book about truth and lies’. Mr de Leon, outraged screams betrayal at his author: ‘You Judas, you Brutus! It is my book. My story. My TRUTH!’
Siegel never sees de Leon again. The manuscript remains incomplete, story untold, truth unrevealed. The Fountain of Youth has run dry and Juan Ponce de Leon, Andalucían Jewish exile, convert, conquistador and reconvert, dies near St Augustine. This is his story.
Juan Ponce de Leon
Juan, although he confesses himself not much of a reader, is an accomplished fabulist after all these years. Versed in the arts of the theatre and the bedchamber, he treats us to a linguistic and literary inventive freshness that his reluctant amanuensis can only try to equal with plagiarism. Unequal to the challenge of finding an English equivalent to the Ladino verb cardar (‘to card, curry, comb, and brush, to groom, clean, set aright, adorn, and restore, to coddle, soothe, please, serve, adore, to explore, enrapture, and beautify, not to mention to make love to and fuck – yes, all those things all at once’), Siegel takes refuge in literature itself to write of de Leon: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’; ‘Ponce de Leon awoke one morning from a troubled dream’…
Mr de Leon demands his story be written just the way he tells it, just the way it was, only better, only more believable: his is a truth that is not to be questioned, but embellished, adorned in reality. He pays piecework rates to Siegel to dress his truth into the right form, the writerly cloth, an appearance that may convince his readers to forgive, to understand his life. ‘It’s my responsibility to give you a true account of my life, and it is your job to transform that into something literary… to give my life style, structure, and a plot, to spice it up with felicitous and evocative similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. Your task is to write, mine is to remember.’ Juan keeps the show going, appearing each morning in the costume of successive centuries, fuelled by rum and cocaine, oblivious to the second hand outfits Siegel has sketched him in, nervous and exasperate as his hired hand fails to keep pace with his story, fails to make him ‘particularly heroic or attractive.’
This is a slightly dangerous game for a writer and, ultimately, perhaps, it is not our lack of belief that de Leon and Siegel should be concerned with, but rather a certain lack of interest. Impotent due to the side effects of the Fountain of Youth, Juan, although contemporaneous with American history, has hardly contributed to it. He cardars without issue, outlives family, friends and lovers, becomes the caretaker of his eponymous museum: the very image of an ahistorical subject, living only in order to live longer. Juan may experience the years of history but - the watcher in the garden - fails to impose any meaning on his story. He may pursue love but he evades truth in standing aloof from the challenge, the dirty and prosaic, the hands on business, of creating history, making truth. Here maybe we can understand his loathing and envy of one Cristóbal Colón, Cristoforo Colombo, Christophorus Columbus (1451-1506), Admiral of the Ocean Sea; Viceroy and Governor of the Indies, navigator, sailor, explorer, adventurer, and colonizer. Mr de Leon says he invented Coca-Cola – the very essence of America – but if he had, it would be true, we would already know that he had.
And so, he must, be lying.