During the era of maritime exploration and the discovery of the Americas, assumptions were made of the land likening it to not only a paradise, but one that was overrun with cannibalistic natives. These suppositions led to a desire to explore the lands and conquer the savages that posed a threat to man and civilization itself. The consequences of this mass colonization and dehumanization of the natives paved the way for literary pieces that pose as critiques of the era when viewed through a post-colonial lens. When looked at through a post-colonial perspective, a few common themes prevail amongst compared texts. Focusing on the theme of the journey, what it means, and what is at stake, Garcilaso de la Vega’s “The Story of Pedro Serrano” and Juan José Saer’s The Witness both touch on all these themes with great severity, dissecting the purpose of the journey and what it means to be a civilized man.
Vega wrote of Pedro Serrano, a man who was shipwrecked upon a small desert island for nearly a decade. A majority of the story focuses on Serrano conquering and taming the island to fit his own needs. For example, he uses turtle shells to not only catch water for his consumption, but also to build a small hut to perpetuate the life of his fire that nature threatened to extinguish. However, despite his efforts, nature eventually wins over Serrano, disrobing him and leaving him almost animal like in the view of civilized men. While this story does not focus too heavily on the journey of Serrano, it does offer an in dept perspective of what is at stake when man is put up against nature. Serrano desperately tries to recreate civilization on the island in an attempt to cling to civilization. After all, it was religion (a manmade institution) that saves him after the first three years of his stay, awarding him a companion for the final four years after which they both are again saved by religion, reciting the Credo as they were nearly mistaken for heathens. This idea is further emphasized by the lines from Serrano and his companion’s first encounter:
“Serrano thought it was the Devil come in human form to tempt him to some desperate act. His guest thought Serrano was the Devil in his true form, he was so coated in hair, beard, and hide.”
Serrano, who was at that point taken over by the island—by nature, was regarded to be the Devil in his true form, implying that man himself without the guise of civilization, without religion, (namely Christianity) is by no means good. As for “the guest”, he is referred to as the Devil disguised, emphasizing the point that man in his true form—devoid of civilization and all the amenities that come with it—is evil and must look to European sensibilities to regain their civility. So, at the end of the story, Serrano was able to cling to his civilized ideals but does nothing to rid himself of the look that nature bestowed upon him.
Saer’s protagonist goes through the entirety of The Witness without being given a name—an...