Nelson Reed’s book, The Caste War of Yucatan, is considered the definitive history of the 60-year conflict between Maya and Mexicans in the 19th century. From the perspective of someone like myself who is researching the Caste War, it can also be one of the most frustrating books. The early edition of the book contains no footnotes, making it difficult to confirm his information and his conclusions. According to the book’s foreword, Reed submitted the book without footnotes. His editor asked him to put them in, but later changed his mind and had him leave them out. Reed updated his classic in 2001, so perhaps this later edition corrects this.
One of the strengths of Reed’s book, at least as a populizer of history, is that he writes using a narrative style that brings the Maya uprising to life. In his latest book, Reed applies his ability to tell story to do exactly that: Tell a story.
The Cocom Codex is Reed’s first published novel. It tells the story of the discovery of a previously unknown Maya codex, a unique fold-out book of the pre-Columbian Maya. Only a handful are known to have survived, and deal with astronomical and religious subjects. Reed’s fictional codex, by comparison, is a version of the Chilam Balam, a book of Maya history. Reed’s Macguffin, as Hitchcock called such story devices, is unique in that unlike other Chilam Balam’s, this one is written in Maya hieroglyphs and comes with a Spanish translation. As such, this codex is the “Rosetta Stone” that Mayanists have sought for more than a century.
Furthermore, this Chilam Balam covers the history of ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡, and was apparently written by Nachi Cocom, the Holy Lord of ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡ whose visage can be found carved in stone inside Akab D’zib, the “House of Dark Writing” in the archaeological zone.
A host of colorful characters attempt to recover the codex. The heroes of the story are two college professors, a man and woman, who fall in love and engage in premarital sex whenever the story begins to drag. There are bad guys, a Dutch treasure hunter, and Mexican police inspector, and a Maya revolutionary who wants to sell the codex to finance his revolution. Most of the book is set in Yucatan, which Reed knows very well and describes the landscape and culture with great relish.
In the novel, Reed mixes fiction with fact. Although most of the hieroglyphs inside Akab D’zib cannot be translated, Maya scholars have been able to determine that the glyphs do speak of a Nachi Cocom. Here’s a photo of the glyphs, complete with the likeness of Cocom:
What is somewhat mystifying is that Reed published the book himself, using Barnes and Noble’s iUniverse publishing software. As mystery novels go, Reed’s is better than most of the dreck coming out of the traditional publishing houses, and unlike the majority of other mystery authors, he has a track record (not in fiction, certainly, but as a successful author). In any case, because the book is self-published it is riddled with distracting typos and misspellings. On the plus side, you can download it from iUniverse for less than the cost of typical paperback book.
I read the book in just a few hours. If you have an interest in the Maya, in Yucatan, and in archaeology, it will hold your interest. And better, because it’s fiction you don’t need to worry about footnotes.