What the siege of Namur was to Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby, so the Battle of Roncevaux was to my San Francisco housemate, Victor. I have no idea how he became obsessed with it. But he was obsessed: somewhere in the course of his studies—Victor was a historian, his specialty, the theological basis of the conflict between Christianity and Islam—Roncevaux had got lodged in his head like a bullet.
It represented, he said, everything that was wrong about the way people thought of history, the way people constructed histories without any regard for the facts. The substance of his grievance, in short, was this: ever since the Song of Roland, people had been talking about the Battle of Roncevaux as a great clash between the French and Moorish armies—as a determining moment in the history of wars between East and West, a sort of prequel to the Crusades. But in fact, Victor pointed out, again and again, to us, i.e., to me and Alex, our third housemate, there were no Arabs involved in the Battle of Roncevaux! No Moors! If you had been present at the battle, you would not have seen even a single turban, possibly! Although, Victor allowed, because the battle took place at dusk, you might not have noticed your enemies’ headgear.
Anyway. The point was this. Charlemagne, having invaded northern Spain at the invitation of at least two Arab groups, the Abassids who had just come to power in Baghdad, and some rebel Omayyads in Andalusia, was on his way back to France with gold and hostages. He stopped at the Christian city of Pamplona, peopled by Basques. For some reason the Pamplonans wouldn’t let him in, so Charlemagne sacked the city and slaughtered as many of its inhabitants as he had time to slaughter. Then he kept going. The Basques, meanwhile, regrouped; they gathered in the mountains above Roncevaux, or perhaps not Roncevaux but a place nearby which the Romans had once called by that name. At nightfall they fell on the French rearguard. Many knights were slain: not only Roland, but also Eginhard, and Anselmus, and maybe Arnulf also, I forget. The Basques took the gold and set the hostages free. That was the Battle of Roncevaux. Charlemagne was outraged, and he wanted to return to Pamplona and sack it a second time, but he had no opportunity: the Saxons were revolting in Saxony and crushing them was more important. He let the Basques be. Many generals have made the same decision with regard to the Basques.
“All right,” Victor said, “there was perfidy on both sides, let us agree, Charlemagne was an enormous prick and the Basques were skulky and possibly traitors, but, but, where do you see the Moors in this? Nowhere! That was a later fiction, invented possibly by Archbishop Turpinus, an Englishman, in order to provide a justification for the First Crusade, which reached Jerusalem in 1099, and began a bloody give-and-take that has lasted to this day! The intifada! The so-called Middle East peace process! All because,” Victor said, wiping his mouth, “of some Basques, and a total disregard for historical truth.”
Where Victor had found his fierce sympathy for the Basques I don’t know. His family were Jews from Petersburg. “Here,” he said, “I will show you, as a lesson in historical truth, how it really was.” He took a pencil and began scribbling on the pad we kept next to the telephone. (Imagine us—I forgot to say this—in the kitchen of the apartment on Sixteenth Street. We are sitting at a round brown Formica-topped table. Victor has a cigarette in his left hand, which he holds out the window so the smoke won’t bother Alex.) “Here is the main French army, they have already turned northwest towards Puerto de Ibañeta, they are descending. The Basques, now, gather here, at the church, and here, on the Monte Menditxuri. The sun is behind them. When it has set, around eighty fifty-one p.m., they descend, here…”
Alex says something about how Victor is hung up on the dream of complete historical knowledge, which is just as much a fantasy in its own way as the great clash of Moors and Frenchmen at Roncevaux. “A dream? Alex, I know you are poststructuralist…” Many of Victor’s comments to Alex began this way. “But surely you do not believe that there is no truth? You do not believe that if people say these were Moors, then they were Moors? Because, my friend, these were not Moors, coming down the mountainside stealthily at nine or nine-fifteen p.m. on the night of August 15, 778 of the common era. These were Basques!” At which point Alex and I say in chorus, “Be quiet, Victor!”