The Uruguayan literary critic's stunning first novel: a lyrical, powerful recreation of Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan's historic search for the Spice Islands and his expedition around the globe. Beginning in 1519, the explorer's journey is chronicled by Juanillo Ponce, a half-Jewish jester who has converted to Christianity because of the Spanish Inquisition. Juanillo signs on with the fleet, though its final destination is ``shrouded in secrecy,'' to make people laugh--and to keep from going hungry. He entertains the captain and crew with bawdy tales told with macho bravado, yet also waxes poetic, describing his surroundings in a seamless, dreamlike way. From start to finish we are in the hands of a master craftsman who subtly and compellingly reveals the characters of the captain and his men at their best and worst through the eyes of a buffoon who observes, ``We were infected, it was true, and by a disease far worse than the plague or leprosy; we were infected by our dreams.'' The author also skillfully captures the mood of the ocean with vivid, foreboding imagery: ``The day dawned tensely, with a leaden sky and a steel-colored sea....Then a sudden squall blew up. Black clouds raced across the sky, and waves whipped up around the ships.'' Ponce de Leon has really done his research, yet facts never impede the flow of his rich, sensual prose. Here, too, we are presented with a perceptive, sophisticated narrator who illustrates the importance of the art of storytelling. No wonder the original Spanish edition won the Novela Casa de las AmÇricas Award in 1989. More than an account of hardships endured or individual histories, this is a meditation on man's age-old dream of eluding death and leaving his mark on the world as he journeys through life.