A mixture of modern travelogue and the bizarre history of a 16th-century pioneer in the Spanish Main. In a world where murderers claim to be the victims of abuse, it's almost refreshing to make the acquaintance of Lope de Aguirre, a self-professed villain in the manner of Shakespeare's Iago or Richard III. Minta (Comparative Literature/Univ. of York, England; Gabriel GarcÃa MÃ¡rquez: Writer of Colombia, not reviewed) tells the story of an expedition mounted to discover El Dorado that degenerates into near starvation and endless treachery along the Amazon between 1560 and 1561. The leader, Pedro de Ursua, is bewitched by the charms of his mestiza lover, proclaimed king in defiance of Philip II, and eventually murdered by Aguirre, a member of de Ursua's group. The expedition begins with the murder of the viceroy of Peru, and a series of hangings and (especially) garottings follows as the group becomes more desperate and Aguirre tries to keep control of his men by means of cruelty and sentimentality. His private army, equipped with the latest antipersonnel device -- the arquebus -- finally melts away, and Aguirre's ultimate gesture before his own death is to stab his 12-year-old daughter. Minta's language is witty and vivid. He suggests that one element in Aguirre's apparently senseless cruelty was a pioneer's desire to break loose from all institutional and traditional restraints binding him to the motherland. Minta uses as a counterpoint to the story his own re-creation of Aguirre's journey. En route, we are treated to an expert's view of the social and political conditions in contemporary South America, as well as other historical excursions -- for example, the stories of how 168 Spaniards toppled the Inca empire of Atahualpa. A must for students of South America and human nature.