CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS'S vaunted place in American history may take a beating in the coming media blitz over the 500th anniversary of the epic voyage, warns Homero Aridjis, a leading Mexican novelist and poet."There's going to be lots of programs, lots of publications, and lots of confusion," Mr. Aridjis predicts. "There's a tendency to see Columbus as responsible not only for the discovery of the New World but also for all that followed: the conquistadores, the repression of all indigenous cultures in the Americas, black slavery, the contras in Nicaragua, plus the external debt of Latin America," he says in half-jest. The author of two historical novels on the topic: "1492" and a sequel, "Memorias del nuevo mundo" Remembrances of the New World to be published in English next year, Aridjis says the Italian voyager's name also provokes confusion. It translates into Spanish as "Cristobol Colon," which leads some pseudo intellectuals to wrongly make him the linguistic link to "colonialism." And Mexicans sometimes lump Columbus in with Hernando Cortes, who vanquished the Aztecs some three decades later, Aridjis says. It helps, he says, to put the Old World wayfarers into four basic categories: the discoverers, the conquerors, the Christian evangelists, and the settlers. The commemoration of Columbus - the discoverer - is a "celebration of the encounter between two cultures, the two natures of America and Europe," Aridjis says. The Columbus expedition provides a focal point to a year he sees as crucial in world history. "There are centuries in which nothing happens and years in which centuries pass. Fourteen ninety-two is a year of centuries," he says. While the fall of Constantinople in 1453 may be considered the end of the Middle Ages for Spain and the rest of Europe, Aridjis considers 1492 the beginning of the modern age. "This year marks the start of the time we're living in now: The understanding of the world as a planet, a global perspective, and the integration of unknown cultures," he says. Columbus's arrival marked the start of an important ecological exchange, as well. The Europeans, through this and successive journeys, discovered not only new territory but also crops (corn, chocolate, potatoes, tobacco, and tomatoes) that were to radically alter the diets and habits of the Old World. Where, for example, would Italian cuisine be without tomatoes? The conquerors, evangelists, and settlers later brought plants and animals to the Americas (wheat, cattle, sheep, horses, dogs, and cats), which are now so integral to the landscape as to seem indigenous. These exchanges will rightly be extolled in the months ahead, says Aridjis. But he contends the celebratory glow shouldn't blind one to the catastrophic events in Spain when Queen Isabella hired Columbus for this little cruise. In 1492, the queen's soldiers were just sheathing their swords after a bloody medieval war of reconquest against Arab states. The same year marks the start of the forced expulsion of Jews. And Spain was in the throes of the Inquisition - the Catholic hierarchy's relentless persecution of all "false converts," Jews, and Moors. This epochal year of "crime cloaked in legality" is graphically conveyed in Aridjis's novel "1492" (Summit Books, 284 pp., $21.95), which several Spanish publishers rejected as being "inappropriate" to the spirit of the coming festivities. "The Inquisition dominated this period. It was a model of physical and spiritual destruction. Columbus would have been well aware of it," counters Aridjis. "Life in the streets of Spain would be similar to the days of Stalin or Hitler." The technical superiority of the Old World - which figured in Columbus's success - was not necessarily related to the level of civilization. It's worth remembering the Inquisition, says Aridjis, in light of the much-criticized Aztec rituals of human sacrifice going on at the same time. But in the spirit of conveying a complete picture, Aridjis points out that the same order of Dominican priests spearheading the Inquisition in Spain later produced the first defenders of human rights in the New World. "In 1545, the Bishop of Chiapas Bartolome de las Casas fought for the abolition of Indian slavery," he says.