Monday, November 30, 2015

The Gold Eaters, by Ronald Wright

Riverhead, 2015
367 pp

hardcover (from the publisher, thank you!!)

Ronald Wright is the author of ten books, three of which (A Scientific Romance, Henderson's Spear, and this one, The Gold Eaters) are fiction.  He also has a long list of awards to his credit, including the 1998 Sunday Times book of the year for his  A Scientific Romance.  He has traveled extensively and as far as the subject of this novel goes, he is beyond well informed, having written about Peru in his Cut Stones and Crossroads.That book was published in 1993; now he's returned with a fictional account of the Spanish conquest of Peru from the point of view of a young boy who served as interpreter between the two cultures.

Without going too much into plot, basically this novel came across to me as a sort of coming-of-age story set during the conquest of Peru. The main character is Waman renamed Felipe (who, by the way, is not an Inca). He is only a kid when he decides that he needs to see more of the world and go off on adventures of his own; by the time the book is over, he is a grown man. In the time in between he's been captured, taken to Spain, learned Spanish, returned to Peru, served as interpreter, and has lost contact with his mother and with the childhood companion he thinks about all of the time. As he moves through Peru with his captors, he watches hopelessly as at first smallpox decimates a large proportion of the population and afterwards, the Spaniards take advantage of the situation and move to subjugate the remainder. Although he has a foot in both worlds (conquerors and conquered), as he becomes older, he becomes a conflicted soul, wondering exactly who he is and trying to discover where his loyalties actually lie. Most of this story is revealed through Waman's point of view, although perspective also moves among different characters as the book progresses. 

Why a stamp was made to commemorate the slaughter of innocent people is beyond me. But here it is.

When I was a kid I fell in love with stories about explorers -- then that bubble got burst once I moved past the crap that they feed you in your early school years. Once I realized that the conquistadores were not just explorers but that they decimated indigenous populations and forced them into Catholicism, I lost all romantic notions I might have once entertained about them. In The Gold Eaters, Wright doesn't leave much to the imagination -- there are some pretty despicable scenes in this book depicting the depth and breadth of the cruelty meted out by the Spaniards. There's a lot of action going on here, and that's all well and good, but some of the best parts of this novel for me were watching as the Peruvians (for lack of a better word) try to make sense of what's going on as their lives are completely disrupted by forces well beyond their control. While some of the people had an inkling that this was not going to be a good thing, others who were disgruntled with the reigning Incas made alliances with the Spanish, leaving the door open for Pizarro and his forces to come in and take over. The fact that there had recently been a civil war in the empire also made it possible for the conquest to happen so easily. 

My take on this book is this: considering the horrific tale Mr. Wright has to tell here, the novel could have been much more forceful in the telling. It's a compelling story, to be sure, but I found his writing style to be a bit sedate, at least for me. Considering the importance of Felipe's character here, he often comes across as a bit flat (at least I found him to be so). However, as far as I know (although I am definitely not an expert on all things books), The Gold Eaters may just be the first large-scale, fictional epic dealing with the conquest of Peru, so it is most definitely worth the read. It may not be, in my opinion " truly the gold standard to which all fiction — historical and otherwise — should aspire," as noted where ever you turn for info about this book, (originally accredited to Buzzfeed), but it does bring something new to the table. 

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