August 18, 2017

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Spanish, Peruvian clashes captivate

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/11/2015 (629 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Canadian historian and novelist Ronald Wright's third novel is an absorbing examination of the 16th-century Spanish arrival in Peru and the clash with its Inca population.

While the result of that encounter is no mystery, it's the depictions of the two civilizations, seen largely through the eyes of the main character, that capture the reader and convey in an eloquent way the cultural and economic damage wrought by European colonization.

Waman is on the cusp of manhood in his rural home, where his grandfather has built him a fishing boat to use while his father is away on military service.

Grandfather has also told the teen of his own sailing adventures as a young man; Waman takes the bait and sets out to find a ship that will take him on. He leaves behind his immediate family and cousin Tika, expecting to make a triumphal return in fairly short order.

His Incan ship is captured by Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizzaro, who kidnaps Waman and renames him Felipe before taking him to Spain so he can learn the language and customs of his captors and return to Peru as an interpreter for the Spanish traders/marauders.

Waman is away so long his family begins to give up hope. His grandfather and father are killed in an Incan civil war, Tika enters a faraway convent and his mother and a younger brother he never met flees.

His dreams of a reunion are dashed and he finds himself straddling two civilizations: the cultural and economically advanced Incas, and the unsanitary, boorish, murderous Spaniards.

The thugs who make up the Spanish invasion force have a slavering, insatiable appetite for the shiny metal that makes the world go round, thus the Incan name for them: gold eaters.

The contrast between the filthy, lice-infested, ignorant Spaniards -- who would gladly slaughter the indigenous people, or each other, for more gold -- and the more fastidious, culturally advanced Incas is stark in the extreme.

The Incans aren't angels, having just finished a bloody civil war, and the nation's leader, Atawallpa, underestimates the Spanish and overestimates his own abilities and military strength.

It is interpreter Waman -- witness to the religious, political and military machinations -- who can best see both sides' strengths and weaknesses.

Wright's prose is delightful, whether conjuring peaceful mornings on the beach as a teenager prepares to take on a man's role or describing the brutal battles that marked the times and the colonization.

Wright's dual roles as historian and novelist enable him to recreate for the reader the splendour and subsequent devastation of 16th-century Peru.

The Catholic Church doesn't come off well in Wright's narrative, with its willingness to enforce so-called acceptance of the true faith with murder and slavery.

The Spaniards win the military battles with help from a smallpox epidemic; the Incans maintain the higher moral ground even as they are subjugated.

The Spaniards have long been overthrown and Peru is now led by an indigenous president, but foreign mining companies still contribute to conflict in the former colony. Gold still draws out the worst in people.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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