Courage, greed and political intrigue in Peru
When we think of Peru, we think of captivating pictures of Machu Picchu. We’ve all seen them. Some of us have actually been there. The Inca Empire, llamas, snow-capped mountains and walls of huge, precisely-cut stones are all part of the vision of this great country. And all of this is captured, as if in a time capsule, by Ronald Wright in his historical novel, The Gold Eaters.
But this isn’t some New Age tale of Hollywood celebrities making a spiritual pilgrimage to The Sacred Valley high in the Andes. This is a sadder story of a great indigenous culture and country during the first half of the 16th century that is brought to its knees by a small band of Spanish brigands in search of gold, wealth and fame. Hence the book’s title, taken from an epithet coined by the indigenous Quetchua people of Peru in reference to the Spanish invaders.
Based closely on real events, The Gold Eaters draws on Ronald Wright’s deep knowledge of South America (he is author of several non-fiction books on South America and the Pacific Island cultures) and his ability to bring to life the epic struggle involved in the Spanish invasion of the Inca Empire in the 1530s and 40s. His new novel is a sweeping, historical account of exploration and invasion, of conquest and resistance.
Kidnapped at sea by conquistadors seeking the golden land of Peru, a young Inca boy named Waman is forced to become Francisco Pizarro’s translator. To survive, he must not only learn political gamesmanship but also discover who he truly is, and in what country and culture he belongs. Through Waman’s eyes we witness both sides of this conflict, and we journey with him as he searches for his shattered family across time and landscape of the entire country of Peru.
While there is a good bit of blood and gore in this tale, there is also a compelling love story that serves as the central through-line in the book. One could say that in Shakespearean terms this book is a little like “Julius Caesar” meets “Romeo & Juliet.” In his gripping lyrical style, Wright writes with empathy and sensitivity of the treacherous bridges built between clashing civilizations. His portrayal of the breaking of a highly evolved indigenous people is, in the end, heartbreaking. As a cultural anthropology major in college, I was brought to tears while reading this book with thoughts of “what might have been” had the Spanish not discovered Peru and/or had the Incas had the insight and fortitude to resist them.
The Inca Empire was a 16th century model for the world and was an advanced civilization way beyond what was going on in Europe at the time. Their building and architectural skills alone are evidence of this fact. And politically and socially they had created an early form of socialism that worked. So, while traveling through time and history with Waman and Pizarro and his renegades, I went through a roller coaster ride of emotions as well as historical insights.
From the northern coastal town of Little River, we follow Waman down the Peruvian coast, then all the way to Spain and back again, before journeying into the high Andean mountains of central Peru on a trek that ends up in Cusco — the capital of the Inca Empire and home to the Sapa Inca, the country’s reigning monarch.
Here, Wright describes Waman’s life aboard ship and his early days of imprisonment:
“Again he sleeps, waking to the dankness of a tidal river, to bells and cries, human voices, the tock of horseshoes. A sudden clatter of armed men coming aboard.”
Here he describes the invading army as they make their way toward Cusco and the capital:
“The barbarians are two hundred at most. They have about five hundred prisoners and auxiliaries from lands beyond the Empire. The bearded ones are lazy. Some never walk more than a few steps, riding instead like children on their beasts. These resemble the big llamas of Qollasuyu, though more heavily built, needing ropes and bridles to stop them bolting. When they run fast the ground shakes.”
While the Spanish are hoarding gold and silver and searching for more as they move slowly and with difficulty through the Peruvian landscape, Waman, now grown into a young man , is searching for Tika, his childhood sweetheart whom he has been told has been sequestered in an unknown location in a kind of political nunnery called The Chosen House for “The Chosen Ones.” He has escaped from his Spanish captors and now finds himself in the employ of the Sapa Inca high in the Andes in Willkapampa, which is near Machu Picchu.
“Waman’s mind is on the girl, who must be Tika. He is certain now. But how to reach her? As he gets up, backing to the door, his head strays towards the girl. ‘You needn’t worry about her,’ Atawallpa adds. ‘She won’t talk. She can’t. She is upa. Struck dumb. My women say no word has passed her lips since the night the barbarians attacked. She was a novice in the House of the Chosen.’ After his meeting with Atawallpa, Waman lingers by the warm bricks of the forge, thinking. How can they talk? How can he even get a good look at her? Since hearing Atawallpa’s parting words, half of him hopes she is not Tika. He has heard what happened when the Spaniards broke into the Chosen House after the massacre.”
Waman’s search for cultural clarity and for Tika continues until there is a reunion only to be followed by a further separation — all leading up to a heart-pounding denouement at the story’s end.
There is no death scene like in Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” in this book, but you’ll have to read it to find out how it ends. Finally, in a welcome and informative epilogue, Wright adds two pages of historical narrative of exactly what happened in Peru from the 1540s and beyond, as the Inca Empire collapsed and became the nation state of Peru as we know it today.