In the opening pages of his absorbing new novel, Ronald Wright introduces the reader to a highly advanced 16th-century society. This empire of expanding dominion boasts sophisticated, monarchial governance; large, functioning cities; and sufficient engineering prowess to produce a comprehensive network of roads for trade and an irrigation system for agriculture. Its population seems stable, if war-weary, highly organized and – not to be undervalued in situations of great urban density – well-groomed. These are the Incas of pre-Columbian Peru. It is no small irony that the Spaniards who eventually arrive, uninvited, on the Incas’ shores are boorish, uncultured, and decidedly unkempt and malodorous.
There is no mystery as to how this encounter turns out. But in Wright’s hands, the conflict looks less like a clash of civilizations than the triumph of brutal, ruthless, avaricious force over a culturally superior foe fatally hamstrung by the arrogance of its leaders and a failure to adapt to changing circumstances.
Few writers are better positioned than Wright to transform this familiar chapter of early colonial history into bright, vivid fiction. Best regarded as the author of the influential CBC Massey Lecture A Short History of Progress, the B.C.-based historian and novelist is here revisiting material he previously essayed in his 1992 non-fiction book, Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas, and an earlier travel book, Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in Peru.
The Gold Eaters is Wright’s third novel (his first since Henderson’s Spear in 2001), and it is a lively tale with an epic sweep. Although Wright is careful not to colour outside the lines of known historical fact, this still leaves plenty of room for invention, beginning with the novel’s sympathetic central character, Waman.
The relatively well-to-do son of an Inca warrior, Waman is verging on manhood when he leaves his rural home in search of adventure. Soon after joining the crew of an Inca trading vessel, he is kidnapped during a raid by a Spanish frigate, baptized, and christened Felipe. He is sent to Spain to soak up the language, religion, and culture of his captors, who intend to use him as an interpreter. He returns to Peru in the company of the infamous conquistador Francisco Pizarro, who hopes to make his mark in the Andes in the same way that his countryman, Hernan Cortes, did in Mexico – with similarly disastrous consequences for the indigenous population.
Waman and his fellows are less than overawed by the Spanish, with their lice-filled beards, rotten teeth, stomach-turning breath, and body odour. Worse even than the Spaniards’ insistence on enforcing their peculiar death-cult religion is their incomprehensibly insatiable appetite for a certain shiny mineral – hence the epithet “gold eaters.” The Incas also routinely refer to the Spanish as “barbarians,” meaning something more than just “foreigners,” and the novel largely shares this perspective. The ruthless, ravenous Pizarro is portrayed as typical of his tribe, although possibly not quite as heartless as his rival, Almagro. The most likable character in the Spanish entourage, Waman’s friend Candia, is actually Greek.
This is not to say the Incas are altogether noble. Atawallpa, their proud, headstrong leader, is emboldened by his recent success on the battlefield, but the victory has left his forces weakened and vulnerable. Despite this, he blithely overestimates his ability to outfox the Spanish. Atawallpa is a better candidate than Pizarro for hubris, if only because his level of self-regard is higher to begin with. As the go-between, Waman is the one character capable of seeing the strengths and weaknesses on both sides. His efforts to negotiate between the two, without giving offense to either, is integral to his maturation.
A somewhat less successful aspect of the story involves Waman’s unrequited pursuit of his cousin, Tika, who disappears from the story for long stretches. It feels as if Wright imagines that a narrative of this scope requires a romantic dimension but can’t muster the necessary conviction to focus on this aspect of the story. Tika and Waman’s mother, Chaska, the novel’s only two significant female characters, remain peripheral figures.
Wright does not go out of his way to draw parallels between the past and the present, but it is hard to read The Gold Eaters without noting that the world is not so different today, at least in commercial terms. Peru gained its independence from Spain nearly two centuries ago, and its current president is descended from indigenous peoples. But rapacious mining by foreign companies – notably Canada’s Barrick Gold – provides a continuing source of conflict, now largely fought between government authorities on the one side and coalitions of aboriginal and environmental groups on the other. While the power dynamic has shifted, that glittery stuff in the ground is as potentially destabilizing as ever.