The Gold Eaters
by Ronald Wright
published by Hamish Hamilton -
Penguin Canada Books
384 pages $32.00
By Michael Sabota
I was first introduced to Roland Wright in his 1992 extraordinary chronicle of colonialism in the America's titled Stolen Continents. In it, he told the history of the Americas from the point of view of original Native voices. He included in his chronicle translations of Native texts never before seen in English. His history covered the time from 1492, the so-called discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. At that time, there were already one hundred million people already living in North and South America.
To this day, it is one of the best history books of what happened to the ancient Incan, Mayan, Aztec and other North American indigenous peoples.
The Gold Eaters is historical fiction. In it, he takes up a similar task but focuses his history on one South American country, Peru. And of course on the conquering country, Spain and the influence that Rome and the Vatican had on exploration at that time.
The Gold Eaters is told primarily from the perspective of a young boy, called Waman in his Incan language. Occasionally, Wright will switch the narrators voice to other characters, including Francisco Pizarro, his henchmen, Atawallpa and several Inca emperors as well as Waman's own family.
Wright sets his story at a time when the Incan empire was at its peak. Running more than three thousand miles from southern Columbia to central Chile and western Argentina, the Inca Empire was the second largest on earth (after China) and the last great civilization unknown to the outside world.
As a boy, Waman is a fisherman. Away from his seacoast village, he is kidnapped and indentured by Pizarro and his ragged band of conquistadors. Learning Castilian Spanish, he becomes the bridge between cultures, as "the translator" and is both prized and scorned by men of greater power in whatever circumstances he finds himself.
Wright vividly portrays the Incan world with its cities, sea culture and agriculture, and contrasts this to the near barbarian behaviours of the Spanish foreigners. He skilfully shows us, however, that power at whatever level, in any culture is characterized by scheming, plotting, and ruthless brutality toward your perceived enemies. He also conveys the utter destruction that resulted from the Spaniards introducing small pox to the vulnerable Incan world and how it aided in the inevitable conquest.
The story becomes a narrative journey, with Waman continually hoping to find his way back to his family and the budding romance he was feeling for an adopted sister.
The Gold Eaters is a powerful historical novel, full of believable characters and human dynamics. Written with forceful narrative skills, chapters become page-turners. Even though I knew where this history was going, I genuinely cared about the people Wright created to tell this history. This is an epic tale told well.
Now in his mid-sixties, Wrght is writing at the peak of his literary skills. He currently lives in British Columbia.
Michael Sabota is a Thunder Bay-based writer.