I’ve been reading up on the Inca Empire this year, but it’s hardly my specialist subject so I can’t honestly judge how accurate this book is in terms of depicting Inca life; but it’s obviously been very well-researched, and it’s fascinating. Well over 1,000 pages, and that’s in hardback, so it takes some reading; but it’s worth it.
It covers the two decades before the arrival of the conquistadors: the book ends with their arrival and the knowledge that the Inca Empire is about to fall. I suppose it had to end like that, but was it really all so inevitable? The Spanish were in unfamiliar territory, thousands of miles from home, and vastly outnumbered. However, they had superior weapons – and they also gained the support of many tribes seeking to throw off Inca rule. Anyway, I seem to be starting at the end here! That’s the trouble with most things that are written about the Inca Empire: they focus on the fact that the Empire is ultimately destroyed. The historiography of it is messy, especially in English, because we get the conquistadors being depicted as glamorous and heroic – we still use the expression “El Dorado” (and remember Esteban and The Mysterious Cities of Gold?) – and the Indians (it seems to be generally considered OK to talk about “Indians” when referring to Latin America) as “savages”, but then we also get the Black Legend depictions of Spanish brutality. What we get very little about is the Inca Empire on its own terms, rather than as something which was destroyed by the conquistadors. This book – and bear in mind that it’s a novel not a textbook – does try to give us that.
It’s a huge undertaking to write a novel set in a society with which most readers will be unfamiliar. We’re shown life at the Inca court, the ways in which young men were trained to become warriors, the religious/spiritual beliefs of Inca society (although human sacrifice is not included), the social and political structures, the role of women as healers, and the treatment of the tribes conquered by the Incas. We see this through the lives of two young people who, as the book progresses, marry and have children. He is an Inca of royal descent. She is a Chachapoya, member of one of the tribes conquered by the Incas, and was taken away from her family as a young girl. We see everyday life – family issues, friendships, romances – and we also see the sweep of history – the effect of smallpox, which came to the Americas with the conquistadors, and the many wars and conflicts taking place during this period.
It’s such a huge book, such a huge canvas, that it’s difficult to sum it up in a few paragraphs, and I feel as if I’m not doing a very good job of it! Assuming that the reader is’’t very familiar with the Incas, what will he or she learn from this? That the Incas were only a small group of people, a tribe who conquered many other tribes and established a vast empire in which they were the ruling caste but members of other tribes also had opportunities to advance. I don’t want to sound as if I’m putting European interpretations on a pre-Columbian American society, but there are obvious parallels with the Romans. That the Inca Empire was a very sophisticated and highly-developed society, even more so that you might have thought. That terrible destruction was wrought by the diseases brought from Europe, although presumably most people already know about that. That internecine struggles and civil war had rendered the Inca Empire internally weak just at that the point at which Pizarro, Almagro & co arrived. The importance of holy sites – not just cities or buildings, but rocks and lakes and islands too. And just so much about this very rich culture.
The Inca Empire didn’t actually last very long. The Inca state, based in Cusco, emerged in the twelfth century AD, and only began expanding in the 1430s. It very rapidly established a huge empire, but, less than a century later, the conquistadors arrived. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t? We’ll never know, but what they achieved is all the more impressive for the fact that it did happen so quickly. And, whilst there’s always something very tragic about a civilisation that was destroyed, the main Inca language – Quechua – is still widely spoken in parts of Peru, Bolivia and other South American countries today, and what remains of the major Inca administrative and religious centres are major tourist attractions.
I suppose that the book has to end with the arrival of the conquistadors, but I’m glad that it ends there, and doesn’t go on to depict the conquest and the destruction of Inca society, because it’s about the Inca Empire as it was, not about its destruction. It’s a long read and requires a lot of concentration, but it really is worth it.