How the Mighty Inca Fell

Ronald Wright’s novel chronicles disease, butchery and betrayal in Peru.

It is known as el Cuarto del Rescate, or the Ransom Chamber, and it is located in Cajamarca, a green and pleasant city perched high amid the cloud-draped Andes of northern Peru—a town with a history.

In the early 16th Century, an Inca prince named Atawallpa promised to fill the room in question with ornaments of gold, while also stocking two similar cubicles with silverwork, all in a bargain to save himself from execution at the hands of the alien Spaniards.

The gathering of so many riches took months to accomplish, but Atawallpa was as good as his word, while his conquerors fell far short of theirs.

They killed the poor man anyway, by strangling him—a “mercy” conferred by their leader, Francisco Pizarro, after Atawallpa underwent a last-minute conversion to Christianity. Otherwise, they would have burned him at the stake.

This sorry episode occurred after the Spaniards had already slaughtered at least 5,000 of Atawallpa’s finest soldiers, relying on cavalry, artillery and muskets to make short work of men armed mainly with hatchets and slingshots.

Once Atawallpa was dead, the Europeans had his priceless artifacts melted down into ingots, for ease of transport. For himself, Pizarro claimed the weight in gold of more than 13 men.

Nowadays, the Ransom Chamber still stands—the last remaining Inca building in Cajamarca and among the city’s main tourist attractions.

For more on this unsettling theme, either book your passage to the Peruvian Andes or else turn your attention to The Gold Eaters, Ronald Wright’s masterly new account of the Incas’ demise, a chronicle of disease, butchery and betrayal that brims with life in the shadows of death.

A celebrated journalist, essayist and novelist, the British Columbia–based Wright has trained his sights on Peru before, notably in his first book, Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru, published in 1984.

In that opus, as in subsequent works, Wright has explored the serial treachery inflicted upon Amerindian culture during the more than five centuries of neglect or oppression that followed the European conquest. The same concern pulses through his latest book, in which he reimagines the toppling of the mighty Inca empire that once dominated much of South America, until it fell victim to a combination of European diseases, Spanish greed and Old World weaponry.

Granted, the Incas did not exactly make matters difficult for the Spaniards. Shortly after Pizarro—a dull-witted but stubborn thug in Wright’s depiction—arrived on the scene, the Inca world was plunged into civil war, as two sons of the fallen emperor, Wayna Qhapaq, turned their armies against one another. As you might expect, the Spaniards were only too happy to take full advantage of this ill-timed family feud.

By the time the two princes fell out, pitting Atawallpa against his half-brother Washkar, the Incas and their many vassal states were already in a miserable condition, laid low not by Spanish arms but by European sputum, a deadly froth clotted with pathogens against which they had no defence—mumps, measles, chickenpox and, of course, smallpox.

Some conquest.

Before the carnage was mostly over, fully nine tenths of the indigenous population were dead from disease, not war. Forget about Iberian valour: the Spaniards could have seized these lands merely by coughing, spitting and sneezing. But, of course, they did much more.

For one thing, they ate gold—or so it seemed to the Incas. How else to explain their insatiable appetite for the stuff? Meanwhile, they killed, they raped and they plundered, without mercy or restraint.

An epic if horrifying tale, the conquest of the Incas has long called out for a full-blooded fictional treatment, a version of history related at first hand, propelled by the hearts and minds of those who lived it.

And now along comes Wright, whose powerful re-enactment of those searing times is conveyed primarily through the eyes of an Indian boy named Waman, an adolescent when the novel begins.

Not an Inca himself, Waman dwells in a coastal village and speaks Tallan, a local tongue, as well as Quechua, the language of the highland-dwelling Incas. A headstrong youth in many ways, he soon runs away from home, finagles passage aboard an Indian trading vessel, and is quickly captured at sea by a small force of these foul-smelling Spanish degenerates, tacking down from Panama in search of a rumoured empire of gold.

The story unfolds from there, and Waman spends so much of the tale in the company of Castilians that he halfway morphs into a sort of ersatz Spaniard himself. He travels with his captors to Seville, nearly perishing of smallpox along the way, and even cultivates a wispy beard, to be more like his leonine mates.

Although central to the novel, Waman also embodies what is possibly its greatest challenge.

After learning to speak Spanish, the boy is enlisted to serve as Pizarro’s interpreter, a duty that has him collaborating with the Spaniards in their lethal forays through these strange new lands. In short, he is an insufferable turncoat.

To gull his people into complacency, he repeatedly lies about the conquerors’ intentions. Then the hapless Indians are massacred, eventually leaving Waman with the blood of hundreds, possibly thousands, on his hands.

Somehow, Wright manages to maintain the reader’s sympathy for this New World anti-hero. Although he transgresses time and again, Waman also suffers in his heart for his sins, and that seems enough to keep him from slipping beyond the moral pale, if only just.

Among the many difficulties of historical fiction is the ticklish task of getting the diction right, and The Gold Eaters succeeds gloriously, for the most part. Wright surely exults in the possibilities of language, and so does this narrative, bursting with wonderful if uncommon words—flump, flensing, corbelled, spraint, susurration, fetor, finial, skeins, gonfalon, architrave, embrasures, writhen, scrim—that impart an antique, otherwordly tone to the novel.

At times, however, the British-born Wright has his mostly Castilian characters speaking or musing in an arcane anglo argot that seemed kind of jarring to me.

At one point, a character named Candía (admittedly, a Greek rather than a Spaniard) wonders if Waman is “getting too churchy for the bints.” (Too prudish for sex, I think.) A paragraph or so later, Wright refers to “the loathsome jakes,” a phrase—new to me—with just one citation on Google, dating from the late 1500s. It means latrine.

As for Waman, he eventually comes to his senses and renounces the Spaniards, once and for all. The trigger for this decision is a series of Spanish crimes that give a new, literal meaning to the term “cold feet.” These misdeeds are at once so casually presented and so shocking that I will not spoil the effect by revealing them here.

You will have to read the book.