A Faraway Place and Time: Ronald Wright’s The Gold Eaters

Claire Morris

A compelling story, history that’s sound without being intrusive, and characters that are human and believable – this is what you’ll find in Ronald Wright’s The Gold Eaters (Riverhead, 2016). The novel is also unique because it focuses on territory not covered by others. The author told me that, as far as he knows, no one has written a literary novel set during the invasion of the Inca Empire.

Wright, who first became fascinated by the Incas in his early teens, says that he soon found out why other writers have avoided the period:

“The momentous clash between worlds 500 years ago wasn’t easily shaped into the symmetries of fiction. The breakthrough came when I saw that the central character should be the interpreter. Known briefly to history as Felipe or Felipillo, this young man had a foot in both worlds but was at home in neither. I gave him the Peruvian name Waman, and began with his early years growing up in the Inca Empire, only to be seized and taken to Spain for years, then brought back as Pizarro’s translator. Waman regards both Incas and Spaniards with suspicion. Yet he knows his survival depends on mastering the high-wire role of the chaka, the bridge between worlds. Later, as the enormity of what he has helped set in motion becomes clear, he must decide where his loyalties lie.”

Anyone familiar with the Age of Exploration knows the outcome of this period of history. Wright points out that in the early 16th century, the Inca Empire was second in size only to China, yet unknown to the outside world. “It was exceptional in having no hunger, poverty or grinding slavery, a state of affairs the Spaniards found unnatural and ungodly,” he says. “The conquests of Peru and Mexico (both enabled by smallpox plagues) are one of history’s greatest turning points, laying the foundations of our modern world. Inca gold kick-started the rise of Europeans to world dominance, first the Spanish Empire and later the British and American.”

The Gold Eaters took him five years to write. He had to make many choices about what to include, what to leave out, which characters and scenes to bring alive. His greatest technical challenge was language, especially dialogue. How should characters who lived 500 years ago, and who spoke Spanish and Quechua, sound on the page in English? He decided to opt for a plain style: “Neither deliberately archaic nor so modern it would break the spell of a faraway place and time. I use foreign words sparingly, only where needed for colour and authority, or to express a specific idea.”

This choice contributes significantly to the novel’s authentic sense of time and place, as do the descriptions of landscape, which stem from Wright’s background: he studied archaeology at university and spent years in Peru. The first of his ten books, Cut Stones & Crossroads, was a memoir of his travels there.

Wright acknowledges this connection:

“The years in Peru were essential, both for describing places where events took place, and for portraying the landscape as a ‘character’ in its own right. Peru is a land of stunning contrasts:  a desert coast with irrigated valleys and ancient mud-brick cities; behind this the Andes with the great stone cities and roads of Inca times still standing here and there; and then the steaming forests of the Amazon.”

To shape the story and characters, he drew widely on chronicles written by Spaniards and Peruvians, and on more recent histories such as John Hemming’s Conquest of the Incas. Ultimately he was drawn to the era by his own curiosity about what he calls “this extraordinary land, people, and times,” and by its importance in terms of understanding ourselves today.

About the Contributor: Claire Morris is the HNS web features editor. She served as the managing editor of Solander from 2004 to 2009, and helped to start the HNS North American conferences. She lives in Toronto.

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Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 79, February 2017


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