What’s gold got to do with it?

Inés del Alma Mía by Isabel Allende

When one of my closest friends went back home to Venezuela, I asked him to bring me back a book in Spanish. He brought me “Inés del alma mía”. He wrote a beautiful dedication and with a cover worth a million sensual thoughts, I waited a bit to read it. I am developing a rotation habit where every 4th or 5th book I try to read is in Spanish, so about a few weeks ago it was time to dive in. Although a different continent and with it’s own specific particularities the topic is a close neighbour of “It’s raining in Mango”.

Inés Suárez is the storyteller and the book is her life story. It is hard to believe there is more to the conquest of Chile than the greed for gold but through her insight I understood it a bit better. It was also about the curiosity of knowing a new land and the need to discover new places. Pedro de Valdivia dreamt of a peaceful and happy new race being created. With disappointments, promises being broken, and violent attacks this became a utopia. He started the conquest so he could make himself a recognizable name in history, not driven by the gold rush. In time he exchanged one obsession for another and ended up proud, unfair, and hungry for recognition.

The book is not only a chronology of the conquest of Chile but it is an insight into the psychology of war and soldiers. It does not choose sides and it tries to present a trajectory of its characters that is put in the context of the era. As various European battles are recounted, there is the admission that soldiers enjoyed the violence; they felt alive only in those extreme situations where blood and brotherhood united them. There is a complex duality between empowerment and satanical cruelty. It was interesting to see the progression of Pedro de Valdivia. He was a soldier who could keep a balance between required violence in the name of a purpose and unnecessary atrocities. By the end of the book, he was no longer an observer and there was no more dissociation between him and this dark place where a lot of fighters went.

Greed is a recurring theme. The indigenous people were completely baffled as to why the Europeans were so obsessed with gold. Under its spell the conquistadores forgot to respect their promises and became unable to behave within any sort of respectful and moral guidelines. They claimed land that was not theirs, raped, destroyed and killed. The King was disconnected from the violent realities in the New World, being happy to receive the recognition and the riches.

The story is balanced between Inés‘ incredible life and Pedro’s. She comes across as a strong woman with an amazing life. The author made a beautiful choice in not hiding behind the prejudice of the time and she created an extremely intriguing character: sexual, passionate, intelligent, strong, artistic and organized. There was no need to compromise her in any way. She had love, an adopted daughter and her life merged to be financially comfortable. It came across as a complex life with no particular focus to one aspect and never one-dimensional.

The book does not lack explicit details of the violence of the period: cannibalism, rape, murder, and torture methods. My heart sank more and more and by the end I felt the sorrow of the realisation that the circle of violence was very well drawn. I ended up reading it like a police novel, quick and addicted to the story. I knew Pedro would die, but for some reason I wanted to know how.

I learned more about the history of Peru, Chile and Spain and probably my mind will wonder to this book when I will visit them.

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