Isabel Allende's new novel, Ines of My Soul , the 15th book she has published in just over two decades, is in many ways her most ambitious. It is historical fiction, set in Spain, Peru (where she was born) and Chile (where she grew up) in the 16th century, the time of the Spanish conquest of Central and South America, one of the bloodiest periods in human history. Its central character is an actual historical figure, Ines Suarez, "widow of the Most Excellent Gobernador don Rodrigo de Quiroga, conquistador and founder of the kingdom of Chile." She is living in Santiago and is more or less 70 years old -- she doesn't know the exact date of her birth, probably in 1507, in Spain, "in Plasencia, in the north of Extremadura, a border city steeped in war and religion" -- and she is looking back on her life in the certain knowledge that her death cannot be far away. (...)
The trouble with that story, in this novel as in many others that have been written about the Spanish conquest, is that while it may seem heroic from the Spanish point of view, it is anything but heroic from the viewpoint of the indigenous people who were slaughtered, enslaved and otherwise broken to the will of Charles I of Spain and his ambitious, ruthless emissaries.
To say this isn't merely to indulge in present-day political correctness, though perhaps there is a bit of that. The unpleasant historical truth is that the Spanish conquest was an atrocity of almost unimaginable dimensions, carried out by the likes of Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortes. Though Allende does not attempt to whitewash the conquistadors -- Pizarro is "a man of about sixty, haughty, with sallow skin, a graying beard, sunken eyes with a suspicious gleam in them, and a disagreeable falsetto voice" -- she cannot resist the temptation to romanticize the feats of the men (and, in this instance, one remarkable woman) who conquered a continent.
The temptation is understandable. In Chile, as in Mexico and Peru, the suppression of the natives -- the Mapuche, the Incas, the Aztecs -- was carried out by extraordinarily small bodies of soldiers who fought against astonishing odds: a hundred men or fewer against thousands. Thus the expedition that set out from Cuzco in southern Peru in January 1540 was "a pathetic group: only eleven soldiers in addition to Pedro de Valdivia -- and me, for I was prepared to wield a sword if the occasion demanded it."
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