Ferocious Indians and hostile geography were grist to the average conquistador's mill in the early 16th century. The real problem with organising an invasion of Chile was that there was no promise of gold. A disastrous expedition under Diego de Almagro in 1535 led to appalling hardship, many deaths, but worst of all, no treasure.
This makes Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror of Chile, even more pathologically single-minded than his contemporaries. Without the lure of riches, and with the grisly warnings of Almagro's survivors before them, no sensible Spaniard would have attempted another Chilean campaign. With fanatical obstinacy, Valdivia went anyway, lusting for glory, with just 10 soldiers and a group of Yanacona Indians.
History tells us that Valdivia also took along his mistress, Inés Suarez. This gives Isabel Allende her novel: the bloodthirsty tale of invading the Americas is familiar, but here it is told from a woman's viewpoint.
This should be a fascinating story. It took the invaders a whole year to cross the Andes and the Atacama desert, one of the most desolate places on earth. When founding Santiago, their new capital, in 1541, they faced terrifying numbers of Mapuche Indians, warriors so fearsome that even the powerful Inca had failed to subdue them. Six months after the settlement was built, the Mapuche razed it. To withstand all this, Suarez must have been quite a woman.
Unfortunately for us, she knows it. As protagonist and narrator, she is insufferably self-satisfied, listing her achievements without a shred of irony. She hectors the hapless reader with her skill as a lover, her wise decisions, her astounding courage, wit, political nous and so on. She chops her enemies' heads off, she makes great chiefs turn and run. Along with the Indians, she kills our sympathy stone dead.
The narrative meanwhile suffers from flashback fever, jumping to and fro as Suarez looks back over her life. Major outcomes are anticipated without ceremony, whisking tension out from under the main storyline.
Despite lashings of gore, the book remains a bloodless affair. None of the characters ever quite lifts off the page. Even Allende's magic realism is a ghost of its former self, with a dead husband showing up to no dramatic effect. Somewhere in the transition from Allende's obviously extensive research to the novel, a riproaring story of ambition, venality and ruthlessness has sadly lost its guts.
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