As a child, I developed a deep, dark fascination with Perú that had nothing to do with Paddington Bear, although it did start with a book. Rover of the Andes
by R.M. Ballantyne was one of the Scottish writer’s lesser-known adventure stories for boys – his most famous was The Coral Island
– but my grandfather had a first edition, published in 1885, that must have passed into my father’s possession when my grandparents moved out of Brynllici, the farmhouse at the top of our road.
It was the year I turned eight. The mighty Liverpool were defeated by little Wimbledon in the FA Cup Final. I watched the match on the new television at my grandparents’ house in the woods. Our own bungalow did not yet have a television, nor a telephone, but we were newly rich in books, and happy. It was also the year I started reading seriously.
The Rover of the Andes, with its ancient binding, its gilt lettering, fabulous frontispiece and its story of adventure set in a land very far away qualified it easily as the type of book I wanted to consume. More than the story, which I mostly forget, save for the fact there was a lot of wandering about on mules, talking around campfires and questionable racial hierarchies, I remember the atmosphere of reading it. Late nights with the lamp on, and then off, and then on again, under the covers after my parents had gone to bed. That first furtive love affair with story.
For an eight-year-old whose whole life had been lived in south Wales and the west of England, the high Andes seemed impossibly exotic. Rover led to a much wider interest in Perú that encompassed the empire of the Incas and the story of the conquistadors, which I pieced together from various articles in my father’s huge stack of National Geographic magazines.
When I started secondary school, our English teacher invited us to produce a project on a topic of our own choosing. The first friend I had made, Gareth, wrote a page and a half about rugby, illustrated with a crude drawing of a red shirt with an outsized three feathers. I produced a thirty or forty page illustrated booklet about the history of Perú, entitled The Condor and the Bull.
I was still a boy without a television, and where the rest of my classmates would certainly have recognised Indiana Jones, my enthusiasm for Hiram Bingham left them nonplussed, despite that the Harrison Ford character owed much to his intrepid khaki-clad compatriot. Bingham is the poster boy of the great adventure which culminated with the ‘rediscovery’ of Machu Picchu, the ancient citadel near Cusco which is now firmly in the firmament of do-before-you-die world heritage sites, one of our world’s great cultural treasures.
Ballantyne’s tale and Bingham’s exploits were enhanced by the unearthly beauty of the landscape and the fantastical nature of the placenames. Sacsahuaman, Urubamba, Titicaca. There was also a poem, ‘Romance’ by W.J. Turner, that contained the immortal, memorable phrase ‘Chimborazo, Cotopaxi’. This pair of volcanoes are to be found in modern day Ecuador, but that is hardly the point; when the Spaniards arrived, the Inca ruled all of their known world, an Andean empire that stretched from Colombia to Chile.
Like its counterpart in Mexico – when Hernán Cortes met and tricked the Aztec ruler Montezuma – the story of the conquest of Perú is often condensed to a curious clash between two compelling personalities: ‘the most powerful ruler in South America and his captor, an elderly Spanish soldier, illegitimate and illiterate’. Atahualpa and Francisco Pizarro.
As a boy, I was conflicted about the conquistadors. They were, of course, the baddies. It wasn’t their land; they just turned up and plundered all the gold, butchering hundreds of natives in cold blood. But they were also, to a boy of eight, nine, ten, eleven, really cool. Pizarro and his men combined the overseas adventurous spirit of a band of pirates with the shoot-to-kill outlaw glamour of the cowboy and the brave uniformed militarism of the soldier. They were also the equivalent of astronauts.
It may be a hopelessly Eurocentric perspective, but for adventure equivalent to the uncharted territory of South America’s western seaboard in the early sixteenth century, today you would need to visit Mars. The conquest of Perú was unique in that no travellers’ tales had lured Pizarro’s men to the court of Atahualpa; these men were explorer-conquerors.
The allure of the Pizarro-Atahualpa story is also built on the fact that it was played out at a human level. The Inca – worshipped as a deity and descendant of the sun by his own people – learned Spanish and played chess with his captors. The tragedy of this omnipotent ruler was his complete, and completely understandable, inability to conceive of the world that this emaciated band of 170 white strangers had come from. Even as he was duped into losing his empire and brutally executed, he would not guess at the completion with which his conquerors would sweep the continent.
Centuries later, the Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano wrote: ‘[Latin America] has specialised in losing ever since… Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of the Indian civilisations’. The poetry of expeditions in search of silver and gold has long since been replaced by the prosaic realities ‘of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them’.
And I have long since lost that beautifully bound, gilt-edged first edition of The Rover of the Andes, a Victorian prize that in my fertile boyhood imagination might just as well have been recovered from the ruins of Machu Picchu itself. During a period of particular hardship, my father took the volume to an antiquarian bookseller in Hay-on-Wye and immediately raised £80 in cash, a hint perhaps that its true value lay in the hundreds of pounds. To me, it was priceless, and even as I grew up and my passionate interest in the conquistadors faded, I would still periodically remind Dad about selling what I saw as ‘my’ book.
I was in my thirties before I received a rectification. One birthday or Christmas, I was given a cheaply produced softback from the Dodo Press (‘specialising in bringing rare and out-of-print books back into circulation’). It was inscribed with a message: ‘A man’s word is his bond. From your ever-loving father.’
If the screen in front of me is accurate, I write this 36,000 feet above the place where the Amazon meets the Andes. I think of those years when my parents – no television, no telephone – were so short of money that to put food on the table they had to look around the house for valuables to sell. How did my father feel, taking that treasured boys’ own story into a place lined with hundreds, thousands of such treasures?
Little could he have known it would be Hay-on-Wye, and books, that would send his son back to Perú as protagonist of his own adventure story, a latter day rover of the Andes.