It’s 1511 in the new city of Santa Domingo on Hispaniola, and Bartholomew Columbus, brother of the more famous Christopher is telling his life story to a Dominican monk. The monk, Las Casas, wants to celebrate the voyages of Christopher Columbus by encapsulating them in a story that will belong to ‘the history of mankind’s curiosity.’ But the retelling is darkened by another event happening on the island at the same time; another Dominican is stirring up trouble in his sermons by remonstrating with the colonisers for their brutal treatment of the native Indians. The response of the colonisers is to desire the punishment and death of the monk who dares to question their acts, but Bartholomew Columbus, ex-Viceroy of the Indies, is brought up short by the sermons, recognising their truth. The story he tells will contain two threads, the beauty and delight of curiosity, and the horrific destruction of conquest.
The Indies Enterprise by Erik Orsenna is a book that recounts the build-up to, and the consequences of, Columbus’s great journey to the West, but the voyage itself happens outside of the story. Recounting the events through the narrative perspective of his brother, Bartholomew, puts a very different slant on the story, and one that works rather well. Christopher is a force of nature. When he washes up (literally, after a storm at sea) in Lisbon, Portugal, where his brother is working contentedly as a cartographer, Bartholomew knows this is the end of his peaceful life. He is both thrilled and resentful as he is dragged into Christopher’s great project: the discovery of a sea route to the great trading nation of India that will head west rather than east, a direction which he is convinced will prove to be shorter and quicker than any other.
Bartholomew is well placed to help him. Lisbon is a bustling seaport, consumed with curiosity about the unknown world thanks to the ships that arrive daily full of exotic cargo. Cartography is a booming industry, as each new arrival of sailors unload knowledge about parts of the world’s coastlines (no one can believe how far south Africa extends). The King hoards the perfect map in his palace, and woe betide any cartographer who does not hand over all new discoveries to him. Knowledge is power, and at this point in the history of civilization, fresh knowledge is pouring in, a rich and valuable commodity, in the form of strange animals, unknown languages, the new science of algebra and that odd recent invention, the book.
Books and ships are granted equal space in this story and given parallel lives, as books are ‘ships on dry land’, making a single journey into the reader’s mind. Bartholomew is sent on a quest to find a book his brother insists on having as part of his research, and in this era, the printed book is a new invention, and one viewed with suspicion: ‘it remained to be seen,’ Bartholomew declares, ‘whether this clever manipulation of leaden characters could produce masterpieces to compare with those of our illuminators, and my expectations were not high.’ But when Bartholomew travels to Louvain in search of the Ymago Mundi, he witnesses some extraordinary scenes. The librarian at the university receives a single book, brought by a traveller as if it were a precious jewel. A lay brother fetches a basin of water, as all who touch the book must wash their hands first, and then the librarian raises the book, indicates the shelf and declares ‘You are welcome among your own kind!’ [Something similar happens in my house, actually.] What lies inside the books is considered to be absolute truth, and Orsenna quotes heavily in places from works by the first explorers such as Marco Polo, and religious tracts that firmly believed hell and paradise existed on the earth.
Orsenna has done his research and the realistic background to this story is both strange and beautiful. A monk called Las Casas really did write up the tales of Christopher Columbus, the books of early explorers were riddled with error, superstition and fantasy, and of course, Columbus really did think he had reached India, when he landed on the coast of America. The atmosphere Orsenna creates of avid curiosity and wonder at the never-ending marvels of the world is almost magical. Not a lot happens in this book, really, but the narrative is vivid and sprightly and rich. The excitement of anticipation drives the first two parts of the story, and then the last, with its sudden sobriety and its stark account of colonising atrocities, marks a dramatic difference in tone. The elderly Bartholomew’s crisis of conscience is relevant for today: why do we still harbour a passion for exploration and discovery, if we only destroy what we find?
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and found it unusual, entertaining and highly evocative. One to look out for if you like historical novels about the early explorers, or just fancy trying something a bit different.