The Indies Enterprise by Eric Orsenna

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The Indies Enterprise by Eric Orsenna

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Andy Lancaster
Reviewed by Andy Lancaster
Summary: Sometimes books are important because they don't fulfil your expectations, but deliver a complete surprise. This isn't a rippling yarn of the Columbus family as one might expect, but Orsenna is an experienced winner of the Pris de Goncourt and the skill, depth and detail of this quietly understated fictional account of the most momentous discovery of the Americas shows his range of talent and insight.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Haus Publishing
ISBN: 978-1906598938

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As soon as you pick up a novel about Columbus's discovery of the Americas, certain expectations come to mind. Orsenna however is much more than your average writer and he manages to subvert almost all of these by delivering a quiet, scholarly account of what seems at first a diversion, the art of map making. But this book is not about Columbus himself, but rather his brother Bartholomew, and how he is swept into the excitement and ambition of his older sibling.

Orsenna's account of the background to the great 'Indies Enterprise', the route to find the Indies by sailing Westward instead of around the seemingly endless Africa, is well created. The research which underpins it is fascinating and the atmosphere of Lisbon in the 16th century particularly is atmospheric, focussing upon the essential role of the cartographer in developing an understanding of the expanding world of the 1500s.

But this is not a novel about the adventure itself – almost no sea voyages, certainly no arrival in the new world, no account of the means of methods of conquest of Hispaniola – this is book about more than anything else the dream of an entire society, Portugal. For Orsenna makes this tale focus upon the ambitions particularly of the older Christopher to explore, to find new knowledge, and the role of his brother in recording and interpreting and capturing that knowledge. The book shows how that knowledge is used, acquired and represented through maps, and ultimately how this process is sucked into a political game to become owned and traded - the Knowledge becomes the route to financial and political gain. It is becomes the story of the corruption of the almost childlike ambition and excitement of finding out – a kind of 16th century version of the discovery of the science behind nuclear warfare.

And Orsenna doesn't let us forget the cost which must be paid for this ultimate corruption of knowledge – indeed the last few chapters of the novel, 'Cruelty', contain the most calmly written but also haunting images that I have ever read, coming as they do in complete contrast to the warm, ordinary humanity of the central narrator Bartholomew.

Orsenna is massively accomplished, a politician of national standing and the author of some 27 works and the winner of two international prizes for fiction. And this book demonstrates why. It is not at all predictable, fascinating in its historical detail, carefully controlled and inventive in the creation of the character of Bartholomew. At least a part of the total effect of this work relies upon the shock of the ending, so I cannot give too much away, but ultimately this account of how ideals and youthful ambition are used could rank as one of the classics of European literature.

For a novel which uses the same approach to technical and historical detail, it is hard not recommend Corsair by Tim Severin which, while more of a 'tale of derring do', does spend much of its energy upon recreating the detail of seafaring in the seventeenth century.

The aspect of technical detail and background of the skilled craftsman is a favorite theme of historical novelists, and a work which deals in this way with magnificently with a complete unknown artist (as opposed to the famous Columbus family) is The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan.

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