Sunday, December 03, 2006

By C.S. Forester

Though he is better known for his tales of Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester was capable of evoking eras other than the Napoleonic and attitudes other than upper-class England’s. In To the Indies Forester tells the tale of Columbus’ next-to-last voyage to the Indies.

The tale is not told from the point of view of the globe-crossing Admiral of the Ocean Sea, or by one of the nascent conquistadors who accompanied him. Rather Forester follows the fortunes of Narciso Rich, a senior lawyer from Barcelona, who is way too old to be out conquering unknown lands.

Forester lets his story unfold as the wind and tide carry the adventurous Spaniards through their new empire. Rich is the outsider, he’s a gentleman, but not the right sort for the sword swinging lunk-heads who are Spain’s iron fist in the Indies. Columbus explores new lands and Rich experiences the joy and the brutality of contact with unknown cultures.

Forester segues into events on Hispaniola, where revolt by both the Indians and disaffected Spaniards is brewing. As the king’s eyes and ears in the Indies Rich has to make sense of the flood of new experiences while trying to decide who is to blame for the colony’s mismanagement.

Forester evokes the era beautifully. He reminds the reader that 15th century belief was not our own, but does not cram it down the reader’s throat. Forester also shows just why Columbus was the greatest navigator of his age by depicting the discomfort, danger, and uncertainty of 15th century sea-travel. He plays with the scientific notions of the time and neatly depicts the social divisions of Medieval Europe just as it was becoming Modern Europe. While never soft-pedaling the ferocity of the conquistadors, Forester also shows what made those heavily-armed, over-privileged frat boys the men who had the power to re-shape the world: an indomitable belief in their own ability to dare absolutely anything.

To the Indies is a rare work of fiction that tells a story and brings to life vivid characters while being fully engaged in a world radically different than our own. A world in fact, that gave birth to our own.
-Dave Hardy

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