Amazon is still processing my e-book, so while I wait for the big news I thought I’d blog a little on what drew me to write about the Inca.
I am wholeheartedly and unashamedly a history nerd. I love it. It’s the story of humankind, and there’s always something more to learn. The Inca are tucked away in a little-explored corner of the historical zeitgeist, and for most of my childhood and teens I had them grouped in with the Aztec and the Maya as New World civilizations that did not survive the arrival of Europeans. At some point I heard the improbable story of Francisco Pizarro’s one-upping Hernán Cortés in audacity and rapaciousness, but really the Inca meant nothing more to me than a source of the silver and gold that filled those galleons English pirates and privateers hunted throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Inca as a people were a blank to me, and I was on a Roman history kick that I’ve never really gotten over.
Sometimes it’s the little things that draw your attention to an idea that will consume years of your life. There’s a great exchange in Seinfeld where George Costanza tells Jerry that his favourite explorer was Hernando de Soto.
“De Soto? What did he do?” Jerry asks.
“He discovered the Mississippi,” George replies.
“Yeah, but they were going to find that anyway!” Jerry protests.
The delivery of that line always tickled me, and one day I decided to read a book about conquistadores to see what all the fuss was about. It turns out before De Soto led his ill-fated expedition into Florida and across the American South he had already earned fame and fortune as the leader of Pizarro’s horsemen against the Inca. I flipped to the chapter on Pizarro, and I read two things that got my immediate attention: First, the Emperor Atauhuallpa (I should mention there are several different accepted ways to spell his name. I’m using the one that appears in my book) was the winner of a recent civil war and indeed had not yet undergone his coronation when Pizarro’s men seized him and demanded the largest ransom in history only to kill him after it was paid; second, smallpox had hit the Inca years before the arrival of the Spaniards, and a quarter of the population had died.
Right there, I knew there was something more to the Inca than just the drama of Pizarro’s improbable conquest.
Reading further I learned that Pizarro’s first contact with the Inca was actually on the high seas. An ocean-going balsa raft was trading mullu shells up the coast of South America. I had no idea the Inca had foreign trade the equal of any European power, but they did. What else did they have?
Leaving the conquistadores behind, I decided to read a general history of the Inca, and here things got even more interesting. We’re talking about a bronze age civilization whose domain stretched three thousand miles long and up to five hundred wide to stradde the second highest mountain range in the world. They had aqueducts, highways, suspension bridges, colossal works of architecture, and a bureaucracy that was described as being able to keep track of everything down to a single pair of sandals in the entire empire. All of this was built in just three generations and collapsed within two more, mostly from internal turmoil: Rebellions, plagues, political purges, and a civil war so horrible that there was almost no one left in a position of authority when the Spaniards arrived. It occurred to me that this was an empire as impressive in its own way as the one the Romans had build up over the course of centuries. Why was I only just hearing about this now?
The answer to that is frustrating. To begin with, none of Pizarro’s conquistadores ever wrote their memoirs. Many of them died in the upheaval of the following decades, and most were illiterate to begin with. All we know about the Inca has been passed down to us by Spaniards who arrived years after the conquest, and their accounts diverge on many key points; after all, they were based on interviews conducted among old men with an incomplete worldview who were low-ranking participants from both sides of civil wars under the Inca. By the time the Spanish chroniclers began trying to figure out what life had been like before their arrival, almost all of the Inca elite left alive had fled into the Amazon rainforest. There they built a rump state that survived for several generations before eventually bowing to the Spanish yoke.
I started reading all of the primary documents available to me in English, and as I sifted and collated and tried to reconcile the different accounts, I wished someone had told the Inca’s story from their own perspective as a work of historical fiction, like Gary Jennings did to such stunning effect in his opus, Aztec. I went looking for such a book, and I was aghast that nothing even came close. I’m not out to name names, but the best work of historical fiction I could find on the Inca was a French trilogy whose protagonist was a blue-eyed Indian who could see the future. I wanted hard historical fiction: Something meaty where the history came first and the fiction came second. I wanted something that gathered up all the family histories and myths and traditions and customs into one neat piece. I chewed on it for a long time, trying to figure out how I could tackle something of that magnitude. It was a daunting task, and I needed to approach it the right way or give up the entire idea.
One day I came across an article on the Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum, a manuscript written around the time of Shakespeare that was discovered in Naples, Italy, in 1996. While a great deal of academic debate swirls around it to this day, the book talked in simple terms about an ancient Peruvian system of phonetic record keeping in knotted string. Now we know the Inca had at least a mnemonic system for storing numbers called quipus. There are not enough surviving examples for us to be exactly sure how much information they contained, but even a moment’s consideration of the vast infrastructure and bureaucracy evident in the Inca system of government suggests that those tangled skeins must have been able to record all manner of information: Census data, tax ledgers, work quotas, military assignments. Now with the Historia et Rudimenta Linguae Piruanorum we have at least the suggestion that there may have been an unknown alphabet capable of giving voice to the Inca.
What would they have written down? Why not their history? Why not the life story of an educated man –an important man– who fled with the last free Inca into the jungle rather than knuckle under to the conquistadores?
What would that story sound like? What would happen if that man decided to take his story and translate it into Spanish? That’s when I knew I had a way to write my story in a believable way. I needed a character who had seen everything we still know happened, but that was easy: The zenith and the nadir of Inca power easily fell within a single lifetime. A boy who saw the Inca stretch out to their furthest extent would be an old man when that world shattered, and shattered, and shattered again. Next I needed something to make readers care, to empathize with the tragedy of an Empire’s fall. Then it occurred to me, what if my protagonist was the man responsible for keeping the whole world intact? Not an emperor, for those died one by one. Not a general, for how many generals know how a government works? No, if my character had been a general all I could have written about was battle and campaign. That’s what a young man wants to read, but I wanted my story to be a comprehensive picture of the fall that would be engaging to all readers. There will be violence, of course, but there would also be treachery, tragedy, palace intrigue, coups, political purges, and the little things like good harvests and bad harvests and people being asked to pay their taxes.
No, I needed a bureaucrat. What’s more, I needed a bureaucrat who would travel. I didn’t want my story to be set entirely in Cuzco. I wanted a man who would walk the four quarters of the world, which is literally what the Inca called their empire, Tahuantinsuyu: The Four Quarters of the World. I needed a bureaucrat who would mix in the highest circles but also speak to commoners on a daily basis. I needed someone who would go everywhere, see everything, and though his story be able to tell modern readers how it all worked, what really happened.
It turns out the Inca had just such a man. Four of them at any one time, as a matter of fact. There was an Imperial auditor position known as Tocoyricoc, He Who Sees All. It was a Tocoyricoc’s job to travel the world, stopping in every community to make sure the laws were being obeyed and the taxes paid fairly. In this duty he could command anyone to assist him except for the imperial viceroys, and he answered only to the Emperor. A Tocoyricoc was by nature an intellectual, speaking many languages, literate in quipus, expert in mathematics, and capable of acting as a judge, a teacher, and a leader. If my story’s narrator was the son of a Tocoyricoc, became himself a Tocoyricoc, and trained a Tocoyricoc to follow him, I could easily have him as an active participant in every important moment in the Inca’s history.
I started writing Inca in 2000, and I’m now ready to share him with a broad audience. His name is Haylli Yupanki, and I look forward to your reading more about him in my book, Inca, which will be available on Amazon any time now.