Book Review — Arauco: A Novel

Arauco: A Novel by John Caviglia is a work of historical fiction taking place during the Spanish conquest of South America from 1539-1553. Caviglia was born in Chile and, for the most part, raised in the United States. He has been a professor of Spanish and Comparative Literature. He has also taught martial arts and pottery. Caviglia earned his BA in English and French Language and Literature from Wabash College and attended the University of Toulouse as a Fulbright scholar. Before earning his PhD in Comparative Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington, he studied English Literature at Yale.

As an undergraduate in history, I spend a great deal of time studying Latin America. My studies of Chile, for the most part, started with Bernardo O’Higgins, moved the “guano wars”, and ended with Pinochet. Arauco, begins well before this time and starts in 1539 before the conquest of Chile. The novel uses real history and relies on historical people for all the Spanish characters (with the exception of two minor characters). The Spanish characters of Pedro, Juan, Ines provide an interesting contrast in the main story.

Pedro Gomez de San Benito, fits the mold of the warrior. He is the rough, tough, wine drinking, pork eating, womanizing man of uniform.

No one had ever fought Pedro and lived… save Jaun, who was his student in the knife, that subtle, arduous art.

Juan, raised by a priest, provides the innocent eyes to the story. Although an adult or near enough, he begins the story with a very simple outlook. His view reminded me of my outlook in Catholic grade school. He believed in miracles, devout, naive, but with a willingness to prove himself. Juan also knew how to read and write — a rarity for a conquistador. He seems the most interesting character to watch grow and develop in the book. His innocent outlook provides a sharp contrast to Pedro’s (and the other Spanish soldiers’ and leadership’s) view of the Indians. One can almost cast him as a detached witness in the story. He seems to look at the more human side of events and people rather than Spanish vs Mapuche Indians.

Ines de Suarez provides another role. She is the strong female character. She is an organizer, a nurse, and a moving force in Valdivia’s effort to invade what is now Chile. She was one of the original twelve to march south. Ines is a very strong character in a time when women had very little say. Juan looks up to her in much the same way he does to Pedro.

The Mapuche Indians are also represented in detail. Namku is the principal character for the Mapuche; he is a shaman. Here, too, is a huge difference between the two forces. The Mapuche mysticism compared to the Spanish Catholicism. When the people on both sides, meet some interesting questions of religion are played out. The Mapuche, to at times, seemed more advanced than the Spanish. They knew how to fix head wounds by relieving pressure; they also seemed to question and think independently than the dogmatic Spanish.

As much as anything, this is a book that compares two cultures and their beliefs without the expect good guys vs the bad guys. There are good and bad in the book and they exist on both sides. The Spanish are almost as absorbed in treachery against themselves as they are in war, but between the two cultures things seemed balanced. The farther a Spaniard got from Spain, the more their behavior took a turn for the worse, and Chile was about as far from Spain as one could get. The Indians seem to take pleasure in guerilla warfare, knowing that this is more successful than face to face confrontation against steel and gunpowder.

A word or two of warning for the reader. Caviglia uses many native words in the book. If you are reading this on a Kindle you may want to print the glossary from the author’s web page. There is a glossary at the end of the book, but it would be tedious jumping back and forth. This should not be a problem with a paper copy of the book. Most of the Spanish is explained in the book and what is not can be readily translated by your Kindle. Secondly, this book is almost seven hundred pages. Make sure you allow yourself plenty of time. Although there is plenty of action and intrigue in the book, it will take longer than expected to read. For most readers, myself included, there is a great deal of unfamiliar information. There are two different cultures and languages to contend with and historical context and geography. None of the points I brought up take away from the reading, rather they enhance it.

Reading Arauco took me back to my undergraduate days. It has been some time since I read about Latin America in a historical sense. Although Arauco is a work of fiction, it is based on real people and events. There is much more balanced coverage between the two peoples than I let on in my review. Much of the history I learned was based on the Spanish so I naturally dug a little deeper into the history looking for some type of flaw or historical inaccuracy; I found none. Arauco is historical fiction with a serious focus on historical. A very well written and researched book. I don’t mean to be cliche with the reference, but this book would fit nicely next to Jennings’ Aztec on anyone’s bookshelf. Although I am very stingy with stars, Arauco earns a very rare five star review.

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