Rivers of Gold

  • Columbus nailing a gold coin to the mast for the first man to glimpse land…
  • Diego de Ordaz climbing the erupting Popocatépetl to become the first European to see Tenochtitlán…
  • Cortés burning his ships on the beach of Veracruz…
  • Vasco Núñez de Balboa hacking his way through the jungle of Panama to claim the legendary South Sea for his king…
  • Pizarro offering the Bible to the Inca on the great plaza of Cajamarca…

These are just some of the stories from the era of the Spanish discovery and conquest of America. Stories that are capable to fire the imagination: stories about a handful men daring to sail into the unknown, of a handful of men having the nerve to show up on some distant shore and take on entire empires.

And win.

Even if you despise the conquistadors for their greed, cruelty and ignorance, you have to appreciate their audacity and their supreme belief in themselves and in their God; the story of the Spanish conquest of America is one hell of a good story. A story that you want to know more about.

This is why I picked up Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire by Hugh Thomas, a history on the Spanish conquest of America. I was looking for the facts behind the legends, I wanted to understand who the conquistadors were and what motivated them. I hoped to learn more about the lands they conquered, the cultures they came into conflict with. And finally, I expected to read about how all this changed Spain and the world.

Well, you won’t really learn any of that from Rivers of Gold.

Without doubt, Hugh Thomas has an encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. Unfortunately, however, he is unable to rise above this encyclopaedic knowledge to give his readers the full picture, let alone an analysis. As for the cracking stories? Forget it. Rivers of Gold is a somewhat tedious litany of names, ships coming and going between the Caribbean and Spain, and minor skirmishes between the conquistadors and the local Indians.

We start of with the conquest of the Caribbean in great detail: we learn the  names of many Spaniards who took part in some form or other in the conquering and populating of the Caribbean islands and we are told what happened to their converso (converted Jew) grandfather thirty years ago; they all seemed to have had one. Every minor skirmish and every doomed Indian chief is listed, as are all the changes to the laws governing the islands. We get ship names and cargo lists; the number of Indian slaves brought back to Spain and the number of black slaves taken to the Caribbean. We learn about the disagreements between individual conquistadors or indeed the priests who accompanied them and follow Bartolomé de las Casas in his self appointed role as saviour of the Indians. Much of this (although not all) is of course perfectly valid and useful information. The problem is Thomas provides us with so many list like details that we get completely lost in them and never understand the full picture. The reader simply can’t see the forest for the trees.

Not content with getting his readers lost in details, in the second half of the book Thomas himself completely loses sight of what he set out to write about. His book becomes a narrative of what happened in Spain; we follow the Spanish court around in the wake of Isabella’s death, learn about Ferdinand’s concerns in the Mediterranean, learn about Queen Juana the Mad (although she never did anything with respect to America), become embroiled in Charles I’s efforts to become the Holy Roman Emperor…

What we don’t get? Well… to begin with, we don’t really get the rise of the Spanish Empire as advertised in the subtitle. The conquest of Mexico and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world are dismissed in a few dozen pages at the end, and we never get to the Incas at all. Among others.

What a wasted opportunity.

Captain Michales

Freedom and Death by Nikos Kazantzakis: A Book Review

Captain Michales is a wild man. His own family calls him the Wild Boar; and when he invites his companions to one of his drinking bouts – which often last for days – not only they dare not to say no, they dare not to stop drinking either, not even if it makes them miserably sick.

Even so, Captain Michales is no wilder than his country, Crete.

The cover of the 2nd Greek edition in 1955 illustrates the spirit of Captain Michales and the book perfectly [Image via Wikipedia}
Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel, Freedom and Death, is set at the end of 19th century when Crete was still a – reluctant – part of the Ottoman Empire. The island saw  a series of rebellions against Turkish rule throughout the 19th century before eventually it became independent and finally united with Greece in the 20th.

Kazantzakis himself was born in Megalokastro (today’s Heraklion) in 1883 and in his autobiographical book, Report to Greco, he hinted that the figure of Captain Michales was inspired by his own father: in the novel he’s describing the world that he grew up in.

A harsh and chaotic world.

Relations between the two groups of inhabitants of the island, the Greeks and Turks, are turbulent to say the least: ethnically motivated murder is a daily occurrence, family vendettas drag out for decades and law is practically non-existent. This forms the background of the novel, which is a story of friendship, jealousy, murder and vengeance, embedded in the larger story of the fight for Cretan independence.

The hero, Captain Michales, is a larger than life figure from the town of Megalokastro. The other chief characters are his Turkish blood brother and at the same time enemy, Nuri Bey; Nuri’s wife Eminé, who strikes passion in more than one man’s heart; Captain Michalis’s extended family, his rivals, his friends and neighbours in Megalokastro; not to mention the Pacha in charge of the island and the spiritual leader of the Christians, the Metropolitan.

In addition to the actual plot line, the novel is like a caleidoscope of colour about life in Megalokastro in that particular moment, strongly emanating the atmosphere of the time and place – for Kazantzakis writing it must have been like reliving his childhood.

It is a memorable book, but brutal: brutal like the hero, and brutal like the times and the country in which he lived. Not for the faint hearted.

Captain Michales stretched out his hand and raised the severed head by the hair like a banner. A wild light haloed his face, which was filled with an inhuman joy. Was it pride, god-like defiance, or contempt of death? Or limitless love for Crete? Captain Michales roared:

“Freedom or…”

Death.

El catolicismo explicado a las ovejas (Catholicism Explained to the Sheep)

O, una reseña irregular de un libro que todavía no he leído

Y lo que, además, no han traducido al inglés, así que la mayoría de los lectores de este blog no podrían leer. Hoy, vosotros los hispanohablantes tenéis la ventaja. 🙂

Or an Irregular Book Review about a Book I Haven’t Yet Read

And which is not translated into English anyway so most of you will be unable to read it!

El título: El catolicismo explicado a las ovejas

Pues, el título es alucinante, ¿no?

Todavía no lo sé si el autor es católico o no; o si es católico, que parece probable, si es de hecho un creyente o no. (Ya que ser católico y ser creyente son dos cosas muy distintas.) De todos modos, lo de las ovejas se puede interpretar en dos maneras:

  • la religiosa: Jesús es el Buen Pastor y sus cristianos son las ovejas – como es bien conocido
  • la agrícola: las ovejas son famosos por ser animales estúpidas (también tímidas, pero eso nos importa un pepino aquí)

Total que es un título entretenido que me gusta mucho. (Y también lo gustaba a mi hermanita quien me regaló el libro para mi cumpleaños.)

Si eres un autor no publicado, toma nota: un buen título ayuda mucho en vender tu libro.

The Title: Catholicism Explained to the Sheep

Well, it’s a fantastic title, don’t you agree?

At the moment I still don’t know whether the author is Catholic or not; or if he’s Catholic, which seems probable, whether he is a believer or not. (Since the two is no way the same.) At any rate, the titular sheep can be interpreted in two ways:

  • the religious: Jesus is the Good Shepherd and the Christians are the sheep – as is well known
  • the agricultural: sheep are famous for being stupid (and for being shy as well but we don’t give a toss about that here)

In summary, it’s an entertaining title, and I like it a lot. (So did my sister who gave me the book for my birthday.) 

If you're an unpublished author, take note: a good title goes a long way to sell your book.

El autor: Juan Eslava Galán

Juan Eslava Galán es un autor español, que escribe sobre la historia – ficción y no ficción. El catolicismo explicado a las ovejas no es el primer libro de Juan Eslava Galán que tengo. He leído cuatro y intento leer más, empezando, por supuesto, con El catolicismo… 🙂

Juan Eslava Galán (1948-)

The Author: Juan Eslava Galán

Juan Eslava Galán is a Spanish author of historical books – fiction and non-fiction. Catolicism Explained to the Sheep is not Juan Eslava Galán’s first book that I’ve got. I’ve read four so far, and mean to read more, starting, obviously, with the Catolicism… 🙂

La propaganda en la contraportada

Que dice:

Un libro valiente que responde a muchas cuestiones que atormentan hoy el alma del creyente:

¿Es Dios psicópata? ¿Por qué aconseja el robo y el asesinato?

¿Por qué instaló a los judíos, su Pueblo Elegido, en la única parcela de Oriente donde no hay petróleo?

¿Por qué el Ángel de la Guarda anota en su Libro Mayor los orgasmos de cada católico?

¿Por qué el Espíritu Santo es una paloma en lugar de un ornitorrinco, como sería más lógico?

¿Era puta la Magdalena o todo se debe a una confusión?…

Pues yo no soy una creyente, pero si quiero las respuestas… 🙂

The Blurb

Which says:

A brave book which answers many of the questions that torment the soul of today’s believers:

Is God a psychopath? Why does He advise robbery and murder?

Why did He settle the Jews, his Chosen People, in the only corner of the Middle East without oil?

Why does the Guardian Angel note down in his big book the orgasms of the Catholics?

Why is the Holy Spirit a dove instead of a duck-billed platypus, which would be more logical?

Was Mary Magdalene a whore or is this just a misunderstanding?…

Well, I’m not a believer, but I would like to know the answers! 🙂

A Short History of Sicily

I know we’ve already been to Sicily recently (the lockdown has a lot to answer for)…

…but that was with a 19th century female traveller, Frances Elliot, whose romantic flights of fancy are quite different from what I’m proposing today. 🙂

I don’t remember when exactly I got John Julius Norwich’s book, Sicily: A Short History from the Ancient Greeks to the Cosa Nostra, but I had it on the mantelpiece (where I keep the books I haven’t got round to reading yet) for at least a couple of years. All this extra time in lockdown finally gave me the chance to read it…

Continue reading “A Short History of Sicily”

Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa

It’s a dark and stormy night… no, actually, it’s just a dark and miserably wet January afternoon. It’s that time of the year when hardly anybody can be bothered to get off the sofa; the new year’s resolution crowd has already disappeared from the gym. The same is true for our children, who are far too addicted to their electronic gadgets anyway and would do well to spend more time outdoors.

So perhaps this a good time to offer them a good book in exchange for those gadgets; and why not make it a book that will encourage them out of doors? By the time they finish reading, spring will be just round the corner.

Continue reading “Nine Books to Get Your Kids Off the Sofa”

Thirty Pieces of Silver

14 Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests,
15 And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver.

(Matthew 26:14-15, King James Bible)

In case anybody is any doubt, this is not a religious blog and those who seek salvation, better seek elsewhere. Instead, here we are concerned with the famous story of Judas selling Jesus to the Jewish high priests for the now proverbial thirty pieces of silver; or to be precise, with the actual thirty pieces of silver.

Thirty coins.

And their legend, as told by Brother Felix Fabri in his diary of his pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Continue reading “Thirty Pieces of Silver”

Six Mouse Clicks

The most boring type of blog post?

A book review.

They all follow the same predictable pattern – understandably. After all, a reader will rightfully expect information about the plot, the characters and the style of writing, with some tidbits about the author. The result, as with any genre writing, is a complete lack of creativity.

That is why, although Waterblogged is ostensibly a book blog, I was never really in the business of writing book reviews. Nevertheless, over the past three years I found myself writing a handful. There are books that are so good that you can’t help recommending them to others.

(There was, of course, an exception. You’ll find it here.)

Six reviews; six mouse clicks.  Six books you will want to read.

Fiction – English-Speaking Countries:

The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Fiction – Spanish-Speaking Countries:

Death in the Andes

Fiction – Rest of the World:

Moscow Stations

History:

City of Fortune

Biography:

The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain

Autobiography:

The Bible in Spain

Throwback Thursday:
Revisiting the early days of Waterblogged

Pretentious Beginnings

It’s hard to believe – especially given how small the readership is – but the blog is actually turning 3 years old this month. This prompted me to look back on the early days and I have to admit: I was the typical swaggering, pretentious, self-important blogger who thinks that her opinion matters.

Er… nothing changed there then.

Continue reading “Pretentious Beginnings”

El Samurai

Read this in English: The Samurai

…y el sacerdote

Porque El samurai, esta novela por el autor japonés, Shusaku Endo, tiene de hecho dos protagonistas, aunque el título sólo menciona uno. Dos personajes principales en paralelo: unidos en el propósito pero, al mismo tiempo, con un marcado contraste entre los dos.

El propósito que une el samurai Rokuemon Hasekura y el padre Velasco es negociar privilegios comerciales con Nueva España para los japoneses a cambio de que los misioneros europeos puedan predicar al cristianismo en Japón. Lo que los separa es… pues todo los demás, empezando con sus razones para participar en la embajada. El año es 1613, y el caudillo Tokugawa Ieyasu acabó unificar Japón bajo su propio mando.

¿Y la recompensa para los dos protagonistas después de un viaje arduo cruzando dos océanos? El samurai espera que recobre sus tierras solariegas; el sacerdote sueña de hacerse el primer obispo de Japón. Pero sus Señorías sólo les conceden sus deseos si consiguen la misión …  ¿pueden hacerlo?

Continue reading “El Samurai”

Six Books, Six Continents

Africa

Red Strangers by Elspeth Huxley

Africa has a lot going for it as a continent – like elephants – but somehow it doesn’t often feature among my readings. (That could be because I don’t keep re-reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.)

I read Red Strangers for a reading challenge a couple of years ago and boy, was it a challenge!… But the last paragraph made up for it all.

⇒ A Girl Called Aeroplane

(Do let me know what you think of it!)

Continue reading “Six Books, Six Continents”

The Samurai

…and the Priest

Because The Samurai, this novel by Japanese author Shusaku Endo, has two protagonists for all that only one of them is mentioned in the title. Two main characters in parallel, united in purpose – yet in contrast to each other.

The purpose that unites them is gaining an agreement for the establishment of direct trade between Japan and Nueva España, New Spain, in exchange for Japan allowing Christian misssionaries to proselytise in the country. What separates them is… everything else, beginning with their reasons for setting out on the embassy. The year is 1613, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu has recently managed to unify Japan under his own rule.

The samurai, Rokuemon Hasekura, hopes to get his ancestral lands back; the priest, Father Velasco, dreams of becoming the Bishop of Japan. Their desires will only be granted if their mission is successful…  can they carry it off?

Continue reading “The Samurai”

Matar a Leonardo da Vinci (To Kill Leonardo da Vinci)

Visité Florencia, esta ciudad del arte renacentista, por unos días la semana pasada – un viaje organizado en la última hora, se puede decir. Viajé acompañado por un libro que, muy adecuadamente, lleva un retrato de la ciudad en la tapa: Matar a Leonardo da Vinci por el autor español, Christian Gálvez.

I visited Florence, this city of Renaissance art, for a few days last week – a last minute trip. Travelled in the company of a book which, very appropriately, carries a drawing of the city on the cover: Matar a Leonardo da Vinci (To Kill Leonardo da Vinci) by the Spanish author Christian Gálvez.

View of Florence from the Piazzale Michelangelo

A word of warning here for English readers: this book review is going to benefit you little since it deals with a book which, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't been translated into English yet - and frankly, no loss if it never will be. With that caveat, please feel free to continue reading. :) (At least you'll know to avoid it if it ever comes out in English!)

Continue reading “Matar a Leonardo da Vinci (To Kill Leonardo da Vinci)”

Submarine!

Visits to Chatham Historic Dockyard, home among others to the diesel-electric submarine HMS Ocelot, and to the Royal Navy Museum in Portsmouth, home to HMS Alliance, a submarine built at the end of World War II, means I’ve got some photos of the outside and inside of the submarines to share. (Click on the gallery to enlarge photos.)

This being primarily a book blog, the photos are accompanied by a book list – half a dozen books set on submarines. Not a definite list, by any means; I have heard of several others well spoken off (but I haven’t got round to reading them yet). If you’d like to recommend a book on submarines that you enjoyed, please leave a comment below.

Continue reading “Submarine!”

Seven Snowy Stories

The winter’s first – and in these parts possibly only – snowfall put me in mind of books in which winter features prominently. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the ones that came to mind immediately were children’s stories. So here are seven snowy stories to surprise your children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren, your best friend’s horrible brat…) with. Perhaps for Christmas? 🙂

Continue reading “Seven Snowy Stories”

Roads to Santiago

Images of Spain.

But not in the form of the sickeningly familiar, glossy pictures of crowded beaches on the Mediterranean coast with their ugly hotel developments serving as backdrop, nor those of flamenco and bull-fights, nor yet the image that we receive through the daily news of RTE of a corrupt political and business élite, the pollution over Madrid or the meaningless posturing over the status of Gibraltar or Catalonian independence.

The images of Spain presented to us by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom in his book Roads to Santiago go far deeper than the stereotypes that we are all familiar with. He searches for – and finds – a different Spain: one that is more ancient, more elemental, more real, if you will. A Spain that would take a lifetime of living there to get to know, even just a little.

The old town of Cáceres

As you can guess, Roads to Santiago is not a guide book, although you could do much worse than follow in the author’s footsteps.

Continue reading “Roads to Santiago”

A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)

The other day, in the course of an argument, somebody called me a person with a small brain.

Even while I took offence, I recalled a line from my childhood bible, Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne:

“For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain and long words Bother me.”

(Winnie-The-Pooh)

I’m all with the Bear of Very Little Brain on this one: long words bother me too. Especially when used by people who don’t know what they mean.

Continue reading “A Bear of Very Little Brain (The World According to Pooh)”