Friday, October 23, 2015

The Last of the Incas by Gustave Aimard

The pallid perils of Patagonia
Gustave Aimard was a 19th-century French writer of adventure novels. During his eventful life, he made more than one trip to America and claimed that he had been adopted by a tribe of Comanches. Most of his 43 novels take place in North or South America and often prominently feature Native American characters and culture. The Last of the Incas was originally published in 1864 under the French title of L’Araucan. It is also known by the title of Le fils du Soleil. Since recently becoming aware of Aimard’s existence I have been looking forward to reading one of his books. As a fan of vintage adventure fiction, I’m always on the lookout for some undiscovered Jules Verne or Alexandre Dumas. Unfortunately, despite my high hopes, or maybe because of them, The Last of the Incas turned out to be a big disappointment.

The story takes place in Patagonian Argentina, in and around a coastal town called Carmen, the site of a Spanish colonial fortress. In the opening chapter we are introduced to a band of bomberos. These are rugged fighting men whose job it is to roam the surrounding pampas and scout the movements of the local indigenous population. These bomberos become aware of a plot by the Indians to launch an organized attack on the Spanish settlement. The leader of the Indians is a chief called Nocobotha, “the grand Toqui of the Aucas,” who is rumored to be the last surviving descendant of the Inca empire. Nefarious and cunning, he unites the local tribes in his scheme to overthrow the white government that has occupied his people’s lands. He will stop at nothing to destroy those who stand in his way. What follows is a complex and convoluted tale of warfare, espionage, and romance.

I enjoyed The Last of the Incas at first. When Aimard introduces the reader to the South American setting and its peoples, the writing is reminiscent of the works of James Fenimore Cooper. As the story proceeds, however, it devolves into something more equivalent to the popular adventure of an old movie serial, with what feels like an endless cycle of capture and escape. Though the subject matter of the book should inspire thrills, the dull, wooden prose deadens any potential suspense. When each chapter ends with its cliffhanger moment, instead of feeling eager to read on I was left wondering if I even wanted to continue. The book features an ensemble cast of characters who are all basically indistinguishable from each other except for name, race, and social class. The Natives are all evil, the Spaniards are all noble, and the peasants and gauchos are all earnest, benevolent, and subservient. With names like Pedrito, Panchito, Patito, and Pepe it’s hard to tell everyone apart, and the Spanish Dons are practically interchangeable. All are devoid of personality and speak with the same voice. The characters keep running back and forth between the town of Carmen and a fortified country estate. Most of the time I couldn’t keep track of where they were or what they were all doing. It felt like the same scenes and conversations kept repeating themselves, and even the climactic ending felt flat.

It turns out I liked the idea of Aimard—the French writer of Native American pulp fiction—much more than I like his actual writing. I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, however, and will probably try another of his books at some point, but not soon. Hopefully The Last of the Incas is not indicative of his oeuvre, and somewhere among his 43 novels hides a long-lost adventure classic.
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