Monday, May 3, 2010

Christopher Heaney's "Cradle of Gold"

Christopher Heaney worked as a journalist in Peru on a Fulbright fellowship. He has written articles on Hiram Bingham for The New Republic and the New York Times. A graduate of Yale University, he is currently a doctoral candidate in Latin American History at the University of Texas, Austin.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Cradle of Gold: The Story of Hiram Bingham, a Real-Life Indiana Jones, and the Search for Machu Picchu, and reported the following:
Cradle of Gold is a history with two halves: explorer Hiram Bingham’s search for Vitcos and Vilcabamba – the “lost cities” where the Incas resisted the sixteenth century Spanish conquest – and the ensuing fight between Yale University and Peru over the artifacts of Machu Picchu. I began the project that became Cradle of Gold seven years ago, when I was a senior at Yale, and I realized that Bingham and his expedition’s papers showed how thornily those halves – exploration and possession – were intertwined.

To belabor the flower metaphor, on page 99 the bloom is still on the rose. Chapter Ten, “The White Temple,” finds our tall, handsome and imperious protagonist in the afterglow of his fairytale-like revelation of Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911. Machu Picchu would prove the achievement of Bingham’s life, but it had been a surprise – the last cities of the Incas were supposed to be deeper in the Peruvian jungle. On page 99 Bingham is in fine form, puzzling over what he had seen. Bingham had this boyish enthusiasm for exploration – a quality later smirked at by no less than “Che” Guevara! – and on this page I had fun capturing the pulp adventurer in Bingham, trying to shoehorn beautiful Machu Picchu into the chronicles:
…his “new ruins (the fine ones at Machu Picchu) must be those referred to in the chronicles by the name of Vitcos or Pitcos,” Bingham wrote to his wife. “Pitcos is an easy transition from Pichu or Pitchu. Machu simply means ‘old’ in Quechua.” And Machu Picchu, Bingham explained, fit the chronicles’ description of Vitcos – a palace on a ridge. “It is really most exciting, for Vitcos (or Pitcos) was the actual residence of the last three Incas who lived over here in Vilcabamba after the Spanish Conquest,” Bingham explained. “In fact it was, as you know, with the hope of making this discovery that I came.”
But he hadn’t made the “discovery” – at least not yet. To do so, Bingham needed the help of Peru’s native people, who knew exactly where the Incas had once lived. On the second half of this page, Bingham learns from a “crusty old fellow” named Evaristo Mogrovejo that there were still ruins ahead: Rosaspata and a site named Espiritu Pampa, “which could be evocatively translated as Plain of Ghosts.” Mogrovejo would take Bingham there, but “there was a catch … The region separating Rosaspata and Espiritu Pampa was a no-man’s land, a place where ‘savage’ Indians held sway, Mogrovejo explained.”

So does the page pass Mr. Ford’s test? Almost. One of the sad twists of the next chapter is the revelation that those Indians were hardly “savage” – they had been forced to work for local landowners and were seeking refuge at Espiritu Pampa, which was actually Vilcabamba, like the Incas had three and a half centuries before. And after meeting them, Bingham learns that the Peruvian government had forbidden the exportation of artifacts, complicating his plan to give Yale a world-class collection of Peruvian antiquities. There are hard truths on the horizon, but page 99 finds Bingham happily, blissfully unaware of the fights and moral compromises to come.
Read an excerpt from Cradle of Gold, and learn more about the book and author at Christopher Heaney's website.

--Marshal Zeringue