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Valverde's Gold

( 21 votes, average: 4.9 out of 5)
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Any attorney who has ever reviewed incomplete documents, deposed an unreliable witness, negotiated with a hostile party, or hankered for a genuine adventure will find something to enjoy in Valverde's Gold. This non-fiction book is the story of Englishman Mark Honigsbaum's increasingly desperate attempts to find a missing horde of Inca gold in the Ecuadorian Andes.

Unlike the legendary search for lost cities of gold or the apocryphal fountain of youth, Inca gold was very real. So real, in fact, that Pizarro held the Inca King Atahualpa for ransom after taking him prisoner. The conquistador promised that if the Incas filled a large room with gold to a line he marked on the wall, he would release his royal captive. The Incas followed his instructions to the letter, but Pizarro decided to renege on the deal and murdered Atahualpa, anyway. In his one concession to mercy, he allowed Atahualpa to convert to Christianity so that he could be garroted rather than burnt at the stake.

Needless to say, Atahualpa's retinue were somewhat taken aback by this double-cross. They were now shorn of their king, much of their treasure, and all of their empire. One man in particular, Atahualpa's loyal general Ruminahui, was not prepared to take Pizarro's betrayal lying down. He stopped the portion of the ransom that was still en route and hid it somewhere in the Andes. Ruminahui was later captured and tortured with particular ferocity, but even the Spaniards' most cruel and ingenious torturers could not extract the information on where the remnant gold was hidden. Ruminahui's heroic death wasn't the end of the story - not by a long shot. Pizarro and his cronies were not the only men who wanted, badly, to get their hands on Atahualpa's remaining gold.

Valverde was a Spaniard who married a local woman not long after Pizarro conquered the Incan empire. In a curious twist of our own tale of Pocahontas, Valverde endeared himself to his father-in-law, an Inca noble who apparently knew the location of the hidden gold. This father-in-law showed Valverde where the loot was, and the Spaniard, like any reasonable man in his circumstances, decided to spend a portion of it. But he left a very great deal behind in its secret mountain fastness and on his deathbed he dictated a set of directions to find the treasure to anyone with a masochistic bent and a Gollum-sized appetite for treasure. Posterity does not record Valverde's wife's name. Unlike Pocahontas, she was not considered the real treasure.

As a son-in-law, Valverde may have been worth his weight in gold, but as a mapmaker he left an awful lot to be desired. Were he alive today, the man could put his penchant for mystical ambiguity to use as a fortune-cookie writer, or, in his more lucid moments, as a lyricist for The Doors. Honigsbaum helpfully includes Valverde's derrotero in the Appendix of this book for anyone tempted to chuck their career in and join the mad ranks of treasure hunters.

Mark Honigsbaum is a mild-mannered English journalist and sometime traveler to the Andes. He is less an Indiana Jones than a Peter Parker figure: earnest, bookish, and given to bouts of equivocation. In short, he is not the swashbuckling adventurer of yore, but a real-life writer trying to solve a devilishly difficult mystery. He is well aware of the peculiar perils that this quest presents to any man or woman who embarks upon it. An uncomfortably large number of his predecessors have apparently wound up broke, insane, or prematurely dead.

As a treasure hunter, Honigsbaum brings much of the required equipment and a fair number of the traits one would hope for. He is intelligent, skeptical and driven. What he lacks in brio he makes up for in scholarly meticulousness. While other treasure hunters have drunk themselves to death, waving Valverde's incomprehensible directions in the face of anyone who would listen, and begging for just one more round of funding from gullible backers, Honigsbaum conducts a reasonable, sober campaign to get to the bottom of things.

And that is where he may have come a-cropper as the narrator of this story. Treasure hunters, both fictional and true-to-life, are typically not only driven, they are downright possessed. Their enthusiasm infects you like a contagion, and you burn with a milder grade of the fever that has gripped them. Honigsbaum never really comes across as a man who has lost his marbles. While this may have protected him from personal catastrophe, it also prevents the reader from worrying enough to be absolutely gripped by his tale.

Unwilling to take anything at face value, Honigsbaum spends a great deal of time in archives (in Sevilla, Spain and the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens, London) researching the mysterious Valverde and the bizarre rabble that have tried to follow in his evanescent footsteps. He also interviews a motley assortment of unreliable characters stretching from Ecuador to suburban New Jersey. And, most enjoyably of all, he treks through the Andes in the closing pages of the book.

As a writer - as opposed to a treasure seeker — Honigsbaum has much to commend him. He is able to turn a beautiful phrase, and some of his descriptions border on the poetic. He is also a keen observer of human nature, and his bizarre interactions with various eccentrics make for some fairly memorable encounters. He is extremely well read on treasure literature, and well aware of precedent (both fictional and real).

One of the requirements of this literature, going back to the archetypal grail quest itself, is that only the most pure of heart will find the treasure. Honigsbaum does not come across as a heroic character. For instance, he vacillates between decency and deception. He feels it necessary to lie at various junctures (he is after all frequently lied to), and while he admits it when he does, you cannot quite believe he really deserves to find the gold. Another prerequisite of this type of story, which seems deeply rooted in the human psyche, is that once our narrator embarks on his quest, after a certain point he must leave doubt behind. Honigsbaum never really does, and this, too, does not augur well for his quest. While it may seem paradoxical to point out these quibbles, since this story is anything but fictional, as readers we nevertheless carry certain inchoate expectations into a quest of this kind. Honigsbaum does not meet all of them.

I will not spoil the ending for you. Suffice it to say that if you enjoy treasure quests, if you enjoy reading about Ecuador, or if you simply enjoy good writing, Valverde's Gold is well worth purchasing.

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