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The Indies Enterprise


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About the Author

E rik Orsenna has written seven novels and been awarded the Roger Nimier and Goncourt prizes. He was elected to the French Academy in 1998 and occupies Jacques-Yves Cousteau's seat. Haus Publishing also published Orsenna's Portrait of the Gulf Stream in its Armchair Traveller series.


If you haven't read The Indies Enterprise yet, you really should read this fascinating book by Erik Orsenna, beautifully translated into English by Anthea Bell. In 1511, Bartholomew Columbus, now an old man on the island of Hispaniola, recounts to the monk Las Casas the story of his brother, Christopher and his quest to find the Indies by travelling West. However, it isn't the story of the voyage that interests Bartholomew but its origins, the long years of preparations that preceded it and its cruel consequences: "Seaports are not the only point of departure for ships, (...) it may be a dream that sends them out to sea, (...) Being his brother, I saw his idea born and his fevered obsession with it grow. (...) Perhaps the seed of our future cruelty had already been sown in his feverish desire for knowledge?" So, the first two parts of the book take place in Lisbon, a port teeming with activity and dominated by a thirst for knowledge of the world, unparalleled anywhere in Europe. The stories told by the explorers who return are riddled with myths, monsters, magic and divine intervention, but each one helps to build up the storehouse of knowledge. A scientific mindset starts to emerge and the explorers discover the usefulness of mathematics, at the same time as ignorance fights its last battles. Christopher Columbus lands in Lisbon in 1476 and meets up with his brother, who is working as a cartographer there. From then onwards, under the sway of this ferociously energetic and unwaveringly focused brother, Bartholomew will work ceaselessly to prepare for the voyage to the Indies. The Portuguese monarchy refuses to give its support to this mad enterprise, so it is under the Spanish flag that Christopher Columbus's three vessels set sail on August 3rd 1492. But the last part of the book takes a sudden, darker turn. Finally repentant, Bartholomew, who had been Governor of Hispaniola, recognises the cruelty of the white men and the atrocities committed by them against the native Indians. And his account finishes with a searing question to his now dead brother: why has this magnificent thirst for discovery ended in so much destruction? Original review in L'Echo, the French language magazine for families living in London, 2011, December/January edition, in French, by Caroline Imbert, translated into English by Jane Wharam -- Caroline Imbert 20111201 'Orsenna is a troubadour...His chronicle is erudite, lyrical, flamboyant and desperate.' 20111115 Orsenna pens a luscious tale on brotherly love, on man's insatiable curiosity and his innate cruelty and Orsenna writes on the edge of an abyss, between sadness that paralyses and life that has to go on. 20111115 '...a near seamless blend of travel, science and literary reportage, a peerless portrait of a force of nature 20111115 you are never very far away from a stylish thought' 20111115 One of Orsenna's most beautiful books 20111115 'Orsenna keeps a powerful litany of Inquisition-era cruelties in reserve for the finale...' 20120909

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