- The Jesuit and the Incas: The Extraordinary Life of Padre Blas Valera, S. J.
The Jesuit and the Incas is a thoroughly engaging book that contributes to our ever-deepening understanding of the New World and the intricacies of its colonial relationship with Spain and its institutions. The sixteenth-century Peruvian Jesuit Blas Valera was the illegitimate mestizo son of an Incan mother and a very powerful Spanish encomendero. His controversial life and its legacy forms the basis of Sabine Hyland's informative and carefully written study, which boldly conveys the significance of this daring theologian, whom Hyland, with some justification, presents as the "Las Casas of the Andes."
It would be hard to invent a plot as compelling as Valera's biography and the academic controversy over the events of his that has ensued since the discovery of the so-called "Naples documents" in 1997. As an advocate of the Incan religion, language, and culture (which he viewed as the equals of Christianity, Spanish, and Spain's culture), Valera incurred the wrath of his superiors in the Society of Jesus, a position which led to his incarceration for fourteen years, six of which he spent [End Page 640] in an underground prison cell belonging to the Jesuits in Lima. As part of his punishment, he was exiled to Spain, and died an untimely death at the hands of English pirates in 1597 — or so it was thought until the recent archival discovery of the Naples documents.
The discovery made by Laura Laurenchic Minelli of a seventeenth-century manuscript has made Valera the focus of passionate debate and even greater significance than previously granted to him as a Spanish cleric in the Andes. The most amazing claims made by this document are that Valera did not, in fact, die, murdered by pirates, but rather that his death was "faked" by Jesuits wishing to protect him. According to this narrative, he returned to Peru to continue his mission, while engaged in two extraordinary intellectual pursuits. The first is his alleged authoring of the Nueva corónica y buen gobierno that is always attributed to Guamán Poma de Ayala. The second is that Valera knew the Incas had developed a secret phonetic quipu to preserve their history. Moreover, that several of these quipu were sent to Garcilaso de la Vega but he misrepresented their existence in the Comentarios reales. If true, our understanding of the quipu as medium of communication — not simply computational, but also potentially narrative in nature — becomes radically enriched.
In addition, these seventeenth-century revelations include an affirmation of Valera's incarceration not by the Inquisition as the result of an affair with a woman, but instead by the Jesuits themselves for his beliefs, which they deemed to be heretical. The feigned death and return to his Peruvian mission, if true, illustrates the intensity of the Society's disapproval of Valera. Indeed, when the order in Peru voted in 1582 never again to allow mestizos to become Jesuits, some of its members claimed that this new rule was clearly needed to avoid the kind of danger that he exemplified.
Professor Hyland presents her material clearly, organizing it into ten well-conceived chapters that seek to understand Valera and the controversy surrounding him by means of his mestizo identity, his mission, his writings, Andean ethnography and history, his appreciation of Quechua and the comparisons he draws with other South American languages and with Latin and Hebrew, a detailed description of the Naples documents and their implications, a suggestive and thought-provoking solution to the mystery, and its implications for Valera and our understanding of his importance.
There are those who consider the manuscript to be a modern hoax perpetrated by Italian scholars: indeed, among this group some assume that Umberto Eco had a hand in the deception. And, while this is an intriguing hypothesis, in keeping with...