From award-winning writer Edward Wilson-Lee, this is a thrilling true historical detective story set in sixteenth-century Portugal. A History of Water follows the interconnected lives of two men across the Renaissance globe. One of them, an aficionado of mermen and Ethiopian culture, an art collector, historian and expert on water-music, returns home from witnessing the birth of the modern age to die in a mysterious incident, apparently the victim of a grisly and curious murder. The other, a ruffian, vagabond and braggart, chased across the globe from Mozambique to Japan, ends up as the national poet of Portugal. The stories of Damiao de Gois and Luis de Camoes capture the extraordinary wonders that awaited Europeans on their arrival in India and China, the challenges these marvels presented to longstanding beliefs, and the vast conspiracy to silence the questions these posed about the nature of history and of human life. Like all good mysteries, everyone has their own version of events.
Damião had a high-profile career as a trade envoy in the Low Countries and the Baltic before
Wilson-Lee sees Damião's Chronicle as a kind of last-ditch attempt by humanism to present a view of the world in which Western European Christianity is merely one of many cultural traditions, with much to learn from the advanced cultures of places like India and China, and he contrasts it to the assertive, Eurocentric and imperialist neoclassical view projected by Camões in The Lusiads.
It's a cleverly-written book, that manages to turn a fairly abstract literary and historical debate into something very like a murder mystery, full of entertaining glimpses at Camões's experiences in the Lisbon underworld and at the sharp end of colonialism, mirrored by Damião's semi-clandestine encounters with forbidden knowledge (among the things that got him into trouble were his passions for the polyphony of Josquin and the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch...). Necessarily there's a little bit of oversimplification along the way, but it's an interesting glimpse into a period when it wasn't entirely obvious that Europe would be forcibly split between Catholics and Protestants or that Europeans would see it as their mission to finance our culture by robbing the rest of the world for the next few centuries.