The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry (Ballantine Books; 448 pages; $27).
“In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” The simplicity of this rhyme belies the true nature of a man and a myth. You think you know Christopher Columbus, but you know so little of the story. Even after 520 years, much about him remains a mystery. And that makes him good literary cannon fodder for Steve Berry.
Novelist Berry is best known for his books featuring the heroic protagonist Cotton Malone. Whatever the assignment, Cotton is the man and saves the day in many of Berry’s novels, such as The Templar Legacy, The Alexandria Link, The Charlemagne Pursuit, and The Jefferson Key. As you can see, Berry’s thrillers all have ties to European or American history.
The Columbus Affair is a standalone novel. Unfortunately, Cotton Malone does not grace these pages. This reader missed him. One “old” character Berry does employ is the head of the Magellan Billet, Stephanie Nelle. From the beginning, then, Berry gives us something different: new characters. But his penchant for playing with history remains.
Berry has fun with this novel. Columbus is a man with whom he can play and even mold to his own needs. I believe Berry chose Christopher Columbus as a topic simply because he is an enigmatic and controversial figure.
When I have the pleasure of teaching American history, I ask my students to write an essay in which they argue if Columbus was a hero or a villain. Responses run the gamut. Some point out that, while the Americas were already inhabited by Natives, he was the first European to set foot in America. Others say his valor, if nothing else, should be celebrated. After all, he sailed into the virtual unknown and deserves respect for that alone. A few argue that this land on which we live would be very different had he not embarked on his four voyages. More often than not, many others consider him one of history’s villains. He paved the way for more European exploration and colonization, which ultimately led to the enslavement of Indians and Africans and the decimation of whole tribes from “virgin-soil epidemics.” Everyone has an opinion about Columbus. Love him or hate him; few are in between.
Berry’s Columbus is a dark, unknowable figure. He is a keeper of secrets, a teller of lies, and a man with a hidden agenda. Columbus says, “The English and Dutch call me Columbus. The French, Columb. The Portuguese, Colom. Spaniards know me as Colón. But none of those is my birth name. Unfortunately, you will never know my true name….” According to Berry, Columbus’s true name was Christoval Arnoldo de Ysassi; that makes him Jewish. The Columbus we know was said to have been born in Genoa, Italy, and thus Italian–definitely not Jewish. Berry also describes the inconsistencies over his birthdate. Columbus himself gave different years: 1447 and 1453. “The best guess is…1451.” The day Columbus and his crew set sail on his first voyage also happened to be the morning after Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. Coincidence? Berry thinks so. Especially given the fact that Columbus had a Hebrew translator on board and not one Catholic priest. Interesting? Very. Perhaps more so when you discover that little tidbit is historically accurate.
Berry will make you question everything you thought you knew about Columbus. I mean everything. From his birthplace to his birthdate to who financed his first voyage to his religion to his first language to his reason for sailing. I urge you to not take anything Berry writes at face value. Research Columbus for yourself. Keep in mind this is fiction, and Berry writes with purpose. He employs literary license in his story, and that is what makes The Columbus Affair so darn intriguing–not that it happened exactly as Berry writes but that it could have happened.
I could go on and on about the plot, but I do not want to spoil all the surprises (some shocking ones too!). I will say that Berry weaves together historical and religious myths in this story. I thought some were implausible and even downright wild at times, but the book is highly readable and compelling. I dare you to stop reading this book. You may gasp, you may emit a “ha!” but you will continue. You are too engaged in this story to stop. It really is the Columbus angle, more than any other element, that drives this story.
Berry takes all the mysteries surrounding Columbus and runs with them. In the middle of all this, he tries to create characters, plot, and a setting, but really Columbus’s shadow looms over the entire book. He is center stage while they are merely bit players, no matter how much Berry tries to make them stand out. None of them are Cotton Malone. None of them match Columbus’s mystery and magnetism.
In fact, Berry’s characters are too archetypical. Zachariah Simon, the antagonist, is a villain with an ancient cause. Tom Sagan is the story’s protagonist, once a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist wrongly accused of fabricating a story. Alle Becket is Tom’s wayward daughter who, at the end of the book, returns to the fold. Then, there is Béne, the Jamaican Maroon, who can be a hero or a villain depending on one’s lens. From the beginning, I could see where these characters would go and how they would react. My initial guesses were correct. I only wish Berry had thrown some curve balls where they were concerned.
In The Columbus Affair, Berry is too preoccupied by Columbus. He is too busy carving out an elaborate, unbelievable story that his other characters suffer in the process. Then again, the title is all about Columbus. He is the star of this show. How I miss Cotton Malone. Berry seems to know Malone intimately, as well he should. Wonder when the next Cotton Malone will come out…