The OF Blog: Javier Negrete, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Javier Negrete, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma

- Ese cabrón tiene que morir.

- No hables así de él. Es Alejandro.

- Es mi esposo. Y tú eres su general y su amigo y te acabas de acostar conmigo. Otra vez.

( "That bastard must die."

"Don't speak so of him. He is Alexander."

"He is my husband. And you are his general and his friend and you just slept with me. Another time.")
So begins Javier Negrete's alt-history, Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma (Alexander the Great and the Eagles of Rome). It opens with the mysterious events in Babylon in the year 323 BCE that led to Alexander's death at the age of 32. Negrete posits that instead of contracting a fatal illness, that one of Alexander's wives, Roxana, the daughter of the former Satrap of Bactria, persuaded Perdiccas, cavalry commander of the King's Companions, to help her poison Alexander. But instead of dying, the ill Alexander is saved at the last moment by the near-miraculous appearance of a physician sent by the Delphi oracle, Néstor.

The tricky part about alt-histories is determining just how credible the alt-history (or ucronía in Spanish) is in relation to the events that actually unfolded. In the brief chapter that follows Néstor's intervention, Negrete utilizes a fragment of the official diary of Alexander kept by his secretary, Eumenes of Cardia, to tell briefly what happened in the immediate aftermath of Alexander's recovery from the attempted poisoning. Stretching from 323 BCE to 317 BCE, this journal briefly notes Alexander's division of his army, with one half sent to conquer the Arabian peninsula, while he himself returned to Macedonia in 322 BCE after a twelve year absence to quell an incipient rebellion begun by Antipater:

12 de dío:

«Después de más de once años, el rey ha vuelto a Macedonia. Las noticias de las sospechas de Alejandro han llegado a Antípatro. Él y Casandro han huido a Tesalia con un ejército.»

24 de dío:

«Batalla en Larisa. El ala izquierda de Antípatro se pasa al bando de Alejandro durante el combate. Antípatro se arroja sobre su espada antes de ser capturado. Casandro es apresado.»

25 de dío:

«Casandro es interrogado. Se declara inocente. Muere durante el interrogatorio.»

(October 12:

After more than eleven years, the king has returned to Macedonia. News of Alexander's suspicions [regarding Antipater's ambitions to seize power for himself] have reached Antipater. He and Cassander have fled to Thessaly with an army.

October 24:

Battle in Larisa. Antipater's left wing goes over to Alexander's side during combat. Antipater falls on his sword before being captured. Cassander is seized.

October 25:

Cassander is interrogated. He declares his innocence. He dies during the interrogation.)
Negrete uses this and PoVs from some of Alexander's generals, such as Craterus, as well as completely fictional characters such as Néstor and the Roman tribune Gaius Julius Caesar to tell an intricate story that extrapolates from the real-life Alexander's stated future conquest plans in order to create a vivid and very believable account of what might have transpired had Alexander lived and had turned his armies toward the western Mediterranean. Negrete, himself a former Professor of Greek at the Instituto de Educación Secundaria Gabriel y Galán de Plasencia in Spain, has researched the time period and the social and political conditions very assidiously. He bases his imagined conflict between the Macedonians and the Romans on events that did indeed transpire a generation later in the regions of Calabria and Sicily in southern Italy.

Rome, having just consolidated its power in central, Latin-speaking Italy, has begun to move to assert its dominance over the Greek colonies in Syracuse, Neapolis (Naples), and other parts of southern Italy. These colonies appealed to Alexander for intervention and in 317 BCE, he begins to move his forces into the region. The story the devotes the middle 300 pages of this 526 page novel toward developing the interactions between Alexander and his supporters in the region, as well as between Néstor, Gaius Julius Caesar, and a certain acquaintance Néstor has made. In addition, there is an ominus discovery by the Greek astronomer Euctemon - that the comet Icarus, full of ominous portents, was heading directly towards Earth/Gaea and might strike it.

For the most part, Negrete moves adroitly between these three main subplots. He has a vivid, direct style (of which my translated passages above give only the barest hint) and his characterizations of Alexander, Néstor, Euctemon, and Caesar are well-done, as each is shown in various reflective or emotional states that feel "real," even though some of these characters have no true basis in late fourth century BCE history. Negrete does not rush to the conclusion, but instead develops the scenes set in southern Italy and Rome until they and not the forthcoming, portent-filled battle are the true focus of the novel. In fact, the battle itself comprises only a single chapter and it serves to set the stage for a cliffhanger that ends this novel.

Alejandro Magno y las águilas de Roma won the Premio Ignotus award for Best Novel in September 2008 and based on Negrete's economical use of dialogue and his introspective looks into what would motivate ambitious people such as Alexander and Caesar to strive to attain their dreams, I found myself thinking that this probably was a very worthy winner. If this book were available in English translation, I suspect it would be very popular with ancient history fans, especially those who are interested in more than idle speculation over whether Macedonian phalanxes could overcome the Roman legions. Negrete tells an exciting story, but one that feels "authentic" in its characterizations, its setting, and in how certain events are portrayed and interpreted by the characters. I eagerly await the second half of this story.

Publication Date: May 2007 (Spain). Hardcover.

Publisher: Minotauro.

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