Cut Stones and Crossroads: A Journey in the Two Worlds of Peru, by Ronald Wright. New York: The Viking Press. 234 pp. $20.
In 1525, the king of the Inca, his son, and at least a third of the Inca people died in a plague originating in the north, where Spaniards had just made contact with America. It was an inkling of things to come. Seven years later Pizarro returned and captured the heir of the Inca, who died a year later. The Colonial Period had begun.
The two worlds of Ronald Wright's title are roughly Spanish and Indian. The indigenous Peruvian civilization is as old as biblical or Greek civilization; what remains today is among the concerns of this eloquent, disturbing book. Those remains: ruins in the form of magnificent walls of stone, and a people poor and demoralized. Unlike the Spanish churches that sometimes lean on them, these walls have survived the earthquakes that occasionally settle things down in Peru. Wright explains that the walls are composed of neatly fitted irregular stones: The irregularity is the key to their longlastingness.
Wright is a gringo - a Canadian archaeologist - admirably aware that he, like Pizarro before him, is an invader. Informed by deep knowledge and a deeper love for the Inca, his book, like the walls themselves, is made up of irregularly sized segments detailing responses to his trip through the Tawantinsuyu, or Ancient Inca Empire.
His book is nearly as fascinating as the walls of his beloved Cuzco (''my Mecca,'' he shouts upon arrival). The fascination is rooted in his awareness of his own love and of the fact that this love, however true, does not make him more than a tourist. ''All of us,'' he writes, ''are poaching on a dying civilization to still the hunger of our own.''
Wright observes the contemporary malaise as well as ancient remains. His book is a sad one. He tells, among others, the story of Jose Maria Arguedas, a distinguished novelist and anthropologist, who died by his own hand in Lima in 1969.
Many years before, when his mother died, the three-year-old Jose was left in the care of an Indian woman, whom he loved as his mother. When, three years later, his father remarried and sent for him, he had become a Runa, or Peruvian Indian, inside. He did not belong in the new family, and they made him eat in the kitchen with the servants. Eventually his scholarship and novels would accurately portray the division within as it is reflected in his culture.
''His Mamita (Indian nurse) had given him the sensitivity of the Runa but not the defenses. He had been too young to put on that insulating mask which the non-Indian sees as sullenness or stupidity. ... Like a Runa, he loved the nonhuman world and talked to animals as if they were people (something hispanic Peruvians generally do not): but the sound of dogs barking in the street could send him into a nervous state, unable to write.''
The book is a sad one, but there are intermittent moments of glory. They come when Wright discusses the wonders of the polygonal masonry and at other times. He loves big birds: The segment on his climb to the Inca quarries of Kachi Q'ata closes with this:
''I have lunch at the very top, immediately below the mountain cusp whose peeling vertical strata provided the Incas with their megaliths. A condor appears above me, closer than I have ever seen. (Is he warning me off or have his keen senses taken my corned beef for carrion?) I can see the bald head and Elizabethan ruff, and when he banks the sun flashes on the white feathers on his back as if on an airplane's fuselage. Then he catches an updraft and is gone over the peak, without a flap.''
The overall spirit of ''Cut Stones and Crossroads'' is Virgilian, and the note struck and sustained is lacrimae rerum (the tears of things). True, the book is a marvelous mixture of science and color reporting, antiquities and contemporary politics. It has a midsection of photographs (Wright's skill as a writer makes photographs a luxury, but they're nice to have). It has a helpful chronology, a glossary, and a bibliography. And on occasion the tone of the book is concentrated effectively by snatches of song from the ancient traditions.
But in the end it is the stones that matter. They bear mute witness to history at its unhappiest. No amount of learning (and one learns much reading this entertaining travel book) quite cancels the overwhelming sadness of what has, in fact, taken place. In the end it is the stones that weep.