By James Runcie
New York: Harper Collins, First Perennial Edition, 2002
ISBN # 0-06-095943-6
246 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
Novemberr 2008

Diego de Godoy sails to the “New World” in 1518. His motivation is a strange one, to find a gift for his beloved that will be a gift no one has ever given before. If he succeeds in this task, then and only then will she marry him. Thus begins a very strange journey that runs into the 20th century.

After sailing to Cuba Diego ties up with Hernan Cortez’s invasion of Mexico and the destruction of Mexico City. However, in the process of this horror, Diego falls in love with a Mexican woman. Ignacia is her Spanish name, and she teaches him all about chocolate and the cocoa bean. When Cortez decides to send Diego back to Spain with gold for the emperor, Ignacia gives him a special drink which will give him, if not life eternal, at least life that runs a full four centuries.

This, of course, is a most unlikely hypothesis, and we have to be willing to follow author James Runcie into a most improbably world. But Runcie has Diego tell us that:

“I … have only decided to tell my story so that others who might seek to cheat death and love such a life should be alert to its dangers.”

We follow Diego’s life, much centered around chocolate and cooking with it, and new and exciting uses of chocolate, and Diego’s life and hope for love. He can never find any love that matches that of Ignacia, but he is convinced she has died back in the Cortez attack on Mexico City in the early 1500s. One of the interesting recurring themes is, if, as Diego believes, he will live forever, can one really develop meaning for one’s life and can one really love. Put differently, is our mortality itself a precondition to developing a life of meaning and love?

It’s an interesting question, but Runcie is no philosopher and the discussion remains at the level of an intriguing question with little follow up.

It asks a lot of us as readers to adopt the hypothesis of Diego’s seeming immortality, and I don’t think Runcie delivers enough challenge and seriousness to justify the leap. The book, if read as a light book with a rather crazy hypothesis, and lots of humor added when Diego seems to stumble into meeting some of history’s most exotic actual characters in his wanderings, then it is a useful way to pass a few hours.

I was such a reader and had some laughs and enjoyment with the book, loving much of the talk about chocolate, but would have found it much more interesting if he had traded in the cheaper laughs of the introduction of such famous name dropping, and done more with the philosophical hypothesis of what seeming immortality would do to the concept of human meaning.

Bob Corbett


Becoming Reading Thinking Journals


Bob Corbett