How a French novelist turns history around

PARIS – There is a scene in Laurent Binet’s latest novel, “Civilizations”, where a meeting between conqueror and conquered comes to life...


PARIS – There is a scene in Laurent Binet’s latest novel, “Civilizations”, where a meeting between conqueror and conquered comes to life in the vivid description of a painting by the Renaissance painter Titian.

It was an imaginary scenario – of the Incas from Peru invading 16th-century Europe, and not the other way around, which happened in 1532 – that haunted and inspired Binet.

“There is something melancholy about my book,” he said in an interview at his home last month, “because it gives the vanquished a revenge they never really got.”

The reality for the Incas, as for many other indigenous people, was that they were being killed and exploited, Binet added. “That’s what both fascinates and horrifies me: you can think of what you like about the past but you can’t change it.”

Binet, 49, has made a name for himself writing historical novels that blur the lines between fact and fiction. His beginnings “HHhHWhich has been translated into 34 languages ​​(including English in 2012), merged history, fiction and autobiography to explore the events surrounding the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. He continued in 2015 with “The seventh function of language”, A mysterious murder taking place in the 1980s which made fun of the posture of Parisian intellectuals. The French magazine L’Express called it “the most insolent novel of the year”.

“Civilizations”, published by Grasset in France in 2019, will be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 14. It won the Grand Prix du Roman, an annual literary prize awarded by the French Academy, in 2019, and is being developed as a multilingual television series that will be filmed in South America and Europe. It is co-produced by Anonymous Content in the United States and Païva Studio in France.

All three novels have been translated from French to English by Sam Taylor, who praises Binet’s “unpredictability” as an author. “What unites more than any of Laurent’s three novels is a desire to push the limits of the possibilities offered by fiction,” he said in an e-mail. “There is a kind of arrogance and daring, a playful ambition and a dry wit that undermines everything and keeps it from tipping over into pretension.”

Binet said he was motivated to write “Civilizations” after being invited to the Lima International Book Fair in 2015. the book fair in 2017 to further his research. Back in Paris, his half-brother gives him a copy of Jared Diamond’s book “Firearms, Germs and Steel”, Which contains a chapter on how the last emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa, was captured by Francisco Pizarro and his men.

“Diamond wonders why it is Pizarro who came to capture Atahualpa in Peru and not Atahualpa who came to capture Charles V in Spain”, declared Binet. “That line was a real trigger for me, and I thought, why not tell this story instead?

When “Civilizations” was released in France in 2019, some critics, such as Lise Wajeman at Mediapart and Frédéric Werst at En Attendant Nadeau, wondered whether Binet had not attributed to the Incas a uniquely European appetite for conquest. But Binet is convinced that this is not the case. “The desire to conquer is not only European, it is universal,” he said, noting the building of the empire of the Mongols and Aztecs.

In his book, however, Binet portrays the conquering Incas as much more benevolent than their European counterparts. Atahualpa is known as “the Protector of the Poor” for his egalitarian policies. The Incas are horrified by the savagery of the Spanish Inquisition, despite their own traditions of human sacrifice.

“I find the reversals of perspective and point of view quite stimulating,” Binet said. “I think Montaigne summed it up very well when he wrote that ‘we all call barbarians things that are contrary to our own habits.’

Binet’s love for history was instilled in him by his father, a teacher who entertained him with factual stories about WWII and the Hundred Years’ War. “He gave me a taste for history from a narrative point of view,” says Binet. “These bits of history made me dream.

When he was about 12 years old, his father told him about the two paratroopers – a Slovak and a Czech – who murdered Gestapo official Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. “It made me want to know more,” said he declared.

Two enlarged photographs in the living room of Binet’s apartment give further clues to his passions. One is that of the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, whose death arouses the mystery in “The seventh function of language”. “Barthes taught me to read a text,” says Binet. “Before, I was a professor of French literature, and he provided me with a grid to read a text, and as a semiotician, a grid to read the world. He made me smarter than I was and helps me every day.

The other photo is of tennis star John McEnroe. Growing up in the western Parisian suburb of Elancourt, where he learned to play by flying the ball against his bedroom wall, Binet admired McEnroe’s skill (they are both left-handed) and his rebellious character on the ground.

When Binet was in his twenties, he spent a night handcuffed in a police station in Normandy after being caught spray painting graffiti. “It was during my surrealist period,” he says. “I wanted to write a poetic line about what turned out to be a civic monument.” A love of surrealism also led to his first book, “Strengths and Weaknesses of Nos Muqueuses”, a mixture of prose and poetry released in 2000 but no longer printed. “Most of the time I struggled with my guitar, trying to remember my own lyrics and hiding my flaws as a musician behind a wall of sound,” he said. He started teaching French literature to high school students in 1999 and did so for 10 years.

His breakthrough as a writer came in 2004 with the publication of his memoir “La Vie Professionnelle de Laurent B.”, in which he recounted his experiences as a teacher in the French school system. It was at this time that Binet became convinced of the importance of “cultural melting pots”, where different creative fields become more open to influence each other. “It is clear that filmmakers draw inspiration from literature and painting and painters draw inspiration from writers,” he said. “For me the ’24’ TV series was a storytelling revolution, so I’m very clearly a product of my age.”

Binet’s teaching career allowed him to acquire an in-depth knowledge of 19th century French writers. But it was contemporary American literature that opened its horizons, he said, naming Bret Easton Ellis like her favorite living writer.

The writers that Taylor, the translator of Binet, said the novelist most reminds him of are the European avant-garde superstars of the 70s and 80s, such as Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino. Like them, Binet speaks of writing in terms of “playfulness”. But when he discovered the writing of “Civilizations”, there is also sadness in the way history repeats itself.

“It’s a little depressing,” he said, “to see that there are clear parallels today to the 16th century regarding religious intolerance and religious fundamentalism”.

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