What if the Incas conquered Europe? A novel rewrites history.

CIVILIZATIONS By Laurent Binet Translated by Sam Taylor For his next feat, Laurent Binet would have to write a children’s book in Pytho...


CIVILIZATIONS
By Laurent Binet
Translated by Sam Taylor

For his next feat, Laurent Binet would have to write a children’s book in Python code, or recreate the Bible as a cell phone contract, or translate Socratic dialogues into two dogs sniffing at each other at the park without a leash. His beginnings, “HHhHWas a meta-historiographical account of the 1942 assassination of Nazi alpha Reinhard Heydrich; his successor, “The seventh function of languageWas a detective novel about the sudden death of Roland Barthes that treated theorists of French literature of the 1970s like gods of shady rock and badass gangsters. His latest, which attests to his status as one of the most intellectual game authors of our time, is a totalized counterfeit of post-1492 world history.

“Civilizations” opens with a heroic Nordic legend about the exploits of Freydis Eriksdottir. In Binet’s tale, she leaves behind her father, Erik the Red, to lead a 10th-century crew of loyal Greenlanders to Lambayeque, in northern Peru, where they settle peacefully with the locals. Moving forward 500 years, Binet writes entries in the diary of Christopher Columbus, loving God and filled with misery after he and his men crossed the Atlantic and began to explore the Caribbean, only to be fatally foiled by the royal family. and the Taino warriors.

Credit…Seix Barral

Then come the life and exploits of the early 16th century Inca emperor, Atahualpa. According to the established historical account, he was executed in Cajamarca, present-day Peru, by the Spaniards shortly after defeating his own brother, Huáscar, in a civil war that spread across the continent. In Binet’s version, the young Atahualpa only confronts his brother in this conflict and manages to escape Huáscar’s forces by boat. His companions: a companion puma, a small group of Quitonian compatriots and the polyglot Cuban princess Higuénamota, his most beloved and politically astute wife. Inspired by distant memories of otherwise forgotten Columbus, they sail east, finally arriving in a strange new place: “All – men, women, horses, llamas – had survived the great sea. They had reached the land of the rising sun ”, otherwise known as Portugal.

Counterhistorical fiction can provide dopamine-like delights when a writer succeeds in reversing established hierarchies and terms of conventional history, geography, and intercultural encounter. The well-born newcomers from the west, a land known as the Four Quarters, first meet in the east the humble “men in brown and white robes, with their tops shaved”, who ” knelt on the floor, hands clasped and eyes closed, muttering inaudible sounds. A very different believer himself, Atahualpa calls for a ritual burning of meat to honor his sun god. The dirty, sickly, hungry inhabitants, who, like the monks, worship a “nailed god”, are drawn to the smell, and to the compassionate disgust of the Quitonians, devour the sacred offerings and whatever they can find. Sensing weakness and opportunity all around him, Atahualpa begins to move.

The Inca’s success owes a lot to the fundamental division of Europe, Atahualpa’s own capricious pragmatism and a reconciliation with his brother, who agrees to support Atahualpa’s campaign to rule the new “fifth quarter” for their mutual wealth and protection. After a swift and ruthless massacre in Toledo, with a manifested tolerance for minorities otherwise confronted with the terms of Catholicism of the time of the Inquisition, Atahualpa seizes Portugal, passes to Spain and then begins to treat as equal or better. with Italy, France, England and Germany. , all variously caught up in the fractures of the Reformation and the anxieties of encroaching on Islam.

Deploying the conscientiously admiring voice and the stilted and proper style of an anonymous historical chronicler, Binet recounts court intrigues, diplomatic negotiations, religio-political conflicts, military expeditions, major battles, alliances made and broken by the money and marriage and regencies, as well as expenses. and the problems of governing more and more land and people. All the while, Atahualpa is looking for better deals, possible betrayals, and new challengers. Countless ordinary people die along the way.

If Binet played with forms, genres and literary voices in his early fictions, here he and his translator, Sam Taylor, adopt them more frankly, to counterbalance his imaginative foray into history itself, even if the book is often boring. . It’s a provocative, determined and unapologetic kind of boredom. The very nature of a comprehensive chronicle of large-scale geographic, political, financial, religious, and linear convolution and convolution is necessarily complicated and dry, whether as a story or a counter-story.

Fortunately, Binet’s historical feints allow us to imagine chills and a relief, paragraph after paragraph, of a conscientious piece-by-piece relief on an empire in the making. Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam exchange lively letters about the possible harmony between the religion of the solar deity of Atahualpa and Christianity, while worrying about Henry VIII’s temptation to leave the church for a faith that doesn’t care much about divorce and remarriage. Needing money from the German uber-banker Jakob Fugger, Atahualpa agrees to get rid of Martin Luther for him, which in turn leads to theatrical public arguments and someone nailing the “Eighties.” fifteen theses of the sun ”at the wooden doors of a German Inca Temple. Machiavelli’s writings are crucial to Atahualpa’s strategies and success; Copernicus’ heliocentric treatise is very well received by a royal patron who worshiped the sun; Titian made a series of paintings of the emperor at important times; Michelangelo sculpts a statue of the beloved Higuénamota d’Atahualpa “which can be found today in the great temple of Seville”.

Eventually, Binet tweaked his own fabulist arrangement: Mexican colonizers arrive in northern Europe. They are already surpassing Huáscar in all four quarters and also want to take control of the fifth. A whole new round of re-imaginations and geopolitical gyrations begins, which, among much more, ultimately sends an oppressed Cervantes to the Old World of this novel to become a contract writer. Binet ends by slyly inviting us to imagine Don Quixote, leaning over Aztec pyramids. Well done and all, but after 300 pages, the counter-history begins to lose its weight, more predictable than provocative.

Binet, however, turns out to be more than just a Borgesian magician. We can see this, for example, in the letters that Atahualpa exchanges with Higuénamota as the Mexicans advance through France and the emperor quickly loses battles and allies. They write with the high tone and reserved style befitting both their stations and Binet’s unwavering dedication to form and genre, but a greater feeling emerges nonetheless. It’s the feeling two people have when they’ve been through a lot together, only to find they are suddenly and decisively living the story – on the losing side.

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