In his breakout 2010 debut “HHhH,” the French novelist Laurent Binet expressed deep doubt about the validity of writing historical fiction — or, rather, his narrator did.
“HHhH” combines the dramatic story of Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, the Czech dissidents who assassinated SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, with the comic one of his narrator, a French writer who sets out to write a book about them. Binet's narrator spends half the novel struggling to resist his desire to "'visualize' (that is, invent!)" the details of Kubiš and Gabčík's mission. He is convinced that such visualization would be both ethically dubious and artistically tasteless — but, of course, he still does it, and to excellent effect. “HHhH” is riveting. So is Binet's newest novel, Civilizations, which is a work of absolutely unfettered historical invention in which the Inca emperor Atahualpa conquers 16th-century Spain. Plainly, Binet has shed his misgivings: Nearly every bit of “Civilizations” is made up.
“Civilizations” is at once a profoundly thoughtful book and a very playful one — though Binet, who is unpretentious but extremely academic, plays on a fairly high level. He writes fake letters between Thomas More and Erasmus, fake excerpts from Columbus's diary, and a supremely funny set of 95 Theses that merge Christian reformism with Inca belief; he dedicates much of the novel to reflections on religion, agrarian reform and, of course, colonialism. Even at its most intellectually elevated, though, “Civilizations” is a page-turner. Credit here goes to both Binet and his translator, Sam Taylor, whose English prose is clipped, opinionated, and vivid. Sentence to sentence, “Civilizations” reads less like other novels than it does like excellent researched nonfiction: I wouldn't be surprised if Binet, Taylor, or both count Robert Caro as a stylistic influence.
Binet's invented history is, event by event, as enjoyable to think about as it is to read. From a postcolonial perspective, it is satisfying to see Atahualpa take over Charles V's Spain, then survey Europe and determine swiftly that "this world would be his." It is more enjoyable still to watch him become an enlightened despot, banning the Inquisition and creating a "Europe of tolerance" based on religious freedom and agrarian reform. (As I read, I often found myself wishing that my Jewish ancestors had lived in Atahualpa's Europe.) Binet perhaps devotes too much energy to pointing out the absurdity of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, when seen from the outside; Atahualpa and his generals quite frequently find themselves bemused by their New World's god, who "did not strike [them] as a serious being." Still, it is a pleasure to watch them set this reaction aside, treating their conquered European subjects with significantly more lenience — religious and otherwise — than the Inquisition-inspired Spanish conquistadores did in the history we know.
Binet is careful not to make Atahualpa a saint. He is a nuanced, conniving character who idolizes Niccolò Machiavelli — he sees himself, in fact, as an heir of sorts to Lorenzo de' Medici, who Machiavelli addresses in “The Prince” — and who does not lack brutal impulses. In fact, the novel seems to argue that conquest is a form of brutality inherent to human nature. So are greed and abuse of power. In Binet's counterfactual past as in ours, the Old World — that is, the Inca empire, along with the Taíno and Aztecs — gets rich by exploiting the New. Its politics come to control events in Europe; European prisoners are shipped across the Atlantic to be indentured servants. Although Atahualpa bans serfdom, prisoners still land in the Old World fearing the "death sentence" of getting sent to the massive Potosi silver mine — which was, in real life, indeed a death sentence for the indigenous Americans who the Spanish forced to labor there. The reversal of roles here does not erase the place's terrible gravity, or the moral weight of working a person to death.
“Civilizations” is the rare novel that manages to wear its ethical investigation lightly without minimizing its own questions. Binet seems to genuinely want to know to what extent conquest and the cruelty it inevitably produces are reducible, redeemable, or escapable. He also plainly wants to play around. This duality is, perhaps, a more mature writer's version of the historical push-me-pull-you nature of “HHhH.” Binet now gives himself full freedom to visualize, but he still holds himself responsible for his visions. As a result, “Civilizations” is a serious success, in every sense of the word serious. If you read one novel this fall, make it this.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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