Civilisations by Laurent Binet (Translated from French by Sam Taylor) - review by James Womack

James Womack

1492 and All That



Harvill Secker 310pp £16.99

Like many pre-teenage boys who locked themselves away in their bedrooms in the early 1990s, I spent too many hours playing Civilization, a strategy video game. The aim of the game is to raise an all-conquering tribe from small, local beginnings to world domination. As you progress, the game makes its own potpourri of world history: the Mongols water their horses in the Rhine; the Romans discover and exploit America. Civilization provides a whole series of what-ifs, concertinaing known facts in new and surprising ways.

The echo of the game in the title of Laurent Binet’s new novel is no coincidence. His well-groomed face may not betray too obviously the traces of a nerdy twelve-year-old, but Civilisations is Civilization fan fiction on a heroic scale: a thoroughly thought-through, at times exhausting novel of one single idea, one global what-if. What if the 1492 ‘discovery’ of America had been a fiasco, the major effect of which was to alert the Incas to the existence of a land to the east that might be ripe for conquest?

In order to set up this premise, the novel begins with another convincing piece of alternative history. The Icelanders who discovered America around AD 1000 are allowed to extend further than they in fact did, and southern Americans are exposed and develop immunity to European pathogens. (They also welcome Thor as one of their minor gods.) And so, when Columbus arrives in 1492, he is nothing more than a badly outnumbered, arrogant and ill-equipped adventurer, no match for the splendid Incas.

By various stratagems, each more or less convincing in its own right, Atahualpa, the emperor of the Incas, ends up in Lisbon just after the devastating 1531 earthquake and starts to take control of Europe, beginning with Spain and then moving eastward, establishing an agrarian Inca state across the continent. History as we know it is tweaked and played with throughout.

The novel is divided into four sections, and Binet presents each one as though it were a chronicle of the events it describes. Thus, ‘The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir’ is a pastiche of an Icelandic saga, with all the affectless prose that implies (‘There was a woman named Aud the Deep-Minded … There was a man named Thorvald’); ‘The Journal of Christopher Columbus’ is a fragmentary captain’s log that ends with catastrophe and hypocrisy: ‘May all those filled with charity, truth and justice weep for me. I did not make this voyage to win honour and fortune; that is the truth, for in that respect, all hope was dead in me already. I came to Your Highnesses with pure and zealous intentions, and I am not lying.’

There is something a little forced about these opening sections, and the tone wavers here and there, in particular in the saga, which every now and then sinks into jarring tell-don’t-show-style prose: ‘They crossed swamps, forests as dense as tangles of wool, snowy mountains. They felt the bitterness of cold again, but nobody questioned Freydis’s orders. As if, in removing all hope of a return home, the loss of the knarr had also broken their will.’ It was all done (much) better in 1988, in Jane Smiley’s The Greenlanders. None of this clunkiness is the fault of the translator, Sam Taylor, who works hard to show the variations in the different prose voices Binet adopts.

The novel really comes into its own with the third section, ‘The Chronicles of Atahualpa’, which is presented as a contemporaneous chronicle of Atahualpa’s incursions into Europe: there are political machinations and massacres to rival Game of Thrones, murdered children, spies, betrayal and sex. The world as we know it is inverted: Europe is ‘the New World’; wine is ‘the black drink’; the European deity, whose demands seem so abhorrent to the Inca way of seeing things, is ‘the nailed god’. And alongside these deliberately alienating terms are little joking nods to the real history of the real world: ‘The Empire is worth a Mass’, Atahualpa says, channelling Henri IV; some unknown figure nails ninety-five ‘Theses of the Sun’ to the Wittenberg cathedral door.

The whole thing chugs along pleasantly, and the final section, ‘The Adventures of Cervantes’, is a sensitive and coherent coda to the whole, giving us Cervantes and El Greco as outlaws hiding out in Montaigne’s tower. What is unclear, though, is what it all means: the novel is a series of local gratifications, enjoyable or interesting enough in their own right, but not really adding up to much. The decision to focus on Cervantes could be seen as an exploration of what might happen to the novel itself in an alternative history: without giving too much away, the man who wrote Don Quixote in the real world is unlikely to repeat the feat here. And if one of the foundational novels of the Western tradition comes never to be written, is the assembly of pastiche styles that makes up the book the only way in which the inhabitants of its world can talk about themselves? Such steps into Borgesian self-reflection might be warranted or they might not be – it’s difficult to tell. Better just to enjoy it, like playing a superior kind of video game.

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