‘Civilisations’ by Laurent Binet

Translated from French by Sam Taylor 2021, 310p.

Since learning Spanish with my various Latin American Spanish teachers (from Chile, Mexico, Colombia and Argentina – think of the terrible accent I must have!), I’ve been interested in Latin American history. When I heard the premise of this book, I was instantly fascinated. Imagine if Erik the Red’s daughter headed south from Greenland in 1000 AD and landed in Cuba. Imagine if Christopher Columbus was captured by the Incas and died there. Then imagine if thirty years later, the Incas arrived in Europe.

This book is told in several parts. Part One, ‘The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir’ is written in the form of a narrative, starting “There once was a woman called Aud the Deep-Minded”. Set in c.1000 it follows Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis as she leaves Greenland because of family conflict and ends up in Central America. They bring iron and horses, leaving them in the hands of the Panamanians and Cubans when they leave to return to Europe, aware that they are bringing disease (but unknown to them, immunity) to the defenseless populations that have given them shelter.

Part Two, almost five hundred years later is ‘The Journal of Christopher Columbus (fragments)’, starting on 3 August 1492 as Columbus sets sail. Written in the form of journal entries, Columbus’ crew find indigenous people with iron tools and weapons, and riding horses. The journal peters out as Columbus sickens and dies while the Incas around him are immune to disease.

Part Three ‘The Chronicles of Atahaulpa’ is by far the longest part of the book, written in the same narrative style of Part One, with an omniscient narrator and the formal distance of a ‘chronicle’. In the 1531 Ataphaulpa, the last Inca emperor, flees Central America using Columbus’ abandoned ships for much the same reasons as Freydis did 500 years earlier (i.e. family feud) and lands in Lisbon, just after the earthquake. It’s Europe, but not quite as we know it. Of course, Spain has not been enriched from her colonies, because Columbus didn’t find them. Europe is riven with the Reformation, the Inquisition is torturing its way to infamy, and Henry VIII is casting around trying to rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Ataphaulpa does not have a large army, but he triumphs nonetheless by appealing to the down-trodden peasantry, and his sun-based religion sweeps Europe, co-existing with Christianity- or as Ataphaulpa describes it, the religion of “the nailed god”. He finds a good handbook for how to deal with these Europeans: nothing less than Machiavelli’s The Prince. Henry VIII converts to the Sun religion as a way to escape his marital problems; Ataphaulpa revolutionizes agriculture by terracing and the introduction of avocados and tomatoes; 95 theses are nailed onto the church door at Wittenberg but these proclaim the supremacy of the Sun religion. Meanwhile, the Aztecs arrive in France, and a battle between the Incas and Aztecs ensues, with alliances with various European nations playing but a minor part. It’s a long section, comprising 214 pages of this 310 page book, but it is broken up with correspondence like that of Erasmus and Sir Thomas More, and Ataphaulpa and his consort Higuénamota.

Part Four is just short, and in the form of an 18th century novel, with its little chapter summary at the start, it tells the story of Miguel de Cervantes, who is living with El Greco in Michel de Montaigne’s tower and ends up being exiled to Cuba and not writing Don Quixote.

As you can see, there is a lot in this book, and for most of it, I found myself wishing that I knew more history. I’m vain enough to be uncomfortable about being made to feel stupid. At times little things had me laughing out loud- the Aztecs building a pyramid outside the Louvre for their sacrifices, for example – but it only made me realize that there are probably hundreds of allusions here that just passed me by.

The book is, in effect, a series of fictional historical documents – and I’m not unfamiliar with historical documents- but documents in themselves are not a novel. The reader has to work hard in this book, and I found my will to continue flagging. It’s more of an idea than a novel: there is little character development, and as many additional parts as the author had the energy to write could have been appended.

I’m glad that I read it, though. ‘What-if’ history is a guilty pleasure (very guilty) for a historian, and you come away from reading the book being knocked off-centre by its suppositions and alternative perspectives. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any longer at all- in fact, I was rather pleased to have even finished it- and I certainly feel as if I have been in the company of someone who is much brainier than I.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

One response to “‘Civilisations’ by Laurent Binet

  1. Don’t feel bad… I’ve read Binet and he’s a difficult author at the best of times.

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