Civilisations by Laurent Binet

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Translated by Sam Taylor

Review by Max Dunbar

Reviewers of fiction, trying to make sense of Laurent Binet’s Civilisations, have reached for video game metaphors. In the Literary Review, James Womack wrote thatCivilisations is Civilization fan fiction on a heroic scale: a thoroughly thought-through, at times exhausting novel of one single idea, one global what-if’ – and indeed the book has that god-game feel, of things set in motion, rapid and semi-sentient progress. But Womack is wrong about Binet’s ‘jarring tell-don’t-show-style prose’. In his debut novel HHhH, Binet told the story of Reinhard Heydrich’s assassination, straightforward and as it happened. HHhH was thrilling because Binet made no secret of his passion for the subject. He put himself in there, writing the story and obsessing over the details. It is the same in Civilisations. Binet’s role is more discreet, that of a court scribe or diarist, but the sparingness of his prose adds to that sense of reality. 

Civilisations begins with the voyage of Freydis the viking, whose father was banished from Norway. Freydis’s party of Norse warriors visit America, circle around the continent and meet various Native American tribes. Freydis is constantly urging her men to move on: ‘We will continue our journey until its end or we will die at sea, if such is the whim of the Njörd or the wish of Hel.’ But she does settle down, ending her days as a high priestess with the Incas of Lambayeque.

We then flip forward to 1492 and Columbus’s first voyage. ‘Your Highnesses will send orders to build a city and fortress here, and the natives will be converted,’ he writes, upon landfall in the West Indies.

Here, as in all the places that I have discovered and that I hope to discover before my return to Castile, I say that if Christendom will find profit, how much more will Spain, to whom the whole country should be subject?

But alas! In Binet’s timeline, the ‘natives’, the Taíno, have had extensive trade and exchange with the Vikings. They have iron and horses and herd immunity. In a series of comic reversals, he is outwitted at every turn by the Taíno, and ends his days in Cuba, tolerated as a curiosity by the Incas. Columbus’s first voyage is his last. There is almost a pathos to these final fragments as the ageing imperialist relates his friendship with Higuénamota, the Cuban princess, his only friend in the Inca kingdom, and a driving force in the next Inca age. Huascar the warrior reflects, years later, on the fate of Columbus and his crew:

the foreigners from long ago had been obsessed with two things: their god and gold. They liked to plant crosses. They had all died. 

By this point in the story, Huáscar and his brother Atahualpa are at war over who gets to succeed the Inca throne. Atahualpa quickly finds himself on the losing side and fleeing east. His back is against the wall, but he has one potential escape: the maps and boats Columbus had left. With Freydis-like oratory, Atahualpa rallies his men:

The time of the Four Quarters is over. We are going to sail towards a new world, filled with lands no less rich than our own… if we are to founder, then let it be like this. We will find Pachacamac at the bottom of the sea. But if we make it across the sea… What a voyage that will be!

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s counterfactual history The Years of Rice and Salt, the vast majority of Europeans are wiped out in the black plague. In Civilisations we are conquered by the Incas. I much prefer Binet’s version. Atahualpa proves a surprisingly effective ruler, particularly given the cruelties of what he calls ‘the cult of the nailed god’ that dominated Europe at that time. Atahualpa defunds the Inquisition, redistributes land and wealth, revolutionises agriculture. As long as you pay some respect to his Sun God, Atahualpa will pretty much leave you alone. 

Atahualpa is a refugee when he arrives in Lisbon but he has advantages he doesn’t yet realise: the brilliant strategist Higuénamota (whose idea the expedition was in the first place) and the reserves of gold and silver back in the Americas, base metals at home but a fortune abroad. To that, Atahualpa adds his own cunning plus a skill for finding new talent: he adopts the wisdom of the Florentine Machiavelli, for instance.

Of course, it’s not that simple. ‘The Chronicles of Atahualpa’ is full of battles, murders, affairs and intrigue. Not for nothing has this middle section of the book been compared to an Inca Game of Thrones! It’s worth noting, too, that the Inca regime is not without its own repressions. Atahualpa mercilessly hunts down the Jesuits and others who continue to defy him. A telling document is the Articles of the Alsatian Peasantry, presented to the emperor by fledgling democrats. Although the Incas agree to abolish tithes and hunting restrictions, they draw the line at Article 8: ‘We will elect our own representatives. The sovereign will be whomever we choose.’ Refused, comes the one-word response. 

There is no such thing as the great wise ruler, Binet seems to be saying, no king over the water. It is a shame that Civilisations ends with the meanderings of Miguel de Cervantes (entertaining as they are) rather than taking the story forward through the centuries, as Robinson does. But who knows? Perhaps later books will add to this marvellous voyage through unknown history. 

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Laurent Binet, Civilisations (Harvill Secker, 2021). 978-1787302297, 352pp., hardback.

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