Review: Civilizations by Laurent Binet
The premise of this book is very interesting - what happens if the Viking colonies in America managed to make contact with indigenous Americans? How would that have changed the way history unfurled? In this book, Laurent Binet spins out the historical fantasy with the Incas eventually invading the Spanish Empire rather than the other way around, and everything kind of unfurls from Erik the Red's daughter Freydis successfully making contact with the Taïnos in Cuba and the proto-Incas in Peru in around the year 1000. In this revisit of history, indigenous Americans develop an immunity to smallpox and the plague as they are introduced to it far earlier than the invasion of Columbus, Cortes and Pizarro; they develop their ironworks; and are introduced to the breeding and taming of horses. What would have been different if the Incas and the Aztecs had stood a chance against the Spanish Empire?
Now, I will preface this by saying that Laurent Binet has very obviously read Jared Diamond's Gun, Germs and Steel (I myself read this many moons ago as required reading for my 10th grade AP World History class; and I did immediately purchase Guns, Germs and Steel for a re-read this weekend). And Binet is not writing historical analysis, this is very much a novel - Atahualpa invades the Spanish Empire, and we follow along with the way the history of the early Renaissance in Europe would have been very, very different if that is how it had gone. Binet's imagination of the reverse history is fascinating, especially in the way he imagines things staying the same: Pizarro would still have been a ruthless conquistador, but it's Tunis and Algiers he puts to the sword instead of Cuzco. The Battle of Lepanto still happens, and Miguel de Cervantés is still involved and crippled in the battle (I wonder if he still writes Don Quixote de la Mancha in this alternate universe and gives birth to the concept of the Western novel?). Henry VIII is still an absolute dickweed, and the English Navy still becomes the feared force it always was - but, importantly, becomes a pirate army rather than the navy of a nation as the Aztecs invade and wipe England off the map. Anglicanism never happens, as the religion of the Inca overtakes Catholicism while Henry VIII is battling to divorce Catherine of Aragon and Henry, being, as mentioned, an absolute dickweed, just leans in hard to the polygamy thing.
Binet is a brilliant, clever writer, and he shines here. His writing style shifts ever so slightly between each section - between the diarist/epistolary format of a novel, when Christopher Columbus lands on Cuba and is taken prisoner by the native Tainos; the Scandinavian saga that tells the tale of Freydis Eriksdottir; and the chronicle of Atahualpa, interwoven with written records, archives, and letters, as if he's presenting a nonfictional, peer-reviewed account. The way he can flip back and forth between very different novel formats, with such a subtle shift in his language and his vocabulary that you barely notice it, and the way he can bring many different threads together into one overarching, coherent narrative, serves as a testament to Binet's complete mastery of the technicalities of writing. And while this subject is by no means original, Binet grounds it in a sense of reality that is really important for making the novel gripping and enjoyable. This subject could so easily have gone down the rabbit hole of eternal philosophizing, and the fact that he stuck to a story is a big part of what made this book such an enjoyable, fun read.
I really hate describing a book as thought-provoking, as that makes me sound like a pretentious, beard-stroking, smug, elitist twat (my guy might actually describe me that way, come to think of it. But he doesn't read this blog, so we'll never know!). But I had a lot of fun spiraling into all of the different what-ifs that this book prompted, going back way further than 1531: What if Antony and Cleopatra had defeated Octavian at the Battle of Actium? What if Japan and China hadn't been isolationist powers? What if Tamerlane had expanded his borders beyond India? What if the Franks hadn't won the Battle of Poitiers? What if Rome hadn't defeated and wiped Carthage off the face of the earth????? See, once you start down this path you can go at it for hours (and I did. I monologued at my housemate for, I kid you not, 90 minutes on all the ways history seems inevitable but actually is made up of such tiny, seemingly insignificant details and we'll never know what would have happened if that one detail hadn't happened [what if Franz Ferdinand hadn't been assassinated?????] because of the impossibility to prove a negative or to imagine what we never knew and oh my god history is so cool; and she very kindly listened to me even as her eyes glazed over with boredom. I need lockdown to end.) - so, a huge thank you from me to Laurent Binet for allowing me to indulge in the worst of my history nerdiness and for making the ride such an enjoyable, engaging experience.
All told - an excellent book by Laurent Binet, and well deserving of the Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie française, which it won in 2019. I'd say keep an eye out for a translation of this as I am highly recommending it, and it will be on my Top 10 list of 2020 for sure.
If anybody wants to geek out about the History Might Have Beens - please, Tweet at me; because I've got a million that I find all equally fascinating and my housemate is well bored of them by now.