Recent Reading: Civilizations by Laurent Binet

The author of HHhH returns with another book that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Technically, Civilizations—which imagines a world where the social and economic collapse that had devastated the Inca empire around the time of Columbus's arrival in the Americas doesn't occur, and instead it's the Inca who colonize Europe—is an alternate history, maybe even science fiction. But the narrative's tone is removed, relating its events like a historical lecture—albeit one with a wry, slightly mocking tone—interspersed with journal excerpts, letters, official documents, and even bits of poetry. There are no real characters, just historical figures, more important for their influence on events than for their psychology, and although the narrator occasionally makes personal asides, their identity and reasons for laying out this history remain opaque. I'm much more comfortable describing Civilizations as a work of creative nonfiction than science fiction, but whichever shelf you end up putting it on, it's a delightful, engrossing read.

After establishing the reasons for Columbus's failure to colonize the Americas (in short: the Vikings reach South America, providing the locals with iron tools, horses, and a resistance to smallpox), the long central section of Civilizations describes the events that occur when the Inca prince Atahualpa, fleeing a failed rebellion against his half-brother the emperor, arrives in Spain in the early 16th century. This was a period of tremendous political and religious upheaval, and the newcomers immediately take advantage of local disputes to establish a power base, upending the familiar beats of history by killing off a major figure here, enacting agrarian reform there. This is very much a book that will benefit from its readers being intimately familiar with the actual history it's disrupting, and I'm sure that there are many clever references and reversals that went straight over my head (another reason why it feels more like a work of nonfiction). Among the figures I did recognize, I was particularly amused by an episode in which, because Atahualpa kills the nephew of Kathrine of Aragon, whose threats against the Pope prevented the annulment of her marriage to Henry VIII, the English reformation doesn't happen. 

On the whole, the Inca colonization of Europe is a great deal less destructive and exploitative than its real-world counterpart. Though the invaders commit their share of violence, they also enact social reforms that might seem alluring even to a modern reader. Atahualpa reverses the enclosure of the commons, outlaws serfdom, and creates a vast bureaucracy whose purpose is to provide welfare and healthcare, and maintain infrastructure. One reason why he's able to so easily conquer the German principalities is that these measures dovetail with the complaints of the peasantry, who are still smarting from the failure of recent revolts (they do have to relinquish their demand for a say in the selection of their local leaders; Atahualpa may be benevolent, but he is a dictator). 

It's a little hard to buy into this rose-tinted aspect of Binet's alternate history, especially when it's expected to sit side by side with more familiar aspects of colonialism, such as the fact that Europe becomes the destination of choice for all the Inca empire's superfluous sons and embattled ethnic minorities. Historically, when people like this arrive on foreign soil seeking their fortune, the locals don't tend to fare well. But before you can accuse the book of sentimentalism, another empire, the Aztecs, shows up in Europe to claim its own part of it, leading to a brutal war in which the local population can only lose. (This also produces one of the book's funniest images, in which the Aztecs construct a sacrificial pyramid in the central courtyard of the Louvre.) A final segment even reveals that the infamous silver mine in Potosi, where Native American slaves were sent to labor and die, is still active in this world's history, this time staffed by European convicts, captives, and indentured servants.

Overall, however, it feels as if Binet's point is less the changes he's making to history, and more the polite indifference with which the Inca regard that history. The image of Titian and Michelangelo creating works that depict scenes from Inca mythology, of the German Electors giving their votes to Atahualpa, or of the Inca ordering the mass culling of sheep because they want to rededicate their grazing grounds to crops like quinoa, are shocking because we're used to thinking of the European sphere as inviolable. But we ignore—or, more often, are ignorant of—the internal politics of the parts of the world that European colonizers upended and inserted themselves into. To the local people, the conditions the Europeans disrupted would no doubt have seemed just as important, just as inviolable, a these facts of history do to us. The question Civilizations asks is, what if someone else treated Europe the same way, as a landscape to be reshaped, its politics merely a set of levers to be manipulated in the pursuit of power and riches, its great thinkers and artists repurposed for the use of a completely different culture?

It's a clever, thought-provoking device, but one place where it feels insufficient is the book's handling of religion. The Inca are, understandably, incapable of (or uninterested in) parsing the Catholic/Protestant schism, though their machinations often take advantage of it. Binet gets a lot of mileage out of having his characters blankly explain to one another that people are going to war over issues such as the divinity of a certain religious figure's mother. But he also imagines that the invaders' political and economic power would be enough to not only settle these disputes, but obviate them. The coda to the Henry VIII story, for example, is that Henry renounces Christianity entirely and adopts the Inca sun-worship. To me, this seems to miss how important Christianity was to Europeans of this period, how central to their sense of self and worldview. 

One of Atahualpa's edicts guarantees religious freedom to all, and is greeted with happiness and relief by nobility and peasants alike. But Europeans in the 16th century didn't want religious freedom. They wanted the freedom to kill anyone whose religion deviated from theirs. It's hard to imagine them accepting the incorporation of the Inca rituals into their civic life, even alongside Christianity. Maybe I was meant to have this reaction—Binet might once again be making the point that what seems impossible to us in a European context actually happened elsewhere in the world—but to me it feels like a worldbuilding choice whose aim is to make the writer's job easier. It ends up undercutting what is otherwise a fascinating work.


Brett said…
It sounds like an interesting idea, but a lot of those specifics are kind of yikes in terms of history. A guy who had the revenue of a vast empire (including New World silver) and powerful support and connections across Europe couldn't even keep the Netherlands under his control (Charles V) and ended up breaking up his empire upon his death.

It's almost a bummer he tied it to the conquest of Europe stuff. I'd be very interested to read an alternate history where Europeans find a very different pair of continents and have to deal with them as equals or even superiors, more like China pre-19th century (horses especially would have completely turned native societies on their heads before Europeans - I doubt the Incan empire would even be recognizable).

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