By Laurent Binet

Translated by Sam Taylor

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


310pp/$27.00/September 2021

Cover by Alex Merto

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Laurent Binet published his novel Civilizations in 2019 and and English translation by Sam Taylor appeared two years later. This alternate history explores a world in which the European invasion of the Americas in the sixteenth century are reversed, with the Incan prince Atahualpa leading a ragtag collection of Incans to Europe, fleeing the forces of his brother, and finding a continent ripe for the taking.

Binet's story is set during four time periods. The first, set during the 900s and written like a Nordic saga, describes a Viking voyage to the New World that doesn't end at Vinland, but continues down the coast to the Caribbean and eventually Central and South America. The impact of this small group of Vikings, led by Freydis, seems small, but it sets in motion the changes that impact the second section of the book. In the final years of the fifteenth century, Christopher Columbus arrives in the New World to find tribes that have continued to build on the Viking metallurgical skills that were introduced five centuries earlier. Told in epistolary format as Columbus writes about his discoveries to Isabella and Ferdinand, it provides the Caribbean tribes with knowledge of oceanic travel.

The majority of the novel is set forty years after Columbus landed in the New World. Using the technology provided by his ships, Atahualpa led a band of Incas to Europe, fleeing from his brother's army. Arriving at a fortunate time in Lisbon, they begin a conquest of the Iberian peninsula and, eventually, much of Western Europe. Written in a casual historical style, this section provides an outline of Binet's characters and their actions, having Atahualpa's troops interacting with numerous European historical figures and the societal trends of the sixteenth century. Although there is a place for Realpolitik, the Church that Binet depicts and religious men seem to be too willing to accept the paganism that the Incas bring with them to Europe.

The final section, akin to the first two, feels like a coda to the novel as a whole. Set a couple of decades after the initial invasion, it provides a tour of the changed European landscape through the eyes of a young Miguel de Cervantes. Rather than being the author of Don Quixote, in this timeline, he is a fugitive whose flight from Spain takes him to France, Italy, North Africa, and eventually the Incan homelands. Through his eyes, Binet is able to provide an outsiders depiction of the changes wrought by Freydis' adventure and Atahualpa's re-writing of history.

Each of the four sections is written in a style which pays homage to the writing of that period. Freydis' story emulates a saga, Columbis is epistolary, Atahualpa's mirrors an historical text, and Cervantes' reads like chapters from Don Quixote. While these narrative decisions add to the intimacy of the Columbus section of the book, it tends to put a distance between the reader and the characters in the other three sections. While clever and executved well, it tends to detract from the overall work.

Alternate histories must be judged, at least in part, on their plausibility, and on that level the main narrative of Civilizations falls short. Atahualpa's conquest of western Europe comes across as a little too easy with the response, particularly from the religious orders, to be a little too standoffish as he is able to turn Europe into an Atahualpan, if not Incan, utopia. His portrayal of three other periods makes it clear that Atahualpa's ability to wage war on Europe is not a sudden change, but one whcih has been building up for centuries through significant changes that had some impact on the culture, although not necessarily as deep an impact as might be expected.

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