In This Review

Civilizations: A Novel
Civilizations: A Novel
By Laurent Binet. Translated by Sam Taylor
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 320 pp

Binet playfully imagines a counterfactual history in which the Aztecs and the Incas conquer western Europe. His entertaining style blends biting satire of late medieval European follies with postmodern irony. Seen through the eyes of the pragmatic Incan emperor Atahuallpa, sixteenth-century Christendom is plagued by perpetual dynastic and religious wars, ridiculous superstitions, and shocking social injustice. Just as the Spanish conquistadors did in reality, Binet’s fictional Incas form alliances with conquered, restive populations. But unlike the Europeans, the Incas impose a progressive social order. Meanwhile, the brilliant Cuban princess Higuénamota intimidates European courts with her brown-skinned nakedness; Michelangelo is commissioned to make a sculpture of her. In passing, Binet lampoons Christopher Columbus, Martin Luther, and Thomas More and has great fun transporting the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes and the artist El Greco to an idyllic island in the Caribbean. As a redemptive fantasy rescuing history from the horrific tragedy of the European destruction of the precolonial Americas, Civilizations is a most satisfying read.