The Amerindian peoples lacked three things to resist the conquerors: the horse, the steel and the antibodies. The well-known thesis of Jared diamond, the geographer and anthropologist who theorized why some societies persist and others disappear, is the foundation of the new book by Laurent Binet (Paris, 1972), an author who has earned a well-deserved niche in French literature with two books as different as HHhH, investigation into the murder of Nazi officer Reinhard Heydrich, and The seventh function of language, police plot around the death of Roland Barthes. In his third novel, Civilizations (Seix Barral), Binet proposes a uchrony or alternative history, a recurring narrative form today, to imagine what would have happened if the Native Americans had had these three decisive elements. The book imagines that Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, was never captured by the Spanish and executed with the vile stick. He managed to flee to Europe, where he landed in Lisbon in 1531, before conquering Spain and the rest of Europe, which he would end up turning into a haven of religious tolerance and social justice.
“Actually, the novel came from reading another sentence from Diamond. Why did Pizarro capture Atahualpa and it was not Atahualpa who finished off Carlos V? I told myself it was a good question and that I wanted to answer it, ”says Binet at her home, with views over a gentrified neighborhood with a working-class past in the northeast of Paris. A trip to Lima would increase his fascination for the Incas, who he liked for their colorful folklore, but also for a social and political organization in which he believed he detected “a kind of proto-socialism”. Not by chance, his book takes place at a crucial moment for the development of the current economic system, in which the first act of capitalism that will dominate the world materializes. The hypothesis that formulates Civilizations it is if a reverse conquest had produced a less brutal globalization. Even so, the writer did not want to sign a story “of good Indians and bad Europeans.” In his book, the Incas are also an imperialist people who colonize, conquer, and commit massacres. “My sympathy is on the side of the Indians and the psychological engine of the book was, deep down, to give revenge to the losers, but I don’t want to idealize them. With an Inca conquest we would have avoided the pitfalls of capitalism, but there would be different ones, because the forms of domination are infinite. Of course, we would have had social security for centuries ”, responds Binet, ideologically close to Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s anti-capitalist left.
The book seems to cast doubt on the heroic story about the conquest that for centuries carried a certain historiography, although its portrait of the conquerors is also ambivalent. “It cannot be denied that they are at the origin of an atrocious colonization that produced a genocide, but I confess that Cortés and Pizarro fascinate me. His adventure seems deeply heroic to me, even if there is a dose of satire or picaresque in that heroism ”, admits Binet. And what about Columbus, whom he makes perish in Cuba after a calamitous mooring described with hairs and signs in a laughable ship’s log? “I find him less likeable. When I read his diary, I understood that his only motor was to find gold and that, on top of that, he said that he was doing it in the name of God ”.
Binet’s novel coincides with the current social onslaught against the inequality inherited from the colonial system, in which the book also participates. “They are derivations of a historical engine in which I still believe: the class struggle. The dominated always end up revolting. Lately, many of them have understood that the control of the speech is the instrument of decisive power ”, Binet responds to explain the cancel culture and its ramifications. “We are in a prerevolutionary period, which is always conducive to agitation and excesses. And I understand those agitators, although I cannot support them when they substitute one censorship for another. The camps are very polarized and I, who hate centrism as a political position, often find myself in the middle. Given the choice of excess, I prefer that of the dominated, although my adherence is rather critical ”, he explains. The request to remove the colonial statues seems to him, on the other hand, common sense. “One can understand that, after 500 years, the inhabitants of Lima do not want to see Pizarro in their Plaza Mayor. How would the Spanish react if there were a statue of Napoleon in the heart of Madrid? ”, Binet wonders. Statues are made to be knocked down. It is not something very serious ”.
Civilizations completes a trilogy about the always promiscuous relationship between history and fiction. “HHhH he was faced with the question of extreme historical fidelity. It was a book that told a true story, refusing to use the mechanisms of fiction, ”says Binet. “This novel, on the other hand, is situated at the opposite extreme: it is a book where fiction no longer insinuates itself in the interstices of history, but takes possession of it through a coup d’état”. If uchronies like this abound more and more in literary and audiovisual production, perhaps it is because of “the perception that the world is ending,” says the author. “The uchronia serves to remind us that what has already happened cannot be changed, but also that it was very little for things to happen differently. It’s a genre that reminds us that there were possible bifurcations, ”says Binet, who believes that this idea resonates today. “I am convinced that capitalism will end up killing us all. We are riding a speeding train against an approaching wall. The uchronia points out that there are possible needle changes ”.
If they tell Binet that he has written a pastiche, the writer does not complain. “I don’t claim it, but I can’t deny it either,” he replies. The four parts of his book reformulate, with considerable doses of metatextual irony, literary models such as the Viking sagas, the logbooks, the fictional correspondence or the picaresque novel and the chivalric novel. “I am very interested in the exercise of rewriting. For example, every love story is inevitably a reinterpretation of Romeo and Juliet”Smiles the author. This conception of literature as remake reached the top in The seventh function of language, which was both a celebration and a parody of that famous French theory that triumphed with poststructuralism. Binet mixed a sophisticated intellectual legacy with minor genres such as farce, caricature or the forms of the roman de gare. The novel was perceived as a provocation. The writer Philippe Sollers, who appeared in the book with his wife, Julia Kristeva, threatened to take him to court. “It is not voluntary, but it is true that these gestures are perceived as a transgression. But I’m not doing it on purpose, it’s my nature. In the division between classics and baroque, I would say that I belong to the latter ”, admits Binet.
In France, his novels generate more perplexity than critical enthusiasm, perhaps because they do not fit the prevailing model and dare to hint at his narrow-mindedness. “I am against all sacralization. One of the vocations of literature must be blasphemy. Feeling too much respect for certain models of the past is what has led us, in France, to continue making novels in the style of Balzac two centuries later, which no longer makes sense or interest ”, he says. Binet likes to blow up the notion of high literature with his mischievous experiments. Civilizations It may seem like a historical treatise or even a philosophical novel – it won, by surprise, the Prize of the French Academy, little known for its reckless tastes – but also the crude translation in writing of one of those video games that incite to conquer all civilizations of the planet. The next most consistent step will be to turn this alternative story into a television series, a pharaonic budget project for which he has not given up on convincing Alfonso Cuarón.
Civilizations. Laurent Binet. Translation by Adolfo García Ortega. Seix Barral, 2020. 448 pages. 21 euros.
Uchronias. The utopia in history. Charles Renouvier. Translation by Pilar Ruiz-Va Palacios. Akal, 2019. 472 pages. 21 euros.
Counterfactual: What if everything had been different? Richard J. Evans. Translation by Guillem Usandizaga. Turner, 2018. 192 pages. 18.90 euros.
Wicked Time Traveler’s Guide. Jorge Fernández Gonzalo. Sans Soleil, 2016. 546 pages. 24 euros.