Writers & Company

Laurent Binet turns the tables on European history in his boldly imagined new book, Civilizations

The French novelist spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about what inspired him to imagine an Incan invasion of Europe in the 16th century.
Laurent Binet is a French author and academic. (EnfinBref)

What if, in 1492, Christopher Columbus got no farther than Cuba and languished there, his name forgotten. What if, instead of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the Incas invaded 16th-century Europe, armed with weapons, horses and resistance to disease. This is the premise of Laurent Binet's fascinating new novel, Civilizations — a counterfactual history with a contemporary political resonance.

Born in 1972 in Paris, Binet began his career as a teacher but has become one of the most successful writers of his generation. His first novel, HHhH, was an international bestseller and won France's Prix Goncourt for a debut title. Focusing on the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the chief architect of the Holocaust, it also tracked his own experience negotiating between truth and fiction. His second novel, The Seventh Function of Language, is a satire on French critical theory of the 1970s. It was named best book of the year by The Economist, NPR and other media.

Binet spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Brittany.

A strategic play

"In writing The Seventh Function of Language, I was questioning the act of writing a novel, of writing a fiction as compared to writing about real life history. In HHhH, I wanted to make it clear that, in general, history is not a fiction — it's complicated to understand and to shape it for the history books. 

"We know that the Germans lost the Second World War, they didn't win. This is a fact: Auschwitz happened. History is not fiction, but there are many ways to understand it and to try to get lessons from it. Usually we don't get lessons from history because we always make the same mistakes again and again. But one way is to play with it, to play with what we know. 

"This is even more true with Civilizations, which was conceived like a game. The title Civilizations, in fact, is a reference to the popular strategy video game titled Civilization. It was important for me to tell the reader, 'This is a game, and this is not the truth.' 

History is not fiction, but there are many ways to understand it and to try to get lessons from it.

"One of the ultimate kinds of play or game with the novels is the counterfactual history, the "What if?" play. So I started to go this way a bit with The Seventh Function of Language and then I jumped into it with Civilizations. It is very important for the reader to understand that you can enjoy Civilizations as a big epic adventure story — but you will enjoy it more if you remember that this is all about history."

Revenge of the losers

"It's an unfair struggle, an unfair fight: art cannot really fight history. It's because those who are dead are dead — nothing can change that. There remains a fantasy. We can dream of that 'What if?' question: What if things were different for the worse or the better or anything else for something else?

"It's very hard to understand why one writes a historical novel. But I can't deny that, in my case, one reason was the possibility of granting revenge to the losers, to dream about a world where the winners wouldn't win and the losers wouldn't lose. 

It's an unfair struggle, an unfair fight: art cannot really fight history.

"It's to give a chance to those who didn't have a chance to defend themselves against the conquistadors, the Spaniards, when they showed up in America."

Of chance and conquest

"I can confess that I previously knew almost nothing about the Incas and about the conquistadors. I had an opportunity to go to the Lima International Book Fair in 2015. While there, I was fascinated by the culture and also by the stories of the conquest of Inca Peru as led by Francisco Pizarro and the conquest of Mexico by Cortés. I was really fascinated by the fact that 200 men took over an empire of millions of people. So I tried to understand how they did it. 

"The main reason was chance. The most decisive factor in these stories of war and conquest is always chance. I didn't realize that the Aztecs and the Incas were wiped out by European viruses and disease. And so when I came back to Paris, I was very interested. I wanted to know more about the Incas. 

The most decisive factor in these stories of war and conquest is always chance.

"I read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. He explained that the Incas were defeated because they didn't have the antibodies, the horses and steel, the derivative of iron. And in his book, Diamond wonders how Pizarro captured and imprisoned the Incan emperor Atahualpa — and not the opposite way? Why didn't Atahualpa travel to Spain to capture Charles V?

"And I thought, 'Yes, why not?' This is a story I wanted to read — so I wrote it."

Laurent Binet's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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