Laurent Binet ‘Civilizations’

The sight puzzled the Quitonians. Atahualpa himself, known and admired for his ability to keep imperially calm, even before the most surprising of situations, was unable to hide a slight expression of curiosity.
At the centre of the square, as if locked in a cage, stood some men and women wearing pointed hoods and dressed in robes, sometimes yellow sometimes black on which red crosses and flames were painted. On the yellow robes the flames were turned to the ground. Certain of them had knotted ropes around their knecks. Each of them held in his or her hands a long unlit candle. next to them were placed black chests and human sized dolls….
Human sacrifices were nothing unusual for the Incas. Although we know that Atahualpa, even if he didn’t want to let anythind show, was shocked by the sight of the bodies twisting as they burned and by their screams.***

Welcome to Laurent Binet’s uchronia, where rather than the Spanish invading and conquering South America, he tells us the opposing story of Europe being invaded by the Incas, a far fetched idea? or is it? Binet’s three what ifs are simple, what if at the time of Columbus’s trip the South Americans were immune to the European diseases, what if they had equivalent iron forging abilities and if they had horses, could things have happened differently?

In this four part book, Binet begins with the story of Freydis, The daughter of Erik the red, the Norse explorer and settler who set up a colony on the south coast of Greenland around 970 AD and for which there are traces of their long houses in Newfoundland. In this first section Binet tells us of her trip sailing south along the American coast, of the people’s they meet:

The small colony settled near a Skraeling village and, not just content with coexisting without incident, the two groups help each other. The Greenlanders teach the Skraelings to look for iron in the peat and how to work it to make axes, spears and arrow heads…..
But eventually the Skraelings fell ill.***

He tells us how they adventure further and further south and of how they stop first in Cuba and then further South on the mainland, mixing with the local ‘Skraelings’ and raising horses.

At the end of the first section they are now better ready for Columbus. The second part of the book is Columbus’s diary, which tells of Columbus being taken prisoner and never making it back to Europe, of his boats which are taken and of the Cuban’s learning to sail in them, of Columbus teaching the little Higuénamota, the Cuban princess, to speak castillan.

The third and by far the longest part of the book concerns the conquest, the chronicles of Atahualpa. Before this book my knowledge of the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire was limited to my ‘O’ level English Literature studies of Peter Schaffers ‘Royal Hunt of the Sun’. But in a few words, how less than two hundred Spanish invaders were able to conquer the Inca kingdom of up to 10 million people, with Pablo Pissaro arriving during the war between the two brothers, Atahualpa and Huáscar for the throne.

Here, Atahualpa and his faithful generals, Chalcuchimac, Quizquiz, and Ruminawi and several hundred soldiers and families are beaten back and flee to Cuba where Atahualpa meets the now adult queen Higuénamota. They are then able to sail east in the direction of Higuénamotta’s memories of Columbus’s tales.

But how would they conquer Europe? Binet models the events on mirror images of the actual events. The Inca empire was divided and ruled peoples that wanted freedom and that Pablo Pissaro was able to use against the Incas.

The Incas arrive first in Portugal after a massive earthquake and are able to gain a foothold and move on to Spain where a large sweep of European history shows us the Spanish empire ruling over peoples that wanted their freedom. Atahualpa reads and becomes a disciple of Machievelli ‘Your enemy’s enemies are your allies’. After seeing the Inquisition and their treatment of the ‘Conversos’, the Jews who had been forced to convert but were now being judged and burnt in Toledo, illustrated in the opening quote, Atahualpa, in a manoeuvre mirroring that of Pissaro, seizes Charles V the holy Roman emperor.

Binet takes us on a voyage around 16th century Europe and its divisions as he illustrates, using diplomacy and strategy in the deeply divided state of Europe, with religious wars, Martin Luther and the beginning of capitalism, Atahualpa uses gold from South America and money lenders to finance an army.

This was a thoughroughly enjoyable book with a number of amusing details, such as Higuénamota meeting Paulo Pizzaro in Toledo where they witness the inquisition in work and where she saves Pizzaro’s life and he becomes her page, or the building of a pyramid in the Louvre! Of the Mexicans landing on the Normandy beaches on the 6th June!

If you can read this in French then go out of your way to get it, if not then queue up for the inevitable English translation.

First Published in French as “Civilizations” in 2019 by Grasset
*** my translation

The quotes as read in French before translation

Le spectacle intrigue les Quinétiens. Atahualpa lui-mème, connu et admiré pour sa capacité à ne jamais se départir de son calme impérial, y compris devant les choses et les situations les plus surprenantes, ne put dissimuler une légère expression de curiosité.
Au centre de la place, comme enfermés dans une cage, se tenaient des hommes et des femmes coiffés d’un bonnet pointu et vêtu d’une robe, tantôt jaune tantôt noire, sur laquelle étaient peintes des croix rouges et des flammes. Sur les robes jaunes, les flammes étaient tournées vers le bas. Certains avaient des cordes à nœuds passés autour du cou. Tous tenaient à la main une longue bougie éteinte. Posés à côté d’eux, des coffres noirs et des poupées de taille humaine….
Les sacrifices humaines n’étaient pas étrangers aux Incas. Pourtant nous savons qu’Atahualpa, même s’il n’en voulut rien laisser paraître, fut choqué par le spectacle des corps qui se tordaient en se consumant, et par les cris des suppliciés.

La petite colonie s’installa dans la voisinage du village Skraeling et non contents de cohabiter sans incidents, les deux groupes s’entraidèrent. Les Groenlandais enseignèrent aux Skraelings à chercher du fer dans la tourbe et à le travailler pour en faire des haches, des lances ou des pointes de flèche…
Or il arriva que les Skraelings tombèrent malades

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