... a work of absolutely unfettered historical invention ... is at once a profoundly thoughtful book and a very playful one—though Binet, who is unpretentious but extremely academic, plays on a fairly high level ... Even at its most intellectually elevated, though, Civilizations is a page-turner. Credit here goes to both Binet and his translator, Sam Taylor, whose English prose is clipped, opinionated, and vivid. Sentence to sentence, Civilizations reads less like other novels than it does like excellent researched nonfiction: I wouldn't be surprised if Binet, Taylor, or both count Robert Caro as a stylistic influence ... Binet's invented history is, event by event, as enjoyable to think about as it is to read. From a postcolonial perspective, it is satisfying to see Atahualpa take over Charles V's Spain, then survey Europe and determine swiftly that 'this world would be his.' It is more enjoyable still to watch him become an enlightened despot, banning the Inquisition and creating a 'Europe of tolerance' based on religious freedom and agrarian reform. Binet perhaps devotes too much energy to pointing out the absurdity of Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, when seen from the outside ... the rare novel that manages to wear its ethical investigation lightly without minimizing its own questions. Binet seems to genuinely want to know to what extent conquest and the cruelty it inevitably produces are reducible, redeemable, or escapable. He also plainly wants to play around. This duality is, perhaps, a more mature writer's version of the historical push-me-pull-you nature of HHhH. Binet now gives himself full freedom to visualize, but he still holds himself responsible for his visions. As a result, Civilizations is a serious success, in every sense of the word serious. If you read one novel this fall, make it this.
The details of the Inca ruler’s eventual conquest of Western Europe are so surprising in their ingenuity and so deliciously funny that I want only to regale you with all of them ... Mimicking the sober, informational style of historical epics, and seamlessly translated from the French by Sam Taylor, Civilizations constructs an alternate timeline that is at once an exquisitely ironic funhouse-mirror reflection of the past and, in itself, a wonderfully exciting account of political and military intrigue. The flourishes are irresistible ... Enriching the entertainment of these inventions is the deep-lying sense of subversion created by a record in which history is not ordained or inevitable ... as this sublime book shows, the supremacy of chance makes history no less thrilling to contemplate.
... attests to [Binet's] status as one of the most intellectually game writers of our time ... Deploying the dutifully admiring voice and stilted, decorous style of an unnamed historical chronicler, Binet recounts court intrigues, diplomatic negotiations, religio-political conflicts, military expeditions, major battles, alliances made and broken through money and marriage and regencies, and also the expenses and problems of governing ever more land and people ... If Binet played around with literary forms, genres and voices in his earlier fiction, here he and his translator, Sam Taylor, adopt them more straightforwardly, to balance out his imaginative incursion against history itself, even if this means the book can often be boring. This is a defiant, purposeful, unapologetic kind of boring. The very nature of a comprehensive chronicle of large-scale geographic, political, financial, religious and lineal conniving and convolution is necessarily complicated and dry, whether as history or counterhistory ... Fortunately, Binet’s historical feints afford imaginative frissons and relief from paragraph after paragraph of dutiful play-by-play about an empire in the making ... after 300 pages, the counterhistorical starts to lose its charge, more predictable than provocative ... Binet proves, however, more than only a Borgesian magician. As much is evident, for instance, in the letters Atahualpa exchanges with Higuénamota while the Mexicans are advancing across France and the emperor is losing battles and allies fast. They write with the high tone and reserved style befitting both their stations and Binet’s unstinting devotion to form and genre, but greater feeling nevertheless emerges. It’s the feeling two people have when they have gone through much together, only to discover that they are suddenly, decisively living through history — on the losing side.
... reads more like a collection of primary sources than a conventional novel. What to call it? A historical systems novel, preoccupied with the roots of great power conflict, and the historical forces that underpin it? Or just a jeu d’esprit? It’s a bit of both, and it’s tremendous fun ... splendidly in the spirit of this book, which you could see as a world-historical version of the parlour game where you assemble a fantasy dinner party from the past.
Binet combines fictional characters and well-known historical figures, whose destinies are radically changed by the novel’s civilizational reversal of fortune. Throughout the narrative, the author indulges in revised versions of historical references ... While there are several anachronisms and a few minor mistakes, Binet successfully interweaves his fictional narrative and the (revised) historical background. As he had done in La septième fonction du langage, Binet has produced an original, thought-provoking, and entertaining novel.
... characteristically ambitious, brilliant, exhausting and enchanting by turns ... Combining all the pleasure of a period romp with vital questions about our shared origin stories, Civilisations takes on nothing less than an alternative history of the modern world ... Binet expertly dangles his own fiction just a perspective away from the ones we learn at school ... What is 'history' if not a story told with such conviction, he seems to ask. Framed thus, Civilisations is a triumph: question and answer in one.
Civilisations, Binet’s latest work of speculative fiction, is not only more accessible to readers outside of France but more interesting ... The tone is pitch-perfect, even when Binet switches gears. Sam Taylor, who translated the two preceding novels, keeps the prose playful and bright, moving effortlessly from one epistolary style to another. Whatever journey Binet chooses to take us on, we are safe in Taylor’s hands ... Binet’s goal seems to be to give his readers a story that’s quirky, fun, and a bit of an adventure yarn. In that, he succeeds. But it does seem strange that all the same familiar figures rise to prominence despite the radically altered circumstances surrounding them. Binet still engages in the literary games he enjoys, fully committing to the conceit that this is, in fact, a collection of historical records ... Civilisations is a bit of historical fluff—more circus than bread—that falls short of the genius of Binet’s first novel and the ambition of his second. And, yet, I can’t help but think that this is what he intended all along. Binet has shown us that he possesses the rare ability to write wherever on the literary spectrum he chooses.
... a novel rich in playful literary pastiches ... In Mexico, the Aztecs also discover a taste for epic seafaring. Here, Binet overreaches himself. Too much happens too fast to allow more than an overstuffed recital of imaginary chronologies. The laborious pile-up of alternative facts renders this phase of Civilisations clogged and inert. Yet the mischievous wit of Binet’s premise never quite forsakes him ... abounds in bold ideas, but has trouble making some of them stick — a problem, after all, that has plagued empire-builders throughout history.
Binet certainly has fun ... It is a novel that flatters the reader’s intellect: the more you know about the Renaissance the more you’ll recognise ... The problem is that it feels like showing off rather than anything properly considered. There could be a point to this counterfactual history, giving us a consideration of Christianity seen through the eyes of baffled outsiders who find it difficult to accept that a powerful god 'let his son be nailed to a cross by the men he was trying to help', or thinking through how Europe might have developed had tolerance prevailed rather than religions at war. But these lines are never properly pursued; instead Binet gives in to the temptation of the easy joke — an artist named Michelangelo makes a sculpture of Viracocha, creator of celestial bodies; Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries and replaces them with Temples of the Sun; Francis I has his heart ripped out on that Louvre pyramid. So yes, it’s fun, but it’s not substantial. Still, perhaps that’s enough.
You can sense how much fun Binet is having, rearranging the cultural collage and inverting the power dynamics...But the novel suffers from a lack of aesthetic ambition, a failure to lean all the way in to its bold concept. Most puzzling, for example, is the choice to model the vast Atahualpa section after Western historical writing as we currently know it. If the Incas took over Europe, revised its laws, ended its conflicts, and upended its religions, would the form be so familiar? My sense is that indigenous epistemology would have become so ingrained in the Fifth Quarter that its conception of history would be thrillingly new. Certainly, this would have been a tall order to pull off – but that is what Binet has set himself up to do ... an often gratingly procedural story, its sentences buckling under the weight of research ... One of the great historical tragedies, as Laurent Binet’s epigraph suggests, is all the stories that colonization never allowed to be told. Yet in this somewhat hollow revision, art doesn’t give life to what history killed: it just kills it again.
Sounds interesting, right? Well, it ought to be, but by God (or Inti, if you are a devotee of the Inca sun god) is this book dry ... In The 7th Function of Language Binet struggled to dramatise the stakes involved in his speculative scenario, even for those au fait with the cultural and political figures he was sending up. In Civilisations he finds it harder still, relying on hammy cliffhangers to stir interest...Set-piece battles are described with all the vigour of chess notation and too many of his sentences seem to be influenced by the kind of term papers he must have marked in his past life as a history teacher ... True, the distant tone enables some enjoyably tart humour about European mores as seen through Incan eyes ... always feels like an idea, not a novel.
... daring and often delightful ... Though some parts are less successful than others, this ingeniously configures a new framework of colonialism, with Mexico dominating the new world. Binet delights with his imaginative powers.