... 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.