In Laurent Binet’s Civilizations: A Novel, “The world was slipping off its axis.” Civilizations tells the story of the world if the international power dynamics were shifted. What if the Vikings had come into contact with South American peoples earlier, immunizing them to the diseases that ultimately contributed to the decimation of their population? What if native people had captured Christopher Columbus before he could colonize them? What if the Incas had conquered Europe?
Binet interrogates how we think about empire, power, and historical memory. The main section of the book, which tells the story of the rise and fall of the Incan King Atahualpa’s empire, is narrated from the Incan perspective. While in Western history books native peoples have often been characterized as “savage,” this retelling portrays Christians as the savage ones–after all, the Christians whom the Inca came into contact with burned people at the stake and allowed serfs to starve. The book also brings to mind critical race theorist Gloria Ladson-Billings’ argument about the universality of Western ideas. She writes that in the legal field, “some legal scholars might contend that the tort of fraud has always existed and that it is a component belonging to the universal system of right and wrong. This world-view tends to discount anything that is nontranscendent (historical), or contextual (socially constructed), or nonuniversal (specific) with the unscholarly labels of ‘”emotional,’ ‘literary,’ ‘personal,’ or false.’” Civilizations similarly rejects the premise that everything Western is universal, and that there is only one way that power can be used. Atahualpa certainly uses violence and war in building his empire, but he also provides a welfare system that reallocates wealth. Binet contextualizes events and tactfully points out the contradictions between the conventional narratives of history and how it could be told if a different group had the chance to write it.
The book also raises questions about style: How do we think about storytelling, about novels, and about the inevitability of history? The first section of the book is written in a style that feels similar to mythology or the Bible, while the main section is written more like a historical account. The main characters are often idolized by the narrator, and major events are told one after another, without the filler characteristic of novels. In fact, although the title includes the word “novel,” Civilizations reads more like an epic poem or a history textbook, depending on the section. There also isn’t much description of everyday life, which is another basic characteristic of novels. The lack of explanation of the details of everyday life makes the large-scale events seem random rather than destined. It seems as if anything could happen at any point. When analyzing historical events, it can be tempting to ascribe motivation or cause retroactively, but Civilizations is careful to portray the danger of attributing order to the past.
Although Binet tries to picture a different world and succeeds in the particulars, the overall arc of history is ultimately the same. Why is it that in a fictional retelling of history, there still must be empire, conquest, and subscription to Machiavellian principles? Even the positive changes, such as religious freedom coming to Europe centuries early, still follow this pattern of cultural domination: religious freedom is instituted, what’s different is when and by whom. Why are these phenomena considered inevitable? Could it be that Binet is so ingrained in his culture that he is limited in his ability to imagine other possibilities, indeed believing that certain things are historically universal? Perhaps Binet is only trying to make history recognizable to readers and maintains the basic structure of history so that the novel maintains a degree of “realism.” While Civilizations does prompt readers to think critically about how we tell history, the ultimate lesson is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.