‘The Story, I mean. History.’

by Luke Warde

Laurent Binet, trans. Sam Taylor, Civilisations
Harvill Secker 320pp ISBN 9781787302297 £16.99

It’s hard to get away from cause and effect, the fundament of it all, or so we’re told by physicists and metaphysicians alike. The very concept is both disturbing and comforting. On the one hand, causality implies a determinism to which, it seems, we must pliantly submit. On the other, it represents an ideal of predictability without which reason or logic are themselves unfathomable. If only for this, it’s hard to imagine the so-called ‘human sciences’ ever dispensing with its dictates, even as some of the more rarefied subfields of quantum mechanics and mathematics continue to challenge them. For the historian, causality is nothing less than a sine qua non; he or she must eventually curate the profusion of facts into something like a coherent, plausible narrative. This process can only be governed by the laws of cause and effect; anything else is inconceivable. If compellingly argued, what results should convey a sense of reassuring inevitability. What happened had to happen; there was no alternative, to paraphrase Lady Thatcher.

Laurent Binet is a novelist, but also, perhaps, something of a historian manqué. He’s fascinated by the way the raw facts of history become, or are moulded into, narrative(s). A large measure of contrivance and ruse are par for the course. No wonder readers have mistaken him for yet another metafictional chaos theorist, high on Derrida and Barthes (it doesn’t help that one of Binet’s novels, The Seventh Function of Language (2015), revolved around some of ‘French Theory’s’ doyens). Yet as James Wood pointed out in an extended review of HHhH (2010), Binet’s insurgent early novel, the latter seems sceptical not of history or our ability to document its complexities, but of literature and the value of verisimilitude. Binet, Wood wrote, is ‘suspicious of fiction, but not suspicious enough of the fictionality of the historical record.’ The novel’s narrator, which Binet has repeatedly insisted is him, inveighs against the very impulse to render history as narrative fiction: to ‘reduce’ events to mere literature is an ‘ignominious transformation’ born of a ‘childish desire.’ In the broadest sense, Binet appears to consider invention ex nihilo to be ethically suspect.

Yet for all his apparent dismissal of fiction per se, HHhH was a novel, not a historical monograph. For Binet the novelist, it’s permissible to write about history, so long as one comes clean, admitting to their subterfuges and conceding their fallibility. A ‘true story’ is possible, in other words, but only when supplemented by the facts of its gestation. Hence in HHhH will Binet periodically intervene, mocking his pretensions and imprecisions; reflecting on his hesitations and second-guesses; flagging his about-turns and losses-of-nerve. The norms of realism are pawned for honesty: he, the author, is trying his best, no more no less.

The stakes of all this are raised by HHhH’s subject matter. The novel documents Operation Anthropoid, the goal of which was the assassination of SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, a man whose cruelty was deemed exceptional even by Hitler, who dubbed him ‘the man with the iron heart.’ The plotters were the parachutists Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš, Slovak and Czech respectively. They are history’s heroes, but they’re not the novel’s protagonists: to Binet’s chagrin, Heydrich’s presence slowly colonises the narrative, crowding out the actions of his killers. What’s more, Binet engineers for himself an uncomfortable paradox: in order to be faithful to his method, he must make himself central to HHhH’s narrative, lest he be complicit with realist convention. Enamoured of his own cleverness, his constant intrusions risk seeming narcissistic, although the effect is softened by ample, if ironised, self-deprecation: ‘I must admit that in this case . . . my knowledge is a bit sketchy.’

HHhH is a compelling, if flawed, tour de force. Its whimsy makes an important and often overlooked point about the possibility of great evil coinciding with farce. Of course, Binet is hardly the first French novelist to tackle the vexed problem of how to represent Nazism or its most prominent malefactors: HHhH joins an array of others including Michel Tournier’s The Ogre (1970), Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2006) and Yannick Haenel’s The Messenger (2009). Like Binet’s novel, the last two combine – to varying degrees – erudition with metafictional flamboyance; all triggered significant controversies. In HHhH, Binet’s brand of zaniness — uncomfortable for some readers — is his means of approaching the deadly serious. But it’s hard to shake the sense that, given the topic and its gravity, a trifle too much fun is being had.

Civilisations, first published in French in 2019, follows The Seventh Function of Language and is close to it in spirit. Together, they mark a break in Binet’s work, or at least in his approach to historiography: gone is his documentarian’s reverence for veracity. Embracing his role as omniscient puppet master, Civilisations presents a labyrinthine counterfactual history in which Europe’s colonisation of the Americas is turned on its head. The novel begins with a pastiche of the Icelandic saga of Freydis Eriksdottir; in Binet’s alternative account, her small band of Vikings make contact with the Taíno of Cuba and later the proto-Incas of South America, populations which later develop immunity to smallpox. Some 500 years later, Christopher Columbus sets sail, but never returns to Europe, instead perishing in obscurity. Meanwhile, the Inca leader Atahualpa, at war with his brother Huascar and fleeing his army, sails east, eventually making landfall at Lisbon, which has been devastated by an earthquake. Through a combination of ad hoc ingenuity, martial might, sheer luck, and some counsel from Machiavelli’s The Prince, Atahualpa comes to rule Europe, forging unlikely alliances and establishing relative peace on a continent ravaged by religious strife. This harmony is short lived, however: the Aztecs later invade, conquering France and erecting a pyramid in the Louvre. . .

This uchronia is inventive and carried off with some panache. Structurally, it’s a smorgasbord of styles, marrying saga, historical chronicle, epic, the epistolary, and the picaresque. There’s cleverness, in the choreographed serendipities underlying the comedy of Civilisations. Atahualpa arrives just as Europe is tearing itself apart over what seem to the Incas absurd theological minutiae. Delicious satire is teed-up, à la Voltaire’s Candide:

The Quitonians realised that something serious was going on around the different groups of believers, the Jews and the conversos, the Moorish Mohammedans, the Lutherans, the old and new Christians. They were not exactly sure what was at play behind these stories about the nailed god and cooking with lard, but they knew that the Levantines took all of it very seriously, as the ceremony with the pyres had amply proved.

Binet has to ventriloquise a wide canvass of historical figures, who appear in a series of cameos: the hispanophone Taíno princess, Higuénamota, daughter of Anacoana; Charles V; Martin Luther; Lorenzo de Medici; Michel de Montaigne; and Miguel de Cervantes. This history-as-theme-park approach is fun but also gimmicky, smacking less of Kundera than of Tarantino at his more juvenile. Significantly, Binet’s title refers explicitly to Civilization — the French title is spelt with a ‘z’ (I’m not sure why Sam Taylor’s translation hasn’t retained this reference) — the video game developed by Sid Meier, which allows players to construct bespoke ‘civilizations’ ab initio.

Binet’s title is a nod to his intentions: he wants to play with history, and in video games the player is in control. Whereas in HHhH he employs play to give the lie to the fiction of history as a schematic progression, in Civilisations the opposite is true: the fun element of Binet’s novel conceals the contingencies and internal tensions that HHhH reveals as endemic to history. This extends to Binet’s vision of his ersatz history’s motor: Civilisations recapitulates the Great Man Theory of history, even if a few more women are thrown in. This sits uneasily with Binet’s presumptive priorities. As he put it in HHhH: ‘fictional gimmicks aside, I doubt whether one man’s destiny can determine a nation’s, never mind the whole world’s.’

This is a shame, because Like HHhH, which constituted a new kind of historical novel, Civilisations represents a bold departure for speculative fiction. It poses questions the best anthropological writing strives after: why is a culture or society the way it is? How did this come to be? Was this inevitable? What might have been? Its humour is crucial to this process of exposure, which, at its strongest, collapses ethnocentric bias, making the grotesque hypocrisy of self-declared ‘civilised’ Europeans blindingly obvious as they butcher and torture one another in ways and for reasons scarcely conceivable to their conquerors, who react with horror and bemusement. At the same time, as Frédéric Werst pointed out in a critique on the French literary blog, En attendant Nadeau, there are limits, given the means employed, to how effectively Binet can challenge colonial ideology. In particular, Werst considers him complicit in the discourse that Civilisations seeks to attack, attributing to its historical victims a version of the conquistador ideology to which they were brutally subjected.

Werst situates Civilisations in the context of a French literary tradition of ‘estrangement’ that has long drawn problematically on what were considered ‘exotic’ cultures. Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes (1721), Françoise de Graffigny’s Lettres d’une Péruvienne (1747), and Voltaire’s Candide (1759) and L’Ingénu (1767) are some better-known examples of this genre, which uses the ‘defamiliarised’ perspective of a non-European narrator in order to disturb cultural and social norms, usually to satirical effect. The approach has always been double-edged: reliant on the supposed naivety of a foreign narrator, it traffics in racist stereotypes, despite its ostensibly humanist goal of exposing European or Western hypocrisy.

Binet is far too sophisticated — and progressive — a writer to bolster overt prejudice. And he’s done his research, even if a few unfortunate anachronisms crop up (Thomas More, for example, uses the term ‘atheist,’ which didn’t yet exist). He avoids a romanticisation of the ‘other’ through the trope of the ‘noble savage.’ His message is that people act and adapt to circumstance, not out of any innate benevolence or vice. Accordingly, Atahualpa’s mobilisation of Europe’s downtrodden is as much a strategic ploy to secure power over the continent as it is an expression of sympathy. While establishing, in Binet’s words, a ‘kind of proto-socialist’ economic system, the Incas’ colonisation entails violence and suppression, as imperialist projects must.

Nonetheless, the relative licence he avails himself of in this novel poses difficult questions about the telling of history. Binet himself touched on this issue, intriguingly, in HHhH: ‘the dialogue in the preceding chapter is the perfect example of the difficulties I’m facing. Certainly Flaubert didn’t have the same problems with Salammbô, because nobody recorded the conversations of Hamilcar, father of Hannibal.’ There can be no testimony for the Incas whose voices are lost beyond retrieval, silenced by an imperialism he now makes them the drivers of in his story. Those whose testimony remains — the historical victors — are quoted from liberally; one may wonder whether there is justice in the consolation prize of fiction offered to those history destroyed.

Binet has stated that Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies (1997) inspired the novel’s counterfactual premise. Diamond has come in for a great deal of criticism for his reductiveness. In the London Review of Books, Armand Marie Leroi argued that Diamond conceives of history according to ‘simple causal hypotheses of the kind that prevail in the natural sciences’, and concluded that Guns, Germs and Steel represents an inadequate attempt to ‘transcend the peculiarities of politics and culture.’ The same might be said for Binet’s fictional extrapolation of a question posed implicitly in Diamond’s book: why was it Francisco Pizarro, with ‘his ragtag group of 168 soldiers’, who took Atahualpa prisoner, and not the other way round? While able to pose questions that even Diamond never could, Civilisations sits uneasily with Binet’s erstwhile views on history and authorial rectitude. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised: The Seventh Function of Language, after all, was riotously cavalier with the facts, and surely heralded this evolution.

Fiction, maybe he’s realised, is just a lot more fun.