Book Review

Civilisations by Laurent Binet tr. by Sam Taylor

c.1000AD: Erik the Red’s daughter heads south from Greenland

1492: Columbus does not discover America

1531: the Incas invade Europe

Freydís is the leader of a band of Viking warriors who get as far as Panama. Nobody knows what became of them…

Five hundred years later, Christopher Columbus is sailing for the Americas, dreaming of gold and conquest. Even when captured by Incas, his faith in his superiority and his mission is unshaken.

Thirty years after that, Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, arrives in Europe. What does he find? The Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation, capitalism, the miracle of the printing press, endless warmongering between the ruling monarchies, and constant threat from the Turks.

But most of all, downtrodden populations ready for revolution. Fortunately, he has a recent guidebook to acquiring power – Machiavelli’s The Prince. It turns out he is very good at it. So, the stage is set for a Europe ruled by Incas and, when the Aztecs arrive on the scene, for a great war that will change history forever.

Civilisations is a wildly entertaining counterfactual story about the modern world, colonisation, empire-building and the eternal human quest for domination. It is an electrifying novel by one of Europe’s most exciting writers.

I adored HHhH (although I always have to check which one of the four is in lower case) and was intrigued by the premise of Civilisations.  Binet’s latest novel presents an interesting alternative history in which the Incas invade Europe.  Now, history isn’t my forte, and I was a little concerned that – beyond the obvious – I would miss the points at which the novel deviates from the truth and what it is that enables this version of events.  I needn’t have worried.  The points of divergence are clear enough that most readers should understand the differences in this history to ours.

The novel is split into four sections, and each one has quite a different feel to it.  The first section reads like a Norse saga, and we see Freydís Eiríksdóttir – daughter of Erik the Red – travel from Greenland down to the Americas.  It may seem a little disparate – it’s so much earlier than the events of the rest of the novel – but while it’s a short section it’s proves vital given the communities that Freydís and her crew encounter.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s what they leave in their wake that aids the Incan conquest later on in the novel.  Freydís is quite a character, and I could happily read about her exploits all day long.  She and her crew encounter some tricky situations, and yet she – for reasons of her own – is reluctant to turn around, content to explore these strange lands. 

The second section is told in the form of the diary of Christopher Columbus in the late 15th century. This is where my concern arose around not understanding the difference in these fictionalised events, but as I say, it proved to be not an issue. I loved the shift in form for this section, and while I’m already a fan of epistolary formats, I think it works particularly well in this case to highlight the challenges Columbus faces in the Americas – challenges that are rather different to those he actually encountered.  It’s an intriguing set up that immediately had me thinking ‘oh but that means …” and I think that you can see how Binet was able to extrapolate from this point.

The third section is the largest and most detailed and it’s here that we see Atahualpa fleeing South America due to an ongoing civil war that he seems unlikely to win. Sailing east, he arrives in a fractious Europe, and – aided by a number of individuals – begins to acquire power.  Some of this is through warfare, although much of his conquest is political rather than purely conquering by force.  And there are some playful elements to the narrative – particularly as the shift away from Catholicism allows Henry VIII to practice polygamy.  I understand that Civilisations is a thought-experiment, and of course things may not have turned out as presented here, but the Incan society that is established in Europe seems more accepting, fairer and more open – ensuring that resources are shared and food is distributed more evenly, rather than allowing a small number of individuals to live off the fat of the land while those who do the work live in poverty.  And Atahualpa promises a pair of llamas to every couple when they get married.  I’m sold! 🦙

There is another short, final section that gives an account of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote. Again, his fate is not quite his own, and this section illustrates how events from our own history might have been altered. To be honest, I expect that there is more to it than that, but not knowing much about the man, I’m not sure what else to make of it. Despite this, I found Civilisations to be a thoroughly enjoyable novel. It’s well thought out, and I think that it’s a novel that encourages further reading to understand this period of history in order to fully appreciate the differences wrought by Binet.  While it doesn’t extend to the present day – I think there are just too many moving parts to extrapolate so far – I couldn’t help but wonder what it would mean for us today and our more recent history.  Brilliant, thought-provoking, and perhaps just a little tongue in cheek.


  1. I really want to read this one – I think I’m feeling slightly daunted by it – and your review has convinced me I need to take the plunge! I’ll make it a summer holiday project.

    1. Do it! I had the same feeling going in, but it turned out fine! Hope you enjoy it! 🙂

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