PARIS — There’s a scene in Laurent Binet’s latest novel, Civilizations, where an encounter between conqueror and conquered comes to life in the vivid depiction of a painting by Renaissance painter Titian.
It was an imaginary scenario – of the Incas from Peru invading 16th-century Europe, not the other way around, as happened in 1532 – that haunted and inspired Binet.
“There’s something melancholy about my book,” he said in an interview at his home last month, “because it offers the defeated revenge they never really had.”
The reality for the Incas, like many other indigenous people, is that they were killed and exploited, Binet added. “That’s what both fascinates and horrifies me: you can think what you want of the past, but you can’t change it.”
Binet, 49, has made a name for himself writing historical novels that blur the lines between fact and fiction. His debut album “HHhH”, translated into 34 languages (including English in 2012), blended history, fiction and autobiography to explore the events surrounding the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. He followed up in 2015 with “The Seventh Function of Language,” a murder mystery set in the 1980s that poked fun at the posture of Parisian intellectuals. French magazine L’Express called it “the most insolent novel of the year”.
“Civilizations”, published by Grasset in France in 2019, will be published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 14. It won the Grand Prix du Roman, an annual literary prize awarded by the French Academy, in 2019, and is being developed as a multilingual television series to be shot in South America and Europe. It is co-produced by Anonymous Content in the United States and Païva Studio in France.
All three novels have been translated from French to English by Sam Taylor, who praises Binet’s “unpredictability” as an author. “What unites Laurent’s three novels more than anything is the desire to push the boundaries of possibilities offered by fiction,” he said in an email. “There’s a kind of swagger and daring, a playful ambition and a dry wit that undermines everything and keeps it from tipping into pretentiousness.”
Binet said he was motivated to write “Civilizations” after being invited to the Lima International Book Fair in 2015. “At that time, I didn’t know anything about how the Incas were conquered.” he said, but he became fascinated with their culture and returned to the book fair in 2017 to do more research. Back in Paris, his half-brother gave him a copy of Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, which contains a chapter on how the last emperor of the Incas, Atahualpa, was captured by Francisco Pizarro and his men.
“Diamond wonders why it was Pizarro who came to capture Atahualpa in Peru and not Atahualpa who came to capture Charles V in Spain,” Binet said. “That line was a real trigger for me, and I thought, why not tell that story instead?”
When “Civilizations” was released in France in 2019, some critics, such as Lise Wajeman at Mediapart and Frédéric Werst at En Attendant Nadeau, wondered if Binet had not attributed to the Incas a specifically European appetite for conquest. But Binet is convinced that is not the case. “The desire to conquer is not just European, it is universal,” he said, noting the empire building of the Mongols and Aztecs.
In his book, however, Binet portrays the conquering Incas as far more benevolent than their European counterparts. Atahualpa becomes known as “the protector of the poor” for his egalitarian policies. The Incas are horrified by the savagery of the Spanish Inquisition, despite their own traditions of human sacrifice.
“I find the inversions of perspective and viewpoints quite stimulating,” Binet said. “I think Montaigne summed it up very well when he wrote that ‘we all call things that are contrary to our own habits barbarians.'”
Binet’s love of history was instilled in him by his father, a teacher who would entertain him with factual stories about World War II and the Hundred Years’ War. “He gave me a taste for history from a narrative perspective,” Binet said. “These snippets of history made me dream.”
When he was around 12, his father told him about the two paratroopers – a Slovak and a Czech – who assassinated Gestapo official Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. “It made me want to know more,” said he declared.
Two enlarged photographs in the living room of Binet’s apartment give further clues to his passions. One is that of French literary theorist Roland Barthes, whose death awakens the mystery in “The Seventh Function of Language”. “Barthes taught me to read a text,” says Binet. “I was a professor of French literature, and he provided me with a grid for reading a text, and as a semiotician, a grid for reading the world. He made me smarter than I was and helps me every day.
The other photo is of tennis star John McEnroe. Growing up in the western Paris suburb of Elancourt, where he learned to play by flying the ball against his bedroom wall, Binet admired McEnroe’s skills (they are both left-handed) and his rebellious personality on the pitch. .
When Binet was in his early twenties, he spent a night handcuffed in a Normandy police station after he was caught painting graffiti. “It was during my surreal period,” he said. “I wanted to write a poetic sentence about what turned out to be a civic monument.” A love of surrealism also led to his first book, Strengths and Weaknesses of Nos Muqueuses, a mix of prose and poetry released in 2000 but no longer in print. There was also a four-year stint singing in a rock band called Stalingrad. “Most of the time I was struggling with my guitar, trying to remember my own lyrics and hiding my flaws as a musician behind a wall of sound,” he said. He started teaching French literature to high school students in 1999 and did so for 10 years.
His breakthrough as a writer dates back to 2004 with the publication of his memoir “La Vie Professionnelle de Laurent B.”, in which he recounts his experiences as a teacher in the French school system. It was at this time that Binet became convinced of the importance of “cultural melting pots”, in which different creative fields became more likely to influence each other. “It is clear that filmmakers are inspired by literature and painting and that painters are inspired by writers,” he said. “For me, the TV series ’24’ was a narrative revolution, so I’m very clearly a product of my age.”
Binet’s teaching career gave him an in-depth knowledge of 19th-century French writers. But contemporary American literature was what opened his horizons, he said, naming Bret Easton Ellis as his favorite living writer.
The writers Taylor, Binet’s translator, said the novelist reminds him of the most are the avant-garde European superstars of the 70s and 80s, such as Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino. Like them, Binet speaks of writing in terms of “gaming”. But when he discovered the writing of “Civilizations”, he is also saddened by the way history repeats itself.
“It’s a bit depressing,” he said, “to see that there are clear parallels to be drawn today with the 16th century regarding religious intolerance and religious fundamentalism.”