Welcome to the new world

I’m readingĀ CivilizationsĀ by Laurent Binet. It’s an alternate history novel about the conquest of Western Europe by the Incas.

It starts with a different end to the Viking expeditions to Vinland and continues centuries later with Christopher Columbus getting his just desserts from the Taino. Decades after that, the bulk of the book covers the Sapa Inca Atahualpa’s conquest of Western Europe, and then there’s a substantial epilogue covering the young mercenary Miguel Cervantes’ adventures across the Mediterranean.

The book gives a lot of lucky coincidences to its protagonists, while the indigenous Americans adopt and invent new technologies too quickly, but I’m not complaining since otherwise the story wouldn’t exist. The realistic outcome would have been the one that actually happened in our world, and who needs to run over that again? We can just handwave all that science stuff about Eurasia’s larger disease pool and virgin soil epidemics and whatever.

Anyway, if you’re familiar with Spain’s conquest of the New World then a lot of the Inca section is basically that with the parties reversed. In our world Atahualpa’s father the emperor died from smallpox and a civil war broke out, with Atahualpa defeating his brother to become emperor.

However, here Atahualpa loses and is chased out of the empire with his last 200 followers. They desperately repair Columbus’ wrecked ships and escape east to unknown lands with a Cuban princess who learned Spanish from a certain enslaved Genoese captain.

They end up in Portugal immediately after the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1531. The chaos gives them a chance to survive and they end up meeting the queen of Spain. However, they’re forced to attack and capture the queen and kill 3000 of Toledo’s Christians after learning that the Inquisition is planning to kill them. There’s a short detour to the centre of learning, Salamanca, for the group to learn about this New World, but the Toledo massacre marks the beginning of a series of escalations that ends with Atahualpa capturing the king of Spain.

The small band had only been doing what they needed to survive each succeeding crisis, but after making contact with Atahualpa’s brother and making peace, they gain the resources to aim higher. Atahualpa uses the gold, silver, and gunpowder supplied by his brother, in exchange for technology and various cultural products (wine, trompe l’oeil paintings, honey, and so on) to become first king of Spain, then Belgium and the Netherlands, and then eventually he unites Germany to become Holy Roman Emperor. Along the way he triumphs over the pirate Barbarossa, takes half the North African coast, and is dubbed conquistador.

Atahualpa’s success is due to the radical reforms he enacts, somewhat by accident and somewhat by design. After first taking the Spanish crown, he guarantees freedom of religion to reward his first European followers, the oppressed Moors and Jews of Spain, but also to allow space for the Incan worship of the sun so central to their rituals and politics. Ending the Inquisition is a popular move and converts quickly flock to a religion backed by a victorious conqueror.

Atahualpa’s second radical reform involves Germany, where by now he has gained a reputation as a champion of the poor, thanks to implementing in Spain certain quasi-socialist Incan political structures (taxes paid in labour, housing provided free by the state, abolition of serfdom, and various radical changes that accord with historical records from our world). Germany has seen repeated peasant revolts over the years and the downtrodden see in Atahualpa their salvation. In turn, Atahualpa is glad enough to invade various German states at the invitation of the residents in his lust for Charlemagne’s throne. A complicated public dialogue with Martin Luther ensues so that Atahualpa can secure the votes of the Protestant electors, but it breaks down and the peasants rise up in anger that their greatest chance has been lost. The electors beg Atahualpa for help and he imposes order and becomes Emperor of the Romans.

Thus, in this alternate world Atahualpa has forestalled Europe’s Wars of Religion, the Thirty Years War which devastated Germany, enacted the Peace of Westphalia a century early, and sidestepped the enclosure of the commons that was to come in later years.

Anyway, this book is pretty fun if you’re familiar with the history it changes. It’s just deliciously clever at developing a world that parallels but doesn’t mirror our own. I probably missed a bunch of stuff in the Cervantes section since I’ve never read Montaigne, who appears as a character, but oh well.

The book is translated from French but I didn’t really notice anything awkward because of this. The vast majority of translated works I read are Japanese, Korean, and Chinese comics, but now that I think about it, the few translated novels I read tend to be French.

So yeah, I recommend this book for aficionados of history.

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