How a French Novelist Turns the Tables of History


PARIS — In Laurent Binet’s latest novel, “Civilizations,” there is a scene in which an encounter between the conqueror and the conquered comes to life in a vivid depiction of a painting by the Renaissance painter Titian.

A fictional scenario of the Peruvian Incas who invaded and inspired 16th century Europe, not the one that haunted and inspired Binet in 1532.

“There is something melancholy in my book,” he said in an interview at home last month, “because it offers the conquered a vengeance they never really had.”

Binet added that for the Incas, like many other Indigenous peoples, the reality was that they were killed and exploited. “This is what both fascinates and terrifies me: you can think whatever you want about the past, but you can’t change it.”

Binet, 49, made a name for herself by writing historical novels that blur the lines between fact and fiction. his first”faqsTranslated into 34 languages ​​(including English in 2012), it combines history, fiction and autobiography to explore the events surrounding the assassination of Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich. in 2015″The Seventh Function of Language” is a murder mystery set in the 1980s that mocks the attitudes of Parisian intellectuals. The French magazine L’Express called it “the most impudent novel of the year”.

Published by Grasset in France in 2019, “Civilizations” will be released in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on September 14. In 2019 he won the Grand Prix du Roman, the literary prize awarded annually by the Académie Française. , and is in development 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 were translated from French to English by Sam Taylor, who praised Binet’s “unpredictability” as a writer. “What unites Laurent’s three novels more than anything else is his desire to push the boundaries of what fiction has to offer,” he said in an email. “There’s a kind of cool and daring, playful ambition and a dry mind that undermines everything and keeps it from turning 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 knew nothing about how the Incas were conquered,” he said, but was fascinated by their culture and turned back. He attended the book fair in 2017 to further his research. When he returned to Paris, his half-brother gave him a copy of Jared Diamond’s book.Weapons, Germs and SteelIt contains a chapter on how Atahualpa, the last emperor of the Incas, was captured by Francisco Pizarro and his men.

“Inside, Diamond wonders why it was Pizarro who came to catch Atahualpa in Peru and not Atahualpa who came to catch Charles V in Spain,” Binet said. “This sentence was a real trigger for me and I thought: Why not tell this story instead?”

When “Civilizations” came out in France in 2019, some critics, such as Lise Wajeman of Mediapart and Frédéric Werst of En Attendant Nadeau, wondered if Binet did not ascribe to the Incas an appetite for conquest that was uniquely European. But Binet was convinced that was not the case. “The desire for conquest is universal, not just European,” he said, noting the empire-building of the Mongols and Aztecs.

In his book, however, Binet describes the conquered Incas as much more benevolent than their European counterparts. Atahualpa is known as the “Guardian of the Poor” for his egalitarian policies. Despite their custom of human sacrifice, the Incas are horrified by the brutality of the Spanish Inquisition.

“I find the reversal of perspective and perspectives quite encouraging,” Binet said. “I think Montaigne summed it up very well when he wrote that ‘what goes against our own habits we all call barbarians’.”

Binet’s love of history was instilled by her father, a teacher who would entertain her with true stories about WWII and the Hundred Years’ War. “It gave me a taste of history in terms of narrative,” Binet said. “These slices of history made me dream.”

When he was 12, his father told him about the two paratroopers, one Slovak and the other Czech, who killed Gestapo official Reinhard Heydrich in 1942. “It made me want to learn more,” he said.

Two inflated photographs in the living room of Binet’s apartment provide further clues about Binet’s passions. One belongs to the French literary theorist Roland Barthes, whose death sparked the mystery in “The Seventh Function of Language.” “Barthes taught me how to read a text,” Binet said. “I used to be a French literature teacher and it provided me with a grid to read a text and a grid to read the world as a semiotician. It has made me smarter than I am and it helps me every day.”

The other photo is of tennis star John McEnroe. In the western Paris suburb of Elancourt, where he learned how to volley the ball against his bedroom wall, Binet admired McEnroe’s skill (both left-handed) and his rebellious personality on the pitch.

When Binet was in his early 20s, he spent a night in handcuffs at the Normandy police station, caught doing graffiti with spray paint. “It was in my Surrealist era,” he said. “I wanted to write a poetic sentence about what turned out to be a civic monument.” His love of surrealism also led to his first book, Force et Faiblesses de Nos Muqueuses, a mix of prose and poetry, released in 2000 but no longer in print. “Most of the time I was struggling with my guitar, trying to remember my own words, 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 this for 10 years.

Her breakthrough as a writer came in 2004 with the publication of her memoir, “La Vie Professionnel de Laurent B.”, in which she describes her experiences as a teacher in the French school system. During this time, Binet became convinced of the importance of “cultural melting pots”, where different creative fields became more open to influence each other. “It is clear that filmmakers are inspired by literature and painting, and painters by writers,” he said. “For me, the television series ’24’ was a narrative revolution, so I am clearly a product of my age.”

Binet’s teaching career gave him an in-depth knowledge of 19th-century French writers. But he said it was contemporary American literature that opened his horizons. Bret Easton Ellis as her favorite living writer.

The authors that Binet’s translator Taylor says she reminds him most of are European avant-garde superstars of the 70s and 80s, such as Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera and Italo Calvino. Like them, Binet talks about writing in terms of “acting”. But as “Civilizations” discovers how to write, he also becomes upset with the ways history repeats itself.

“It is somewhat depressing to see clear parallels today with the 16th century with religious intolerance and fundamentalism,” he said.


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