Álvaro Enrigue (GL Portrait/Alamy Stock Photo)

Historical novels can be dicey propositions. Since they are framed around real events, they tend to build toward an endpoint that we already know. In the process, they risk presenting life as something predetermined and inexorable. But history in the making is in fact a flexible thing, subject to countless contingencies. To truly bring the past to life in literature, a writer must bring those possibilities to life as well, and present historical events as up for grabs, liable to fall into anyone’s hands. Depicting contingency might even trump strict historical accuracy, as when authors resort to anachronism to get their point across.

Álvaro Enrigue’s exuberant new novel You Dreamed of Empires does all this and more. The Mexican writer’s eleventh book, and his third to be translated into English, it focuses on the moment in 1519 when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes met the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. Enrigue presents this encounter via a series of brief chapters, which shift between the perspectives of the Tenocha (Aztec in the Nahuatl language) and Caxtilteca (Castillian) characters, playfully upsetting the reader’s narrative balance.

This isn’t a story of conquest, or at least not the heroic, burn-the-boats, “chivalric romance bullshit” which the conquistadors would later tell about themselves. When they are marched into Tenochtitlan with great pomp and circumstance, the warriors do not really understand why they have been allowed to arrive with an army of allies in tow. None of them speak the local languages, and they can only communicate with the royal Colhua and their Mexica counterparts via a chain of translators: the Nahua princess Malintzin, enslaved by the Maya and gifted to Cortes as a peace offering, speaks to Andalusian priest Aguilar, who learned Maya while himself enslaved in Akumal. Moctezuma’s Tenochtitlan is a highly specialized, stratified society, organized around codes of conduct impenetrable to the Spanish. When the stinky Cortes meets the emperor, he tries to embrace him; had he succeeded, the royal guards would have killed them all.

Enrigue does not so much explain as immerse you in this world. He prefers Nahua spellings, fluidly rendered by the legendary translator Natasha Wimmer, and deploys place names, titles, and historical figures without much introduction, as if he’s referencing different neighborhoods in Manhattan to a New Yorker. The reader has to keep pace, but the result is thrilling—the distant and foreign rendered on familiar terms. Soon enough you will understand that the huey tlatoani refers to the great lord Moctezuma, and Cihuacoatl to Tlilpotonqui, the Mexica mayor of the city. In order to think like a Nahuatl, one must use at least a trace of their language.

 

Yet, in some ways, Enrigue’s Tenochtitlan is a place not so unlike ours. People live and breathe, take baths and bathroom breaks, are stuck in annoying work meetings and engage in office politics. This is no staid past of grave conversations held in large, foreboding rooms. Once he has accustomed readers to the daily reality of a city that floats on water, whose ruler is a god, and in which every neighborhood is devoted to a particular task, Enrigue begins to pull out all the stops, attempting one counterintuitive gambit after another.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of a single day, beginning at lunch and ending after dinner. The action is packed into this constrained period, as characters race across the city and through their own pasts, trying to figure out what will happen at the end of the day. The conquistadors marvel at the size of the city, struggle to put on Aztec shirts, and get lost inside of their own accommodations. The mayor Tlilpotonqui spends too much time in meetings where elders recite mythic poems as part of the rules of order. Cortes tries to turn one of the temples into a Christian shrine, but his brave warriors vomit at the sight of the religious sacrifices. Moctezuma, who will not skip his afternoon nap for anything, eats tacos and obsesses over the cahuayos—"big deer,” aka horses—which the conquistadors rode into town.

Yet, in some ways, Enrigue’s Tenochtitlan is a place not so unlike ours.

This is a very funny book, playing both Colhua bureaucracy and Caxtiltecan ignorance for laughs. Enrigue freely moves between period and contemporary language, fluid register shifts that make the book feel fresh without the anachronisms posing too much distraction. Why shouldn’t Moctezuma refer to a royal ceremony as a “work meeting”? Of course Tlilpotonqui groans every time “He Who Looses the Rain of Words and Governs the Songs Lest We Be Like the Flowers and the Bees That Last But a Few Days” repeats the “Legend of the Suns.” He might as well be trapped at the water cooler with a dull coworker.

In other words, there is little reverential in Enrigue’s depiction of grand Aztec society. Moctezuma is typically portrayed as a noble figure clad in coca leaves and pearls, too focused on the wonders of the unseen world to focus on his own. But here he is a pointedly diminished figure, retreating into the depths of his palace, kicking out public employees, refusing to answer his advisors, and sleeping the days away. He also consumes great quantities of psychedelics: mole and mushrooms and, after his nap, honey slides straight from the palace priest.

His subsequent trip, as well as a visit to the Temple of the Sun, reveals the extent of Enrigue’s ambition. He is trying to resurrect and rewrite history, and he does so by radically altering the space-time continuum. Once inside the temple of Huitzilopochtli, Moctezuma listens to the severed arms swaying back and forth on the ceiling and hears in them the 1970s glam rock band T. Rex. As he shimmies to the beat, the emperor gazes down into a pot of dove’s blood and sees Enrigue at his desk on Shelter Island, writing You Dreamed of Empires. “Uh, he said, strange, and he was seized by laughter,” as hysterically high on possible futures as Enrigue is on his authorial powers.

In his story “The Secret History,” Jorge Luis Borges writes of a man about to be killed by a Nazi firing squad. Hladik is a minor writer who has frittered away his entire life on small and incomplete projects. Yet at the moment of death, he asks God for time to complete one play—and God grants his request. Time stops, and for a full year, Hladik writes and revises the play in his mind. There is no chance of escape—once the year ends, time will unfreeze and Hladik will die. Yet in that frozen moment he has complete control over his work.

In literature at least, history is like this. Writers cannot change what has already happened, but so long as they are writing, everything in their world is still up in the air. We know what will happen to Moctezuma and Tenochtitlan and the still-to-be-colonized world, but Enrigue can freeze us in the moment just before and give us privileged access to the contingencies—from a Caxtiltecan faux pas to one geeky old man’s obsession with horses—that accompany the narrowing of many possible histories into one History. In so doing, he enables us to envision, if only psychedelically, how things might have been otherwise. This is literature, Enrigue seems to be saying, not life. And in literature anything goes.

You Dreamed of Empires
A Novel
Álvaro Enrigue
Translated by Natasha Wimmer
Riverhead Books
$28 | 240 pp.

Robert Rubsam is a contributing writer to Commonweal. His work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, the Baffler, and the Nation, among other places.

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