The Inca Conquest of Europe: History and “History” in Laurent Binet’s Civilizations
by Vincent Kling
Binet, Laurent. Civilizations: A Novel, translated from the French by Sam Taylor. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2021, $27.00, 320 pages. 978-0-3746-0081-5
“Auden understood—against all the assumptions of modern aesthetic thought—that the line between ethics and aesthetics could not be drawn because it did not exist.”
—Edward Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden
Aristotle is mistakenly thought at times to have separated aesthetics from ethics when he argued that art primarily engages with life by reenacting it. To do so, it must demonstrate an articulated form not inherent in the vagaries of everyday living. Close attention to a work of art trains us to apprehend that form, the gradual emergence to understanding of which through observation and reflection replicates the need to negotiate life’s perplexity. The best way to grapple with the challenging architecture of Moby Dick or To the Lighthouse or The Master and Margarita or Hopscotch is to begin at the beginning and keep on, of course. Still, teaching experience shows how helpful it can be to offer students some prompts for Ulysses or The Sound and the Fury, examples of novels difficult enough to create initial resistance.
The sheer exuberance of Laurent Binet’s novel Civilisations (excellently translated by Sam Taylor) makes prompts unnecessary in a way, since readers will be immediately swept up in the events of this bodacious alternative history, but they may soon want to verify time lines and other coordinates through Google. They are likely to appreciate Binet’s art all the more, too, by reviewing, before or after, accepted principles for writing alternative history responsibly. The word “responsibly” is the key. Binet draws on history in all three of his major novels (the other two are HHhH and The Seventh Function of Language, likewise translated by Taylor) as an arena for testing and exercising the fiction writer’s ethical obligation: devising the aesthetic shape that will most truthfully enact the mimetic process. Tristram Shandy and The Sun Also Rises are at opposite poles of diction and elaboration, but each is authentic in having seemingly been constructed in the only possible way it could have been. Truth to aesthetic form is the artist’s ethical imperative.
Novels incorporating documented history exact double duty in telling the truth. The fiction demands a structure congruent to the novel’s aesthetic form but also requires that the events be recreated with as little distortion as possible, unless the aim is propagandistic, ideological, or “period” in a decorative sense, in which case there is usually no element of art. Although mimesis is not the aim or method of history itself, the same principles of shaping, selecting, arranging, foreshortening as govern fiction are needed to make history coherent. Writing in that discipline necessarily calls for an exercise of craft and organization no less integral than does writing fiction, but acknowledged historical reality cannot be jettisoned or changed at will.
And surely not in these times, when misrepresentation is drastically different in degree if not in kind. History has always been less empirically grounded than it often tries to pretend; if it were “objective” by nature, there would be little need for revisionism. We “ask of history that it shall reinforce our own prejudices,” Virginia Woolf noted in 1926 (259), and George Orwell wrote in 1944 (“History Is Written by the Winners”) that the history of the Spanish Civil War may come to “consist quite largely of ‘facts’ which millions of people now living know to be lies.” Prescient as always, Orwell was fighting during World War II to preserve “the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along.” Fifty years ago, Richard Nixon’s press secretary, with not a blush or a stumble, calmly pronounced “All previous statements inoperative,” and in the time since, social media have empowered proliferation of “alternative facts,” conspiracy theories, election lies, paranoiacally inspired malice and violence, and harmful medical “research” by crackpots and hucksters, with any call for verifiability jeered at as elitism or a devious ploy.
In this atmosphere, Binet’s novels sound a call to order as untimely (in Nietzsche’s sense) as it is necessary. The discipline with which he constructs his narratives demonstrates that history is not merely a subjective indulgence, that it must seek and apply standards for establishing truth. Orwell again: “A certain degree of truth was possible so long as it was admitted that a fact may be true even if you don’t like it.”
Binet honors that truth by rigorous attention to the facts of history, and that rigor becomes the ethical basis of his aesthetic. Though lavishly inventive, he does not make up facts or change the record. In this regard, he resembles his somewhat older contemporary, the Austrian Gert Jonke, who wrote elaborately structured stories and plays involving composers—Beethoven, Handel, Webern, among others. The episodes appear bizarre and even outrageous, but they are scrupulously respectful of documented events in these composers’ lives. There is nothing in Jonke a meticulous musical biographer could not verify, just as Binet’s narratives involving the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich (HHhH) or the extremely quirky personalities and actions of some eminent French philosophers (The Seventh Function of Language) bear up under stringent fact-checking.
As if to raise the stakes on a venture already difficult enough, Binet in Civilisations meshes recorded history with counterfactual narratives in which Columbus and his men are captured and killed by the Incas (“Part Two, The Journal of Christopher Columbus,” 23-52) and in the next generation, an Inca emperor, Atahualpa, guided by Machiavelli’s The Prince, conquers Europe and wages war there with the later-arriving Aztecs (“Part Three, The Chronicles of Atahualpa,” 53-269). As the Americas were the scene of domination by Europe, so is Europe now the battleground of Inca and Aztec wars. The first part is “The Saga of Freydis Eriksdottir” (1-20) and the fourth “The Adventures of Cervantes” (271-310). Each section adopts its own mode of historiography. The first, about Vikings who reach Panama under the leadership of a woman warrior, is narrated as a kind of saga and chronicles events that mutate into mythical tales of gods. The second simulates primary source documentation in the form of Columbus’s diary. The third comes close to standard textbook narration by recording events chronologically, tracing causes and effects, and including artifacts like letters, edicts and other official proclamations, plus parts of an epic poem—a latter-day mythologizing of history—called The Incades, adroitly adapted from Camões’s The Lusiads. The fourth contrives an especially tall tale involving Cervantes, the factual kernel of which is his participation in the Battle of Lepanto. Unbridled invention then takes over. Cervantes is shipmates with El Greco (a Jesuit here, incidentally), with whom he finds refuge from persecution in Montaigne’s tower and with whom he eventually settles in Cuba. That fourth part, appropriately enough for a picaresque story of derring-do, has chapter headings like those of a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century novel of adventure (“6. Which treats of how Providence allowed Cervantes and the Greek to escape death and how they found refuge in a tower,” 292-295).
The four parts are interwoven, Binet meshing his invention so seamlessly with documented events, especially in the long third part, that Google might indeed be necessary for occasional fact checking. It’s clear that Erasmus and Thomas More never exchanged letters about the theology of Inca sun-worship, for example (see 147-157) or that the actual Atahualpa was not crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Charlemagne’s throne at Aachen (223-226), but even the most confident expert could begin to question where some actual events end and imagination begins, since the counterfactuals harmonize so plausibly with the documented record. Any doubts are a tribute to the unity Civilisations achieves in spite of (or because of) all its grafting and stitching, its dovetailing and splicing. That unity may not be apparent from the title in French (Civilizations) or English, but the title of the German translation, Eroberung (“conquest”—trans. Kristian Wachinger) gives the game away in showing that “civilization” as usually understood is not achieved without empire-building, subjugation, enslavement, colonization, domination, looting, exploitation, and genocide. Binet’s counterfactual narrative is in a way hyperfactual, then, intensifying through defamiliarization the more sordid dynamics of history, flipping the conquerers and the conquered, the exploiters and the exploited. The iniquities of power and greed stand out all the more harshly in this inverted perspective. The corruption of princes, prelates, and electors of the Holy Roman Empire, for example, whose purported religious principles mask their savagery in the pursuit of domination and wealth (see chapters 48 through 61, 186-224), leaps out with brutal force. These power-seekers do not scruple to have Martin Luther himself butchered (“He was beaten and tortured, his eyes were gouged out, he was quartered and dismembered, and his remains were burned.”—222) to strengthen their own positions. Luther’s fate as reimagined by Binet is not a matter of fact but of truth in simply reversing the terms of how European conquistadores routinely slaughtered the indigenous peoples of the Americas.
A seemingly tangential passage in HHhH provides clear insight into Binet’s struggle for integrity. His extraordinary scrupulosity in that novel leads Jessa Crispin to judge it “the only essential piece of World War II fiction in years.” Binet’s account of “Operation Anthopoid,” the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942, is just as much a record by the author himself, in his own person, of his determination to recount nothing that cannot be established without unsupported guesswork or psychologizing. He rejects all subjective techniques like filling in a character’s thoughts or adding a symbolic dimension to a setting. As Crispin writes, HHhH “is as much a meditation on fictionalizing history—on factual truth versus a more expansive definition of truth, on the obligations and agendas of writers—as it is a story about an assassination.” Writing in the Times of London, Chris Power similarly notes that Binet’s “fidelity to the historical record, and obsessive urge to analyse those moments where surmise replaces fact, makes HHhH as much about the technical and moral processes of writing a historical novel as it is a historical novel.” And as the Amazon.fr web page notes, this novel is about a war; “pourtant une autre guerre se fait jour, celle qui livre la fiction romanesque à la verité historique. L’auteur doit résister à la tentation de romancer” (“another war emerges to view, however, one that delivers storybook fiction over to historical truth. The author sets himself the task of resisting any temptation to fabricate.”—trans. VK).
The relevant passage traces in three steps Binet’s uncovering of his individual biases, his emotional and psychological state, so as to become clear about his intellectual processes, about what truth he is attempting to reach and what means he is using to reach it. He first questions how responsible Jonathan Littell is being when he specifies in his highly acclaimed novel The Kindly Ones what make of car a character drove. “If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before his [Littell’s] superior research. But if it’s a bluff, that weakens the whole book” (226). (He notes, too, that people he talks to don’t understand why he cares.) When he then admits to himself that he envies Littell’s success (227), he is released into understanding the basic failure of The Kindly Ones, its inability to enter history because it never transcends its author’s subjectivity:
. . . this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts . . . but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.” (240-241)
Littell (and Houellebecq) are guilty of projecting their own narrowness, their self-indulgence, their entrapment in themselves, into fictions that are not about their purported subjects. They advance their crabbed, solipsistic, fashionably postmodern nihilism (240) as a universal, not aware of circling through their own loops with essentially no exercise of either historical imagination or literary discipline. (It seems a safe bet that the ever belligerent and self-pitying Thomas Bernhard would not rank high in Binet’s estimate.)
At this point, finally, Binet is able to become conscious of and label his own method: “I think I’m beginning to understand. What I’m writing is an infranovel” (241). The French original stresses the note of a discovery in progress: “Je crois que je commence à comprendre: je suis en train d’écrire un infra roman” (327). While this kind of metafiction can often be pretentious, the best examples take responsible account of themselves, fusing the process of creation with the artifact created, as in André Gide’s The Counterfeiters—or HHhH.
Binet’s conscientious account, within his historical novel, of the frequently daunting struggle to write a historical novel aiming at minimal intrusion and maximal accuracy—rather than unconsciously recording the author’s own biases and preoccupations—reminds us that a historical novel is likely to forfeit authenticity if it does not incorporate its own structural and analytical method as part of the story. In Giuseppi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, we encounter a highly selective narrator who comes out of hiding, as it were, to take ownership of his strategy by mentioning anachronistically, altogether outside the framework of the novel’s chronology (1860-1910), the bombing of the family palace in 1943 by the American military. To achieve the only truth he can tell, he is examining the past for its effect on the present, making explicit what would otherwise be unacknowledged manipulation. Adso of Melk, narrator of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, participates directly in the events he is telling but also scrutinizes them critically by comparing documents and other source materials of record. That level of analysis is in turn integral to unearthing the truth that makes sense of those events. Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons approaches its climactic action, an actual workers’ uprising in 1927 with brutal police retaliation, by means of diaries, letters, chronicles, and historical documents, placing that upheaval against a vast backdrop of private and public records, of seemingly unrelated events, that need to be filtered and sifted to reach historical and psychological truth. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy involving Thomas Cromwell—Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light—likewise pays carefully attention to critical assessments of the historical artifacts, here woven into the characters’ debates and conflicting views. There is surely more than one point of difference between Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, but an essential one is the lack of any reflection on history in Mitchell, which results in two-dimensional costume melodrama reflecting the restricted views of its own time, as opposed to the complex accrual through repetition and expansion of painful, tragic illumination in Faulkner. On the one hand, history as evasion, on the other, as confrontation.
In his next novel, The Seventh Function of Language, Binet adopts the classic detective story as the method of ethical commitment to truth. This is a crime story with an unusual array of suspects. Critic and theoretician Roland Barthes dies from being hit by a laundry truck after having lunch with François Mitterrand, and an important document he was carrying goes missing. Among the suspected thieves are Barthes’s associates in the French super-intelligentsia: Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Althusser, Kristeva and others. Street-wise, hard-boiled police detective Jacques Bayard—uncomfortable around students, professors, gays, minorities—realizes he is out of his depth and needs to find an expert to guide him through the mazes of critical theory, without understanding which at least slightly he can make no headway, since the stolen document has to do with semiotics, so he teams up with a young professor, Simon Herzog. They form the quintessential odd couple of investigators, and while their interactions amuse, it dawns on readers that the methods of screening and weighing evidence inherent in the detective story are the most efficient mechanism for verifiability. Within the postmodern romp that is The Seventh Function of Language, Binet chides the relativism and the privileging of indeterminability at the heart of the postmodernist view, the conviction that there can be no such thing as objective truth criteria.
The enemy in this novel, then, is the modish fallacy that nothing can ever be settled or even proposed with finality, and Binet elects to confront that enemy from within, as it were, by choosing a genre whose form requires the evidence-based investigative strictures of the crime novel. He accommodates postmodernism enough to speculate about the fatal accident so as to furnish a premise for arriving at a truth otherwise unattainable, one whose implications keep widening out. What if the accident that killed Barthes—a matter of actual fact—was no accident at all but a murder designed to get hold of a document that would confer enormous power though total command of persuasive language? (No spoiler here, but wait until you read who winds up with it.) Foucault himself could not be more emphatic about the unexamined roots of civilized order and middle-class prosperity in crime and violence. Moving from those eminent Parisian savants, the plot expands to include Sicilian mobsters, drug kingpins, contract killers, sadists, comic-book “insidious Orientals,” and other sinister villains, all willing to stop at nothing to get that document. If great estates or plantations could only have been sustained by serfdom or slavery, if stock portfolios financing lofty cultural and artistic pursuits are supported by profits from environmental pollution and starvation wages, then Binet has found a convincing strategy for building an ethical dimension into a story that at first appears to take place in an atmosphere too intellectually rarified and arcane for even a thought of sordid mammon. Here he seems almost to be moving toward his next novel, for the “civilized” post-existentialist intellectuals of Paris after 1960, like “civilized” people everywhere, cannot prosper without exploitation. They see corruption everywhere but in their own complicity, including their heedlessly self-indulgent personal behavior. Much as Foucault might have winced at being called an ethicist, Binet coopts him by tempering the postmodern love of relativism and contingency to the cut-and-dried fact-checking of crime fiction.
Artistic form is ordinarily considered a matter of aesthetics, but in achieving clear articulation it fulfills an ethical responsibility as well. Manner must work in tandem with matter. Binet has proven especially adroit in devising structures and processes that bear out fully the complex dynamics of his narratives. In this respect, he is a creditable successor to the OULIPO writers, especially Georges Perec. In HHhH, his adherence to the metafictional strategies of the “infranovel” (to use his term) effectively bars narrational manipulation, as we noted, and his reliance on investigative procedure in The Seventh Function of Language compels a search for objective truth among those who consider such a thing impossible.
In Civilisations, likewise, Binet provides a fanciful framework for the central sections, which are governed by a clear but not readily apparent principle of selection. Part 1 shows how myths are created from oral narration to shape a coherent tale that can reconcile incongruities, and part 4 is a let-‘er-rip novelistic romp through the lives of Cervantes, El Greco, and Montaigne, a tale of the kind that less constrained “historical” novelists concoct for pure entertainment, heavy on sex, violence, intrigue, and adventure with an eye toward sales. Binet has a wonderful time piling it on, tilting his hat to proficient swashbuckling writers like Harry Turtledove, who often begins with one counterfactual premise (in The Man with the Iron Heart Heydrich is wounded only slightly and lives to form a fanatical brigade of terrorists bent on undoing the Allied victory after May 1945) and then elaborates with little or no attention to the actual record, though being sure to include a full cast of real historical characters for “authentic” atmosphere.
Binet’s contrasting strategy in the middle sections is to avoid any episode or development not admissible by the accepted historical record as a fully plausible alternative once the counterfactual premise is launched. It’s not impossible that Columbus could have been overwhelmed and defeated when he made landfall; his ships then could have been commandeered by indigenous people who fumble their way to Lisbon and conquer Europe; Luther could then have been murdered at the behest of the powerful conquerer Atahualpa. Binet does not mention Alexander Demandt’s History That Never Happened: A Treatise on the Question, What Would Have Happened If . . . ?, though he might have encountered it in the exhaustive historical research he undertook for HHhH. At any rate, his consistent grafting of the counterfactual onto actual events places his novel in the framework of responsible investigation—entertaining, by all means, but respectful of what truth we know.
Demandt, himself an accomplished academic historian, defends the practice of speculating on alternative history as a valid, instructive scholarly process, provided nothing countermands the existing record. To quote headings from Demandt’s chapter of rationale: “The historically possible occupies the space between the unimaginable and the actual” (40-41) (Binet gives us both); “Experience shows us possibilities in the past” (42); “Necessity is a historically unusable word” (43-44); “The sources of error in conjectural history also affect normal history” (61-62). Citing Theodor Mommsen’s insight that “the indispensability of imagination for scholarship is apparent even in the process of determining facts” (62), Demandt establishes a solid academic rationale for speculation about alternatives. “Thinking about history that never happened is necessary to complete our knowledge; to understand crucial situations and the futurity inherent in them; to weigh up causal factors; to support value judgments; to assess possibilities” (9-24). He exemplifies the responsible pursuit of alternative history, within the bounds of academic procedure, with discussions like “What would have happened if Alexander had not died in 323 B.C.?” (73-79); “If Pontius Pilate had pardoned Jesus in A.D. 33?” (89-94); “If the Spanish Armada had landed in England in 1588?” (98-100); “If the shots had not been fired at Sarajevo on June 28, 1914?” (104-107). Demandt argues that for a full, dynamic understanding of history, “the construction of alternatives is heuristically useful and didactically indispensable” (36-37).
Far from being merely a romp, then, though it is that, Civilisations is a serious, legitimate study of history and historiography, wildly imaginative and stringently conscientious at the same time. Adding another dimension of process, it also enacts common pitfalls to historical truth, methods that call veracity into question. There appears repeatedly, for example, a first-person narrator who purports to have documents (which he doesn’t produce) (192), who interrupts by stage-managing the narration in his own person (184), and who solemnly affirms (on his word alone, without evidence) the truth of what he is stating (166). In keeping with the overall theme of the novel, these questionable intrusions appear to be claiming unilateral authority—the dubious basis of “civilization” in the first place. There are also odd omissions that amusingly question what we can and do know. How did Columbus’s journal come to be preserved? Who is the author of The Incades? Once more, then, Binet has created a novel whose method forces a contemplation of truth itself—whether it exists at all, whether it can be determined, and if so, through what exercise of vigilance, beginning with one’s present biases (HHhH), then moving into detective work—building on evidence in the immediate past (The Seventh Function of Language), and finally into historiography—building on evidence in the distant past (Civilisations).
Solemnity is tempered in Civilisations by constant resort to playful anachronism, intertextuality, and—let’s call it cultural appropriation—that correspond in comic mode to the need for critical alertness in studying history. I. M. Pei’s famous glass and steel pyramid in front of the Louvre is said to have been constructed by the Incas as a temple, for example. The baptism of Atalhualpa out of sheer pragmatism echoes Henry of Navarre’s statement that Paris is worth a mass. Montaigne’s discourse on lasciviousness and temperance and his rationale for having relations with his wife only once a month appear borrowed from Tristram Shandy’s father. Luther’s ninety-five theses are now revamped as “The Ninety-Five Theses of the Sun” (213-221), an unlikely blend of Protestant polemics and Inca sun-worship.
Binet’s (and Taylor’s) impishness lays what Henry James called (speaking of The Turn of the Screw) “a trap for the unwary,” and many readers are likely to fall into it; this reviewer did in believing he had identified most of the instances. But there is greater depth and width of sampling, borrowing, and intertextuality than at first appears. Yours truly thought himself clever to surmise that Montaigne appears to be channeling Walter Shandy, but not even informed readers or avid Googlers or omnivorous comparatists are likely to spot that the passages from the Incades are taken from a translation into French (1889) by Hyacinthe Garin of Camões’s Lusiads, with names and key words changed to refer to the counterfactually conquering Incas instead of the factually conquering Portuguese. Who knew? Binet and his translator did, of course, and Taylor joined in the spirit of sly but thematically fitting appropriation, requisitioning an English version of The Lusiads by Scottish poet William Julius Mickle (1775). Binet has the skill to reverse or flip the actual record so deftly that it is only logical to include an epic in praise of Atahualpa identical to the one in praise of Vasco da Gama. Likewise, part 1 is not just stylistically akin to the Norse sagas but includes actual lines; part 2 contains real entries from Columbus’s journals (which were preserved, since he prevailed), and several lines of part 4, along with the general style, are lifted from Cervantes’s Don Quixote.
This resourceful frolicking may carry a slight danger. Binet’s brilliance and wit remind this reviewer of filmmakers like Preston Sturges and the Coen Brothers, whose high-spirited creativity can incur the risk of running away with them. Is not The Big Lebowski a shade more intrusively conscious of itself and its cleverness than O Brother, Where Art Thou? or Fargo? Binet’s notable achievement has arisen from tempering and chastening his material through strict avoidance of self-indulgent “effects,” but the sheer fertility of Civilisations may have tempted him to slightly more drollery than the central conception fully supports. But oh what fun!
Sam Taylor was fortunate to initiate his career as a translator with HHhH, greeted with immediate acclaim and many awards. Besides publishing several novels of his own, Taylor has translated more than seventy other books, including among many others a verse novel (Clémentine Beauvais), a number of crime stories (Joel Dicker and Michel Bussi), and a series of graphic novels (Riad Sattouf) (Taylor Interview). The good fortune is on both sides, however, because Taylor does full justice to the nuances and complexities of Binet’s language. He states his general aims with a craftsman’s practicality while achieving an artist’s command; about his translation of Maylis de Kerangal’s The Heart, for example, he says:
I think the challenge was to remain true to the audacity and lyricism while rendering it in readable English. Because I loved the book, I wanted lots of other people to read and enjoy it too, and for that reason it was important to me that it didn’t read “like a translation” – i.e. something difficult, worthy, obscure. It has a gorgeous flow in French, and to have a similar flow in English you can’t simply reproduce the original sentence structure, phrasing, punctuation, and so on. It has to sound natural in English.
Readable English, then, which does not just fall into place. Taylor is highly skilled at transmuting the cadences, tempi, and structures of French, its indwelling prose rhythms, into a language that has very different emphases of intonation and inflection, of rising and falling accentuation. In a misplaced effort at “fidelity,” less adept translators err by not shifting the patterns of spoken French into the rhythms of English; this is the flaw that has marred most of the ill-advised, clumsy updates of Proust, while the first translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff, had an unerring ear for the “separate but equal” musical, cadential qualities of English. (Proust wasn’t broken, but people were determined to fix him.) To quote Taylor again, “ . . . there’s a temptation to become so hung up on the details that you lose a sense of the overall flow and tone. . . . ask yourself: does this sound weird in English? If it does—and if it doesn’t sound weird in the original language—then you need to rethink it.”
Taylor’s ferreting out an English translation of Camões that could so easily be mistaken for a set of passages from Pope’s Homer or Dryden’s Virgil reveals the most important skill turning a translator into an artist: the ear. Taylor draws on a source that alertly transposes, omits, changes placement and sequence in keeping with the difference between the way French and English build phrases, clauses, and sentences for periodicity and peroration. He recognized in Mickle a translator on the same level of skill.
Start with the simple recognition that in French the attributive adjective usually follows the noun it modifies, and we are at once aware of the need for alert and constant readjustment. On that level, no translator would make the mistake like “He drove a car green,” for example, but whole sequences of modifying elements sometimes need to be rearranged, and calculated omission can add strength.
One instance will stand here for any number of successful recastings. Here is a (non-original) entry from Columbus’s diary, one Binet himself composed and spliced in:
After hours spent staring out to sea in the wild hope of seeing a sail on the horizon, my eyes give me terrible pain and I am losing my sight. And yet I know full well that my failure will dissuade Your Highnesses, believing me to be drowned, from sending anyone else across the Ocean Sea. (50)
Here is the text in French.
À force de scruter la mer dans l’espoir insensé de voir une voile poindre à l’horizon, mes yeux me font souffrir terriblement et ma vue s’obscurcit. Je sais bien pourtant que mon échec dissuadera Vos Altesses, me croyant englouti dans les abysses, d’envoyer quiconque sur la mer Océane, désormais. (70)
I have placed in bold a phrase in English that has no direct correspondence in the French and a few words and phrases in the French that have no direct correspondence in English. The English “after hours” indicates a level of effort covered in French by “à force de,” but that expression would not come across as a strong opening if it were rendered by something like “by dint of,” and surely not by “on the strength of” or anything else so literal. Nor, in English, does the sail have to complete the action given by “poindre”; it does not have to “break” or “appear on” the horizon, so any such short word proves unnecessary. Likewise, it is enough for Columbus to be thought “drowned.” The English is clear; the rhetorical flourish “dans les abysses” would be simply redundant. It works well in French, but where, after all, do people usually drown? Imagine, too (and above all say), “the Ocean Sea from now on”—not just “the Ocean Sea”—to include the “désormais,” and the rightness of omitting the adverb to catch the pace of English will be evident. A lesser translator might feel obligated to include every lexical element; the artist will know what to rearrange and what to omit. And Taylor is one of those artists.
 This review is of the British edition, published early in 2021; hence the spelling. The American edition will be published September 14, 2021.
 Thanks are due to Sam Taylor and, through him, to Laurent Binet for providing this information, which completely eluded me.
Amazon.fr. “HHhH poche – 4 Mai 2011.” https://www.amazon.fr/HHhH-Laurent-Binet/dp/2253157341/ref=sr_1_1?__mk_fr_FR=ÅMÅŽÕÑ&crid=2U48S0U66V7P4&dchild=1&keywords=hhhh+laurent+binet&qid=1630203123&s=books&sprefix=binet+HHhH%2Caps%2C293&sr=1-1. Reviewer not named.
Binet, Laurent. Civilisations. Trans. Sam Taylor. London: Harvill Secker, 2021.
Binet, Laurent. Civilizations. Paris: Grasset, 2019.
Binet, Laurent. Eroberung. Trans. Kristian Wachinger. Hamburg: Rowohlt, 2020.
Binet, Laurent. HHhh. Trans. Sam Taylor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.
Binet, Laurent. HHhH. Paris: Livres de Poche: 2011.
Binet, Laurent. The Seventh Function of Language. Trans. Sam Taylor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017.
Binet, Laurent. La septième fonction du langage. Paris: LGF, 2016.
Crispin, Jessa. “HHhH by Laurent Binet.” Barnes & Noble Review, 2 May 2012. https://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/hhhh-2
Demandt, Alexander. History That Never Happened: A Treatise on the Question, What Would Have Happened If . . . ? Trans. Colin D. Thomson. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1993.
Elkin, Lauren. “The 7th Function of Language Review: Who Killed Roland Barthes?” Guardian, 12 May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/12/the-7th-function-of-language-by-laurent-binet-review
Jonke, Gert. Blinding Moment: Four Pieces about Composers. Trans. Vincent Kling. Riverside, CA: Ariadne, 2009.
Mendelson, Edward. Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2017.
Orwell, George. “History Is Written by the Winners.” As I Please. Tribune, 4 February 1944. http://www.resort.com/~prime8/Orwell/02_04_44.html.
Power, Chris. “HHhH by Laurent Binet trans by Sam Taylor.” London: Times, 14 April 2012. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hhhh-by-laurent-binet-trans-by-sam-taylor-9pgnk6jnkzp
Taylor, Sam. Interview French-American Foundation. 19 May 2017.
Woolf, Virginia. “How Should One Read a Book?” The Second Common Reader, ed. Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt, 1932. 258-270.
Vincent Kling is a professor of German and comparative literature at La Salle University. He has published translations of works by Gert Jonke, Heimito von Doderer, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Gerhard Fritsch, Werner Kofler, and Aglaja Veteranyi. His translation of Veteranyi’s novel Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta was awarded the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2013. New York Review Books will publish his translation of Doderer’s The Strudlhof Steps in 2021.
Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, September 14, 2021