You Dreamed of Empires

You Dreamed of Empires

Greg Walklin

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You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue (Penguin Random House)

Translated by Natasha Wilmer

The few months that Hernán Cortés spent in Tenochtitlan were some of the most consequential in the history of the Western Hemisphere. When Cortés and his Conquistadores landed in Vera Cruz, they were complete unknowns, and the various peoples who lived under the Triple Alliance had never, in their thousands of years of history, encountered anyone from across the Atlantic. We all know, more or less, what happened next. A mural, painted by Diego Rivera, can still be seen in the Palacio Nacional de Mexico, in Mexico City, built on top of the old Aztec capital, depicting the meeting of Cortés and the Aztec Tlatoani, Montezuma.

While Rivera’s painting idealized the indigenous populations, Álvaro Enrigue, in his new novel,  You Dreamed of Empires, does not. Enrigue, who lived in Mexico City, splits his narrative between the “Caxtilteca,” or the conquistadores, and the Colhua/Mexica, the indigenous peoples in the Triple Alliance under Moctezuma. (Enrigue uses alternative spellings for many of the names and peoples.) The tlatoani, a crafty leader thought to be past his prime by his lieutenants, is addicted to hallucinogenic mushrooms, and—early on in the book—orders an execution of a servant without the slightest reservation. Cortés, meanwhile, shows a similar sociopathic lack of self doubt in his sexual abuse of his translator, Malintzin. He leads an expedition inland from Vera Cruz mostly “because the plantations were running out of slaves.”

The book begins with the Conquistadores already ensconced in Tenochtitlan, waiting for an audience with Moctezuma:

Occupying a palace was a new experience for all of them. None had ever taken part in anything like the operation they were suddenly embarked upon: a sojourn half military and half political in a great fortified city under the guard of a professional army. They had put money or supplies for the expedition, and that was how they found themselves in captains’ quarters.

In Enrigue’s telling, Moctezuma himself spins the yarn that Cortés is the embodiment of a god; this emperor is beyond believing in such a thing, notwithstanding the shrooms. His plan is to draw the Spaniards farther and farther into his territory, but those around him—trying to discern “the mystery of Moctezuma’s motives” in letting Cortés come all the way to the palace—wonder if he has gone too far.

 Empires  covers a small window of history, including the famous meeting of Cortés and Moctezuma, and then manages—in its best part—to twist the history around with a O Henry-esque denouement. The book comprises four sections, or stages before and after Moctezuma’s nap, which should itself tell you something of the pacing of the plot. Indeed, not much happens in “You Dreamed of Empires,” other than the different parties talking, walking around the palaces of Tenochtitlan, and a good amount of sleeping.“Empires” just might have stunned with more action. Nevertheless, Enrique’s twist ending, anticlimactic as it is, probably necessitated a somnolent book—at least in order to have the effect that the author seemed to be seeking. After all, the title does have “dreamed” in it.

Notably, it’s the females, and to a lesser degree the male lieutenants of the respective sides, who make for the most engaging characters. Atotoxtli, the sister and wife of Moctezuma, is the kind of duty-bound individual it’s easier to relate to, even if she is in a privileged position. Sober and thoughtful, she attempts to ensure Moctezuma—for whom her “adoration was wedded to terror”—doesn’t misstep with the Calixteca. Malintzin, the Nahua princess who served as Cortes’ translator and his sex slave, grows restless as the book progresses. “She hadn’t had an easy life,” Enrigue writes plainly of her, “but it was the one she’d had.” To say much more would probably spoil some later twists.

Meanwhile, Tlilpotonqui, the Cihuacoatl, or mayor, of the city of Tenochtitlan, and Jazmin Caldera, one of the main investors in Cortés’ campaign and his third in command, provide counterpoint to their leaders, and give important context—lending the impression that nothing about what happened those few months in Tenochtitlan was inevitable. Both of these men show the type of reservations and reconsiderations that make them more compelling characters than their bosses. Perhaps Enrigue recognized that the historical weight that has been assigned to Moctezuma and Cortés makes them, in some ways, more symbolic than real, at least to us—that they will forever be defined by the ramifications of what they did or didn’t do, rather than who they were. So when Caldera sees his own reflection, for example, his introspection is refreshing:

“What he actually saw was enough to make him run for his dagger to slash his own throat: tanned forearms and white biceps, a pale little mound of belly beneath a hairy rib cage, then skinny legs, underdeveloped and bowed as they became when a man was constantly on horseback.”

The same image that Caldera sees more or less greets many white collar men when they hit the pool after a few rounds of golf.

Yet Enrigue deserves credit for rarely making anything feel anachronistic—and some measure of that praise should also be reserved for Natasha Wimmer, who provided the English translation. In fact, Enrigue preferaces the book with a bashful letter to Wimmer, explaining the particular, if unorthodox, spelling he uses. It’s a charming way to begin. His orthographic effort isn’t just superficial—it does make the text much more immersive, freeing it of the historical albatross it might otherwise carry.

Enrigue’s last book to be published into English, the enigmatic and brilliant historical tennis novel  Sudden Death,  also displayed his historical chops—Enrigue perhaps only rivals Hillary Mantel for writers who know how to imbue their stories with the sense of otherness and strangeness that makes their historical fiction truly transport their readers—so that such books don’t feel like a bunch of modern characters gussied up in costumes and dealing with contemporary problems. “ You Dreamed of Empires carries much of that same strangeness that makes the characters and story seem authentic, but it unfortunately lacks the quick strikes and narrative volleying of  Sudden Death.

In a recent interview with The Millions, Enrigue noted the influence that Mexico City has had on his life. Here, he has written a supremely styled novel exploring one of the key moments of its long, unique history, of which he is well aware. Mexico City, Enrigue said, is “a city so big you can disappear in it, that has the population and budget of a medium-sized republic…the first global city in the modern world, a true multiracial hub that has been so for 400 years.” The novel succeeds as a reimagining of Mexico City’s inflection point, a dream of where it could have gone. His thought experiment is one truly worth considering in all of our minds. What if things, long ago on that erstwhile lakebed, turned out differently? One only wishes there was a bit more plot, a bit more action, in the pages of  You Dreamed of Empires.  It would have made the book a bit less sleepy.


Greg Walklin is an attorney and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His book reviews have appeared in The MillionsNecessary FictionThe Colorado Review, and the Lincoln Journal-Star, among other publications. He has also published several pieces of short fiction. His Twitter: @gwalklin


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Posted: April 18, 2024 at 7:39 pm

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