The closing section nods to the novel’s literary game-playing by following, in mock-heroic form, the travails of Miguel de Cervantes – who loses the use of his hand at Lepanto, as usual, but, in what I’m fairly sure is a departure from the historical course of events, ends up being Michel de Montaigne’s lodger for a bit. That detail is splendidly in the spirit of this book, which you could see as a world-historical version of the parlour game where you assemble a fantasy dinner party from the past
There could be a point to this counterfactual history, giving us a consideration of Christianity seen through the eyes of baffled outsiders who find it difficult to accept that a powerful god “let his son be nailed to a cross by the men he was trying to help”, or thinking through how Europe might have developed had tolerance prevailed rather than religions at war. But these lines are never properly pursued; instead Binet gives in to the temptation of the easy joke — an artist named Michelangelo makes a sculpture of Viracocha, creator of celestial bodies; Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries and replaces them with Temples of the Sun; Francis I has his heart ripped out on that Louvre pyramid.
n Civilisations, Binet unites an Enlightenment-style critique of European follies from afar with the counterfactual storyteller’s upside-down history. The result is a third high-concept romp, although his re-engineered version of the past also surely owes a debt to the alternative-world scenarios beloved by grand-strategy video gamers. Like authors and games developers before him, from Christopher Evans’s 1993 novel Aztec Century to the Europa Universalis games, Binet dwells on the “what ifs?” of Columbus’s expedition in 1492 and its aftermath.
There’s an unflattering comparison with another French “what if?” bestseller, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, about a future Islamic government in France. For good or ill, that book found a devilishly viable form for its concept, unfolding through the first-person testimony of a washed-up university lecturer who believes he has a right to female companionship. By contrast, Civilisations always feels like an idea, not a novel.