YOU DREAMED OF EMPIRES, by Álvaro Enrigue. Translated by Natasha Wimmer.
The Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue’s new novel has a soft, nebulous title: “You Dreamed of Empires.” Its cover is forgettable, too. Like nearly every book on the New Fiction table, it is all wavy patterns and beach-towel colors. This generic look has come to promise a) bright settings and b) young characters out to conquer racial and sexual threats as they perceive them. This would be excellent were it not for, as often as not, c) writing in which one is instructed how to feel at almost every moment.
What a treat, then, to find that “You Dreamed of Empires” is not wet but dry. It is also short, strange, spiky and sublime. It’s a historical novel, a great speckled bird of a story, set in 1519 in what is now Mexico City. Empires are in collision and the vibe is hallucinatory. The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés has arrived with his troops and an enormous retinue, pesky supernumeraries who’ve attached themselves to him like remoras, or dingleberries.
He is expecting to meet the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, who is fearsome yet depressed. The aging Moctezuma tends to be either napping or maxed out on magic mushrooms — or both. Increasingly, he is getting in touch with what Homer Simpson referred to as his womanly needs.
The kill count promises to be enormous. In the first scene we meet priests who casually wear human skin as veils. Their hair is crusted with layers of sacrificial blood; one has teeth “filed sharp as a cat’s.” Fickle gods must be appeased. Human sacrifice is common; hearts are ripped out, the unlucky cored as if they were apples. Strips of warrior loin are said, by 16th-century epicures, to be yummy on a tostada.
Does anyone like torture scenes in literature? Nancy Mitford didn’t. Neither did Clive James, who said about torture on television, “a scream from the other side of a closed door is usually enough to convince me.” I’m with them, especially if flaying is involved. The reader braces for gore in “You Dreamed of Empires.” We suspect we will all be drenched, like Sissy Spacek in “Carrie.” But this isn’t that kind of novel, except around the margins.
Instead, Enrigue, who is clearly a major talent, has delivered a humane comedy of manners that is largely about paranoia (is today the day my head will be lopped off?) and the quotidian bummers of life, even if you are powerful beyond belief. This is the sort of novel in which no one’s armor fits quite right. Toenails, before clippers, are awful to trim. Insufficiently wiped buttocks are itchy at every moment. Sometimes a warrior will find himself alone, performing the act that the Boy Scout handbook will later forbid.
Enrigue is well-known in Mexico, but “You Dreamed of Empires” is only his third book to be translated into English. His last novel, “Sudden Death” (2013), was even more rococo than this one. It was about a 16th-century tennis match between Caravaggio and a Spanish poet; the ball’s core was made from, speaking of beheadings, hair supplied by Anne Boleyn. Behind the farce, Enrigue got deep into the stuff of life and the mixed messages of history; his gifts are merry ones.
“Sudden Death” appeared to strong reviews. But Enrigue has probably been best known as half of a literary power couple. He was married to Valeria Luiselli, the author of “Lost Children Archive” (2019); before their divorce, they were profiled in Vogue, adorably sharing a cigarette.
Enrigue wears his influences on his sleeve. In his acknowledgments he mentions a number of novels, memoirs and works of history. He suggests that his novel’s architecture “is Borgesian, in conversation with ‘The Secret Miracle,’” Jorge Luis Borges’s short story about a man, facing a firing squad, who enters a wormhole while time appears to be frozen. (Nicholson Baker has cited this same story as an influence on his controversial let-me-undress-you novel “The Fermata.”)
Time does bend in “You Dreamed of Empires.” At one point, Moctezuma hears seductive music that is new to him, and it is “Monolith” by the English rock band T. Rex. He swings his aging hips to the beat.
A writer is free to claim his or her forebears. Writers are like Mormons in this regard, baptizing the unwitting dead into their religions. There is undoubtedly some Borges in Enrigue. But there is perhaps more of the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar in his great novel “Hopscotch” (1963), in which time is fractured and, as in Enrigue’s novel, the story’s author makes an unscheduled appearance.
This novel has been translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, renowned for her supple translations of Roberto Bolaño’s novels. She seems lit up by Enrigue’s prose, too. He has more wit than he knows what to do with. “If they’re going to end up sacrificing us,” one character thinks, “let it be in clean clothes.” Another fears the “shower of blood and snot about to be loosed on me by the gods.” In a nod to his country’s mothers throughout history, the author writes: “In Mexico, authority has always flowed from the smack of a flip-flop.”
There are many names in this novel, and they can blur. To American ears, some of the most magnificent — Ahuitzotl, Xocoyotzin — sound like elite anti-depressants of the sort that only Sofia Coppola and Bad Bunny can source.
In an odd way, “You Dreamed of Empires” is in part about what Tom Wolfe called “status radar.” It is about powerful people eyeballing one another, scoping one another out, using their peripheral vision. It is also a novel about spectacle. The attire of Moctezuma’s greeting party has what Enrigue calls “lunatic bellicosity.” Here is a look at it:
All of this makes one deflated Spanish visitor feel that his great crested helmet “seemed about as majestic now as a bagpiper’s bonnet.” Enrigue is alert to how dignity can tip over into pomposity.
Enemies will be folded, spindled and mutilated. Oh, well. “Inside each of us is a skull,” Enrigue writes, “and that’s all that will be left of us when we’re gone; thanks for your participation.”
YOU DREAMED OF EMPIRES | By Álvaro Enrigue | Translated by Natasha Wimmer | Riverhead | 222 pp. | $28