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You Dreamed of Empires coverÁlvaro Enrigue’s You Dreamed of Empires opens with a stink. It is 1519, and Hernán Cortés has entered the great ancient Mexican city of Tenoxtitlan, at the invitation of the great emperor—or huey tlatoani—Moctezuma. Jazmín Caldera, a captain in Cortés’s retinue, has been seated next to two local priests. One washes his hair every day with sacrificial blood, now dried and matted, and the other wears a rotten human skin as a cape. The pair smell so bad to Caldera that he cannot stomach the turkey soup his Tenochca hosts have provided. This offends the Tenochca, making for another minor diplomatic disagreement in an attempted conquest beset by such quarrels.

This mutual misunderstanding, each side smelling the other’s stink but not their own, is typical of the novel which follows. Both Barnes & Noble in the US and Waterstones in the UK sell it as “Historical Fiction,” and yet it is a novel that seethes with impossible visions, willful anachronisms, and ultimately invented events that contradict historical fact. Confusion is the novel’s keynote. Among Cortés’s entourage, the fictional Caldera is by far the most sensitive to the cultural differences between Spain and Mexico—and yet even he cannot tell that, to their hosts, it is the conquistadores who reek powerfully, uncommitted as they are to any act of personal hygiene beyond painfully trimming their toenails with daggers. Already, by the time of Caldera’s broth incident, Cortés has, against all Tenochca principles, attempted to hug Moctezuma; has attempted to sit on the throne of Tenoxtitlan when it was offered to him in a ritual formulation that in fact demands polite refusal; and all of this has occurred in the context of his attempt to enter the city itself with a huge local army, the Tlaxcalteca, that is hostile to Moctezuma’s rule.

The Castilians and Tenochca are constantly baffled by one another’s behavioral assumptions. (Enrigue does not use the word “Aztec,” with the characters divided instead into “Caxtitleca,” meaning Castilian, or Spanish, and “Tenochca,” meaning the indigenous people of the city of Tenoxtitlan, now Mexico City.)  Any gleams of communication are further confounded because every word between Moctezuma’s people and Cortés’s must pass through not one, but two translators: Cortés’s cunning, horribly abused courtesan Malintzin, who can translate the Tenochca’s Nahuatl language into Maya, and the charismatic Andalusian priest Aguilar, who can translate Malintzin’s Maya into Spanish. Each of these translators, of course, has their own agenda, and Malintzin is also hiding her own increasing fluency in Spanish in the hope of finding some crack in either Cortés’s or Moctezuma’s armor to exploit. The first half of the novel passes in a soupy muddle of misunderstanding and incompetence, with almost every character’s mind left at least partially befuddled in the “esoteric between-place” that is reached by the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms, tomatoes, and cacti (p. 20).

Amid this gentle chaos, the inept conquistadores send a simple-minded groom to find stables to house their horses, not thinking that a civilization without horses has never had need for stables. When the groom finds an orchard, the rest of the party do not know where he has got to and wander the empty corridors of Tenoxtitlan for hours looking for him. They wear their metal boots and breastplates despite the baking heat, refuse wine to keep their heads clear without realizing that the chocolate they demand instead is spiked with hallucinogens, and mock their hosts’ primitivism without thinking how they, a sorry band of sunburnt travelers who agreed to leave their army at the gates, appear to the Tenochca. Only Caldera, timidly seeking the advice of the self-interested interpreter Aguilar, even bothers to learn how to put on the garments their hosts have left for them. His countrymen fester in their breeches.

Throughout this, the narrative voice is nevertheless evenhanded, slipping gently between Castilian and Tenochca perspectives, often showing the native ruling class to be just as ridiculous and hidebound as their ungrateful guests. Moctezuma himself is a sorry figure, cruel and compulsive, dependent on hallucinogens and prone to ordering sudden executions. His two closest advisers are fearful and frustrated: his sister-wife, Atotoxtli, feels underappreciated, and the aging mayor Tlilpotonqui—a superb character, endearingly blending nous, bafflement, and rising dread—is slowly realizing that the subtle political brilliance upon which he has always depended may have failed him at last. The mayor cannot figure out where Moctezuma’s brother Cuitlahuac, the second in line to the throne, has gone, or who has called the interminable council meeting that he gets sucked into when he should be out tackling the crisis that Moctezuma has engendered by prizing the Spaniards, and their horses, above ruling his own subjects. Both Atotoxtli and Tlilpotonqui know that their frustrations are of a sort which, in Moctezuma’s city, often indicate that you have been cut out of the loop and are soon to be sent to the gods—via death on the sacrifice stone.

Moribundity is a potent theme here: does command always decay into misrule? Must one empire always supplant another? Can a political class upheld by religion survive, once it starts to believe its own mysticism? Tlilpotonqui and Atotoxtli have learned to revere the emperor, who has won many brilliant strategic victories, but now the once-charismatic Moctezuma takes so many mushrooms that he worries his own shamans, drools while he sleeps, and talks to walls. And he has invited, completely needlessly, the dangerous Spanish expedition into the heart of Tenoxtitlan, apparently solely out of fascination with their “cahuayos,” the twenty-seven horses that are now shitting all over a magnificent orchard.

Shit is almost as obsessively recurrent as blood in You Dreamed of Empires, a text in which bodies are always spilling their filth. But it never piles up—Tenoxtitlan is kept just as obsessively clean by the servants who scurry, scrub, and sweep at every turn. The worldbuilding is spellbinding, completely immersing the reader in the paranoia and jeopardy of two societies steeped in ancient ritual, both caught on the cusp of a momentous change, in the moment of encounter with the utterly foreign, as everyone with their wits about them starts to look over their shoulder for a way out. In the end, in Enrigue’s version of the world, it is the underestimated Moctezuma who triumphs, as I discuss below, and the comparatively humble Jazmín Caldera who becomes the only conquistador to survive—thanks to his capacity for cultural appreciation. Overcoming his sensitive nose, and donning his Tenochca clothing, Caldera abandons Cortés to slip away into the place that he alone among his countrymen recognizes as a “city that operated ceaselessly with the precision of a Roman cohort,” not simply a savage temple to be subjugated with Christian idols (p. 182).

This is Enrigue’s second novel to be translated into English by Natasha Wimmer for an imprint of Penguin Random House (previous works have been translated for the specialist publisher Dalkey Archive Press)—the first was Sudden Death (2016), a history-hopping carnival in which Enrigue connects a tennis match between Caravaggio and the poet Francisco De Quevedo to the conquistadores’ rape of Mexico as though this were an entirely logical narrative choice. While You Dreamed of Empires’ story begins with Caldera’s turkey soup, the book itself has by this point already begun: printed in the front matter, before the cast list, is a three-page letter from Enrigue to Wimmer, in which he unpacks his philosophy of wordfeel and translatability. In a novel concerned with (mis)translation, mutual (in)comprehension, and the subtle power dynamics occasioned by even slight inequalities in (mis)understanding, this is more than a simple mechanical aid to absorbing the pages that follow. It must be read in good humor, as a performative construction: surely no actual letter from author to translator, if not intended for publication, would ever be so neat as to begin “As promised, here’s the new novel” (p. xi). No, the letter is part of the novel itself; not just a key, but a part of the puzzle that Wimmer, translating Enrigue’s original title, Tu sueño imperios han sido, has entitled You Dreamed of Empires.

In his letter, Enrigue frets over the sound of words as much as their meaning, pointing out that he has chosen to spell the ancient seat of the Mexica empire not Tenochtitlan but Tenoxtitlan, with a soft x pronounced sh, to evoke the “warmth of the language of the ancient Mexicans” (p. xi). Conversely, for his emperor, Enrigue uses not “the Nahuatl Moteucsoma,” but the familiar modern spelling of Moctezuma—because the author likes the “contained explosion” caused by the ct sound (p. xii). The goal is not consistency nor authenticity but the emotional effect of sound. Indeed, this novel is so packed with unexpected but familiar-looking words that the monolingual English-speaking reader must constantly subvocalize x and tl sounds as they read, to familiarize themselves with the sonic landscape of the linguistic world portrayed. To confuse Cuauhtemoc with Cuitlahuac, for example, or Tlilpotonqui with Tlacaelel, would be to misunderstand a vital line of succession in Tenochca politics; and to confuse either Cuitlahuac with cihuacoatl, or Tlacaelel with tlatoani, would be to muddle up one character’s name with an honorific belonging to someone else. But as Strange Horizons readers know better than most, if they are of the epic-fantasy-reading persuasion, these matters settle in the mind with surprising ease. By the end of this slim novel, when Moctezuma speaks to Cortés of his tlatoani Xalx, and his god Xeetzus, the reader is so comfortable with the soft sh sound of the Tenochca letter x that they easily understand that the emperor is speaking of King Charles, and Jesus.

In fact, the question of You Dreamed of Empires’ genre is an intriguing one. As noted above, it is being sold as “Historical Fiction,” but there is plenty here to suggest that a more speculative category would fit the novel better. In one scene, Moctezuma and his high priest use the “magic powers of hearing” given to them by hallucinatory drugs to listen to the “sexy crooning of Marc Bolan” singing the T. Rex song “Monolith” (p. 177). In another, the general Cuauhtemoc encounters a man wearing “indescribable garments” recognizable to the reader as a suit from a more recent era (p. 112). The man is revealed by Enrigue in his acknowledgements to be the early twentieth-century Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde (p. 221). Surely time travel is not the stuff of “Historical Fiction,” even when justified by magic tomatoes? In sum, this is one of those books destined to be sold in the Anglophone bookstore as “literary fiction,” perhaps subcategorized as “magic realism,” while SFF adherents grumble that there is no reason for it not to be placed on the fantasy shelves. Maybe the problem is with our bookshops: Enrigue himself, citing Borges and Cortázar, cheerfully places it in the tradition of “Latin American fantastical literature,” daring the Anglophone world to consider genre categories outside of its own ossified assumptions.

In this work of literary, historical, and fantastical (not to mention comic) fiction, postmodern metafiction also rears its head. This is at times irritating, as metafiction so often is. In one series of asides, Enrigue discusses who the character of Caldera, the sole wholly-fictional figure among the conquistadores, “has to be” in order “for this novel to work” (p. 146). Here, suspension of disbelief is sacrificed for no particular benefit. In another, already richly comic, scene between Atotoxtli, Tlilpotonqui, and the general Cuauhtemoc, the princess exhorts the mayor and general to “go to the feelings-shaman” (p. 167): this anachronistic gag, in which a sassy woman urges two bottled-up men to “get therapy,” trades invention for irony simply to share a wink with the contemporary reader.

Elsewhere, however, Enrigue punctures the fourth wall not for cleverness’s sake, but with devastating narrative effect. During Moctezuma and his priest’s shared trance, he sets up a direct connection between the events of the novel and the physical book itself, when they see “me writing this novel in a yard on Shelter Island” (p. 177). At the time, this author-insertion, with its sudden intrusion of the first person, seems like just another indulgent wink-to-camera. But it pays off in time: this vision opens the door for a far more interesting, even awesome, shift of perspective at the novel’s conclusion. During You Dreamed of Empires’ final drug-addled encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma, there is a whirlwind summary of everything that befell Tenoxtitlan after the events of 1519: Cortés accepted Moctezuma’s hospitality only to kill the emperor, before ravaging Mexico with conquest, smallpox, and enslavement. This summary is then cut short, as the reader abruptly learns that this history—that is, the history in which the reader themselves lives—is in the novel’s world an insane counterfactual. Here in the novel’s reality, Moctezuma is far wiser than even his allies ever credit, and has arranged for his brother, the warrior Cuitlahuac (the missing second-in-line for whom the mayor has been fruitlessly searching) to step out of hiding and snap Cortés’s spine. Thus can Moctezuma claim the true treasure of the conquistadores’ invasion: those twenty-seven horses which they have set loose in the orchard. He is right to do so: in Enrigue’s estimation it is those North American nations who were able to adopt the horse that were most empowered to resist colonization by Europeans in the centuries that followed. This nimble imagining of Moctezuma’s triumph, then, sets up a dream of empire indeed: not Spain’s, but a Tenochca empire that never fell to Spanish guns and disease.

You Dreamed of Empires is contained and dense, much more so than Sudden Death. This latest novel’s intricacies are constrained, unlike Sudden Death’s, by a single location, pulped together by heat and drugs and the maddening deadness of ancient ritual. The reader of indecently comic historical fantasy—who also enjoys anti-colonial rage and can stomach a little postmodern cleverness—may simply love most whichever of Enrigue’s books they come to first; certainly what is made clear by both novels, together and separately, is the value of translation. For this monolingual reader, Enrigue and Wimmer’s collaboration to bring these novels to my understanding is a gift that enriches and broadens me—and makes me laugh.

Enrigue’s new novel, then, is as brilliant as its predecessor—perhaps even better. Sudden Death, with its riotous history-hopping comedy, may be more incandescent, but You Dreamed of Empires burns hotter at its core. This novel is sickly and captivating, an uneasy triumph of paranoia and miscommunication, of conviction rising from a moribund torpor. All of this comes together in one of the most satisfyingly constructed endings I have read in some time, in which the slow-burning fuses which Enrigue has laid explode at last, in psychedelic fury.

Aran Ward Sell is a writer based between Edinburgh, Scotland, and Indiana, USA. He teaches Contemporary Irish Literature at the University of Notre Dame. He has written for various publications, and was a 2023 Irish Novel Fair runner-up. He makes music, climbs trees, and has a tattoo of a platypus.
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