You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue review – colonialism as a bloody heist comedy
Alvaro Enrigue’s previous work, “Sudden Death,” which has now been translated into English, weaves a bold combination of historical contemplation and the story of a tennis match (which is essentially a disguised duel) between the artist Caravaggio and a Spanish aristocrat in 16th-century Rome.
The Mexican writer, based in the US, once again manipulates the actual events in You Dreamed of Empires. This story is a creative interpretation of the founding of Mexico City by Hernán Cortés, the conqueror who overtook the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán in 1521. This event is also mentioned in Sudden Death. The retelling in You Dreamed of Empires focuses more on a small group of characters and their perspectives rather than going off on tangents. The story presents colonial conquest as a comedic heist, with the ultimate goal being the capture of an entire city. The narrative places more emphasis on humor than violence, showcasing the comical interactions between the Spanish invaders and the soon-to-be deposed emperor Montezuma (also known as Moctezuma). However, there are still instances of brutal violence throughout the tale.
Enrigue’s main fascination appears to be the unpredictability of history, as seen in his portrayal of Cortés’s journey as a slave trade mission that spiraled out of control. While the presence of violence and filth is mainly used to set the atmosphere, there is a subtle intensity in the casual mentions of details such as using a cactus spine to draw blood from one’s penis as a sacrifice to the gods, or the unhygienic conditions during months of campaigning. The unconventional fare of grasshopper tacos and “warrior arm” only adds to this chaotic and absurd depiction of history.
Enrigue plays with the blending of real and fictional characters in his novel, catching unsuspecting readers off guard with a sudden switch from past tense to subjunctive mood in the middle of the book. This foreshadows the use of alternate realities as the narrative splits into conflicting possibilities, driven by the characters’ consumption of mind-altering plants. The appearance of Marc Bolan is unexpected, and Moctezuma even has a vision of Enrigue himself writing the novel. This idea is reluctantly mentioned by a conquistador who is lost in the emperor’s palace, stating that future readers may dismiss their experiences as fantasy.
Enrigue’s project involves complicating the straightforward information found in textbooks through his characters’ deliberately mixed backgrounds. As Enrigue puts it, “The 19th century English historians, who were clueless, simply labeled them as Aztecs to solve the issue, and it stuck.” The book’s location is written as Tenoxtitlan but pronounced as Tenoshtítlan, with the emphasis on the “i” rather than the “a” as emphasized by the Spanish, or Caxtilteca as known by the Aztecs. In a preface, presented as an email from Enrigue to his translator, Natasha Wimmer, he explains that his choice is not driven by purity but rather a desire for the melodic “warmth of the language of the ancient Mexicans.” He reassures Wimmer, saying, “Don’t worry too much about the Nahuatl words you may encounter. Even Mexican readers won’t immediately know what a macehual or a pipil is. Allow their meanings to reveal themselves: our brains enjoy learning new things and we are naturally wired to absorb new words.”
Despite the author’s trust in the reader, I must admit that I occasionally lost track of the plot as it grew more complex. This was partly due to my own confusion, but also because of the intentionally unfamiliar spellings and multiple elements at play. I found myself frequently referring back to the cast of characters, causing my proof to fall apart. However, the novel’s overall wit and ability to capture farce shines through more strongly than any single character.
Ultimately, it remains a mystery: with its engaging tone, design, and purpose, it continues to move forward with a trippy sense of groundedness, yet never truly igniting. Enrigue’s acknowledgments reveal that the novel was written during a period of lockdown, and it ultimately feels like a distraction from the present – perhaps more enjoyable to write than to read.
The novel “You Dreamed of Empires” by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is available from Harvill Secker for £18.99. To help the Guardian and Observer, purchase your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Additional fees may apply for delivery.