You Dreamed of Empires

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It was Hernán Cortés who made the ludicrous claim that Moctezuma voluntarily surrendered sovereignty of the Aztec empire to the Spanish conquistadores. Cortés’ narrative is not easily believed, especially considering that he quotes Moctezuma as referencing the Christian Bible, but certainly there are those who believe that the Aztec people, either out of naiveté or superstition, could have been duped into a bad bargain.

Mexican writer Alvaro Enrigue’s agile modernist novel You Dreamed of Empires offers a reimagined encounter between Cortés and Moctezuma, with far more political machination at work than superstition. It all kicks off with the Spaniard trying to hug the Aztec emperor on first greeting—a bad move considering Moctezuma’s impulsivity and comfort with executions. Although the moment somehow doesn’t end in blood, readers know that the ultimate outcome will undoubtedly be disaster.

Over the course of one day in November 1519, conquistadores bumble around the labyrinthine city of Mehxicoh-Tenoxtitlan. Their horses, lost in Moctezuma’s palace, are a novelty to their hosts but unfortunately decimate the emperor’s collection of exotic fruits. Meanwhile, Moctezuma languishes in his room, treating his depression with hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti, while his sister (and wife) Atotoxtli tries to figure out how to save the kingdom. “If there’s anything Spaniards and Mexicans have always agreed upon,” Enrigue writes, “it’s that nobody is less qualified to govern than the government itself.”

Readers of Enrigue’s 2016 novel Sudden Death have already encountered his way of dealing with lopsided accounts of Latin American history. In both books, there are translator characters deliberately mistranslating, effortless comparisons to the Roman empire, plenty of feathered capes and a porous fourth wall. On several occasions, Enrigue yanks us out of the story to look at events from our 21st-century vantage point, such as when Moctezuma is admiring the sound of withered fingers swaying in the breeze “to the beat of some music he couldn’t place,” and we learn that it’s the 1973 song “Monolith” by T. Rex. And as beautifully written as the novel is, especially in its descriptions of the metropolis of Tenoxtitlan, You Dreamed of Empires is also bone-dry funny: “In Mexico, authority has always flowed from the smack of a flip-flop.”

When history is retold in such an irreverent, unprecious manner, there are no winners—except the reader.

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