A Story of What-Ifs: On Álvaro Enrigue’s “You Dreamed of Empires”

Elizabeth Gonzalez James reviews Álvaro Enrigue’s “You Dreamed of Empires.”

A Story of What-Ifs: On Álvaro Enrigue’s “You Dreamed of Empires”

You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue. Riverhead Books. 240 pages.

IN HER BOOK on writing craft, The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between (2013), Stacey D’Erasmo writes that imagination is a profound act of intimacy, that slipping into another’s body and strutting around in their thoughts and feelings and past and future selves achieves a union that is maybe impossible in real life. She terms this “meeting in the if,” a subjunctive world filled with questions and roads not taken: What if I’d gotten there on time? What if I’d taken that job? What if things had been different? The subjunctive is fertile soil for a storyteller. And if we take novels to be empathy machines, as many have described them, then from what deeper place could a writer begin?

You Dreamed of Empires, the latest novel from Álvaro Enrigue, newly translated by Natasha Wimmer, is a story built on what-ifs. Set entirely on the day in 1519 when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was welcomed into the palace of Moctezuma, ruler of Tenochtitlan, in what is now Mexico City, Enrigue spins a seductive tale despite the fact that everyone already knows how, in reality, it ends—spoiler alert: Spain won. And yet, immersed in the world Enrigue builds, we read beyond the shadow of this ending hoping that just maybe, this time around, the story will be different. In his hallucinatory prose, anything could happen.

Cortés arrives at the entrance to the city with a small number of Spaniards, 27 horses, and the united armies of four tribes with antipathy for the Tenocha, the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan. (Aztec, as I understand it, is a bit of a misnomer, like saying European when what you mean to say is French.) Tenochtitlan was built on an island in the middle of Lake Texcoco and grew outward by means of bridges and causeways, floating gardens and canals, and understanding the peculiar architecture of the city is important. When Cortés and his men are welcomed across the causeway into the city, the other tribes are told to stay across the water and wait. At the same time the Spaniards may be walking into a trap, the Tenocha’s enemies may be closing them in, the floating city at once a literal and metaphoric fragile kingdom resting on shaky ground.

The novel opens at an uncomfortable lunch where the conquistadores have been invited to dine with the empress—Moctezuma’s wife and sister—and his high priests, the latter of which are arrayed in capes made of human skin and have “many moons of sacrificial blood” matting their hair. The stench being too much for one Spaniard, he finds he cannot eat, and he and Cortés engage in a hilariously cringe argument in Spanish that cannot be understood by their hosts, but which nonetheless must be hidden behind polite smiles and gestures of gratitude.

By the time the meal is completed, we can see that this is not merely a clash of civilizations, but also a comedy of errors that would be even funnier if it were not so sad. Each side views the other with disdain and a little pity, each believing the other to be backward savages with repugnant smells and customs, doomed to an untimely end by their own crudeness. In Tenocha, where captives are generally sacrificed to various hungry gods, the Spaniards are viewed as little more than lambs before the slaughter. And the conquistadores, described as arrogant rubes on as much of a mission to ease their boredom as to seize slaves and gold, see their hosts as amusing and godless, but at most, something to be stepped over. Translation across this divide is paramount, and Enrigue introduces us to Aguilar, an Andalusian priest who can translate from Maya to Castilian, and Malinalli, better known to history as La Malinche, a captive of Cortés who can translate from Maya to Nahuatl, the language of the Tenocha. When every communiqué must pass through three languages and two translators, what could go wrong? Enrigue makes brilliant use of asides, glances, and whispers in a delicate dance performed by the translators as they attempt to preserve diplomatic relations and the lives of everyone involved.

After lunch the soldiers are escorted to their rooms in the palace, where they must wait until that evening when they will have an audience with Moctezuma himself. The bulk of the novel takes place in this run-up to the meeting as we pivot from one key player to another: the Spaniards squabble amongst themselves and get lost in the Borgesian architecture of the palace; Moctezuma argues with his wife and has his insubordinate niece executed; the horses—unable to be stabled as there exists no such thing yet in the New World—eat their way through an orchard of rare fruits and flowers. Though we are in familiar territory of palace intrigue, gossip, and mundanities, Enrigue’s powers of imagination and his exquisite focus on details breathe life into each scene. From the click-clack of the Spaniards’ boots against the polished cedar floors to their first taste of chocolate—“a tickle at the base of the neck, a shudder of the spine, the tremendous urge to do something, anything”—the rendering of such sensations makes it an intensely, almost uncomfortably immersive read.

As we wait for the meeting, many unknowns lurk in the background: Are the conquistadores guests or prisoners? What are the armies on the other side of the water planning to do? Why did Moctezuma let them into the city? And of course, the biggest question: who will survive? It is tricky to write against a backdrop as well known as the Spanish conquest of the New World, though it is precisely this limitation that allows Enrigue to take his biggest risks. Hallucinogenic foods are introduced as a staple part of the palace diet, and Moctezuma regularly supplements these with even more drugs he receives from an exasperated shaman. Most of the principal characters drop off for a nap around midday. Cortés dreams of Jesus, who commands him to tell Moctezuma of his life. Moctezuma dreams of a tall, fat man with eyes like a toad. (Though Enrigue does not specify who this man is, I picture Diego Rivera, who famously referred to himself as “el sapo,” the toad.) The tall man stands in a ruin of smoke and ashes with Tenocha and Spaniards running all over and pleads, “Don’t make a mistake.” Cuauhtémoc, Moctezuma’s nephew and heir apparent, dreams of the famed 19th-century Mexican poet Ramón López Velarde, who quotes from his masterpiece “Suave patria,” or “Gentle Homeland”: “Young grandfather, hear my praise, only hero at the height of art.”

And once we have allowed time and history to collapse in on itself in this instance, the centuries folding over and sitting atop one another like one city built on the ruins of another, we allow what Enrigue does later on, which is to introduce a Calvinoesque tipping of his hand into the narrative. Enrigue himself steps ever so slightly into the story, stating that what you are reading is in fact a novel, and that he is the novelist who is writing it, from a yard on Shelter Island, no less, while listening to “Monolith” by glam rock pioneers T. Rex. It’s ridiculous and I love it—because history is ridiculous and time is a spiral. (See: Trump leading polls for the 2024 presidential election.) And a novel isn’t a reporting of things that happened. Every novel is a subjunctive invention, a fantasy braided together out of what-ifs.

No one is more aware of this than Enrigue. When one of the conquistadores explores a temple on his own and comes across roughly 40,000 human skulls, cleaned and bleached and meticulously strung through poles in such a way as to terrify both visually and aurally (should the wind catch them the right way and make a glorious death rattle), he steps back to meditate on the significance of the Tenocha worldview: “Seen from the twenty-first century […] a temple like this is first and foremost an affront. For a sixteenth-century Spaniard […] it would have been astonishingly hygienic […] but also a grandly formal reflection on the foundations of any system of religious thought: We don’t last.”

And finally: The meeting. To call the moment when Moctezuma and Cortés come together pivotal hardly does the occasion justice. It is the epicenter of an earthquake that will form the new contours of the next 500 years of human history, the aftershocks of which continue to shudder through countries and bodies today. “Latin America is the region of open veins,” Eduardo Galeano wrote in 1971, and the extraction of wealth from its colonized lands continues unabated today. The moment of contact between continents launched my own ancestors out of Spain, and Enrigue’s as well, I would venture. How may a person regret their own existence?

The ending of You Dreamed of Empires, the aftermath of that fateful meeting, is both expected and surprising, the author having a bit of cake and eating it too. It has been pitched as a colonial revenge story, restitutive, and revolutionary. But these descriptors shift focus toward what happens and away from what I believe is the novel’s greatest strength: its comfort in the murky could-have-been. I find little solace in revenge and restoration—what would that even look like 500 years on? What Enrigue does in this novel is better than revenge—it is an attempt to understand. Why did Moctezuma let Cortés in? Why didn’t he kill him where he stood? Would it have made any difference if he had? All we can do now is recognize, imagine, wonder, fight, and stand until it is our own turn to fall. We don’t last. And yet, in that span, we may dream multitudes.

LARB Contributor

Elizabeth Gonzalez James is the author of the novels Mona at Sea (2021) and The Bullet Swallower (2024), as well as the chapbook Five Conversations About Peter Sellers (2023). Her stories and essays have appeared in The Idaho ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewThe RumpusstorySouthPANK, and elsewhere, and have received numerous Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Massachusetts.


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