You Dreamed of Empires 
by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer.
Harvill Secker, 206 pp., £18.99, January, 978 1 78730 380 5
Show More
Show More

Culture shock​ seems too mild a phrase to describe the arrival of Europeans in South and Central America. In his 1976 maverick classic, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (its category speculative neurohistory, at a guess), Julian Jaynes proposes that, at the time Pizarro and his men reached them, the Inca didn’t have full mental autonomy but only ‘protosubjectivity’. They functioned largely by a sort of automatism, acting according to unchanging patterns and ritual clues, able to absorb only slight disruptions to their routines, so that this was less a clash of civilisations than of mental structures. It shouldn’t be shocking that a hierarchical society can manage without conscious thought, or even language, as the example of an anthill demonstrates. Ants know that one of their fellows is dead through a pheromonic cue, and if a living ant is anointed with that pheromone it will be carried to the place designated for the dead any number of times, however vigorously it struggles to assert its status as a non-corpse, until the chemical signal has worn off. The system works smoothly as long as drops of synthetic pheromone aren’t introduced.

This is Jaynes’s explanation for a response that seems more like the breakdown of a machine than a reaction to threat. The Inca had no precedents for these ‘rough, milk-skinned men with hair drooling from their chins instead of from their scalps so that their heads looked upside down, clothed in metal, with avertive eyes, riding strange llama like creatures with silver hoofs’, or for the ships on which they arrived in November 1532.

Not subjectively conscious, unable to deceive or narrativise out the deceptions of others, the Inca and his lords were captured like helpless automatons. And as its people mechanically watched, this shipload of subjective men stripped the gold sheathing from the holy city, melted down its golden images and all the treasures of the Golden Enclosure, its fields of golden corn with stems and leaves all cunningly wrought in gold, murdered its living god and his princes, raped its unprotesting women, and, narrativising their Spanish futures, sailed away with the yellow metal into the subjective value system from which they had come.

The meeting of Cortés and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma was more evenly balanced. The Aztec polity was far more sophisticated than anything the Spaniards had encountered, though one of its foundations, public human sacrifice on a large scale, spattered blood over the interlocking social mechanisms in a way likely to distract from its rigour. The Aztecs even had experience of diplomacy. It was so much simpler, instead of denouncing the idols and regalia of rival religions, to put them on display: ‘Welcome them, give them a scare, and then tell them to take their idols to the temple of the conquered gods; say we’ll give them a very nice altar there.’

This is the subject of Álvaro Enrigue’s adventurous new novel, You Dreamed of Empires, almost all of which is devoted to the first day or so that Cortés and his men spent in Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City). They were guests in the palace, but when the floating city raised its bridges they would, without any drama, become prisoners. Enrigue narrates the story from several points of view, but starts with Jazmín Caldera, one of the funders of Cortés’s expedition, and his efforts at a ceremonial banquet to blot out the smell of the priests next to him at the table, so as to be able to drink his soup (made of turkey and flowers) and keep it down. One priest is wearing a blackened and decaying human skin round his shoulders like a cape while the other’s hair is crusted with months’ worth of sacrificial blood. It should be noted that the recoil is not one-sided. The Spanish party is rank in its own right.

Cortés and his expedition were not so much conquistadors as chancers, pushing their luck with no official backing from the crown. The Aztecs call them the Caxtilteca, providing them with a regional and even tribal identity that wasn’t inappropriate. Cortés suffers the additional diminishment of being referred to as El Malinche, as if he belonged to his translator, Malinalli, although the bond of ownership is the other way around, as she knows all too well when he’s in a mood to use her sexually. Translation is not a simple business when a chain of languages is involved. Malinalli can move between Nahuatl and Maya, but another step is required for workable communication. Aguilar, an Andalusian priest who has gone native to some extent after being owned by a Maya lord, renders Maya into Castilian and back again. The supposed abdication of Moctezuma, if not pure conquistador invention, can be attributed to a formulaic welcome speech in Nahuatl, along the lines of my-house-is-your-house, losing context as it passes through two sets of filters. Invited to sit on the throne, Cortés should have said that the humblest mat was good enough for him and not ‘All right then.’ He had to be intercepted by the mayor of the city ‘before he could plant the stamp of his buttocks, poorly wiped over months of campaigning’ on the quetzal-feathered cushion.

The Spanish party is unnerved by the bareness of the rooms in the palace, lit only by braziers since the Aztecs had no candles. Also disconcerting is the absence of doors, but then ‘in Mexico no one had conceived of the hinge.’ Aguilar, the translator from Mayan, has his own interpretation. ‘It seemed only logical to him that a culture that had created the goose-down quilt would have no conception of the hinge: doors were invented for restless sleepers.’ Jaynes, writing about the Incas, also mentions the absence of doors but assimilates it into his theory: ‘There were no thieves in Cuzco and no doors: a stick crosswise in front of the open doorway was a sign that the owner was not in and nobody would enter.’ It may also be relevant that neither the Inca nor the Aztecs had the use of iron.

With Enrigue’s encouragement his translator, Natasha Wimmer, keeps certain words in the original. In a sense the cihuacoatl of Tenochtitlan is the mayor of the city, but mayors are not usually military commanders, and he is also supreme general of the Mexica army. Yes, you could translate calmecac as ‘military academy’, but though that is approximately the right category, and its graduates have ‘all the emotional training of a trout’, Sandhurst and West Point are not useful frames of reference. Reviewing Bruce Chatwin’s On the Black Hill, John Updike singled out a particular detail as seeming to be ‘miraculously recovered’ from the past – the pink dimple left in the flesh of a man’s neck by the collar stud he has been wearing. Chatwin was reaching back a couple of generations. Enrigue achieves comparable immediacy from a distance of five centuries. Moctezuma remembers just in time to take off his cloak of white goose feathers before appearing in public, since he is ritually required to give away his garments after such occasions and is far too fond of the cloak to let it go. The mayor, who has an appointment with the emperor, makes muffled sounds of distress in his private apartments. It’s good manners for him to shed some blood before the meeting, from the calf, earlobe or even penis, using a plant spine, and there may be servants in earshot who can testify to his negligence if he doesn’t put on a bit of a show (it turns out there’s nobody there).

There’s no shortage of bravura in passages like these, confident in their linking of archaic customs with agreed universals of human behaviour such as vanity and the desire to avoid pain without losing face. The gap between a person and their official role is sometimes accompanied by an appropriate linguistic lurch in Wimmer’s translation: ‘After years operating in a court where anyone could disappear from one day to the next, never to be mentioned again, [the mayor of the city] was able to maintain a perpetual appearance of equanimity even if inside he was about to lose his shit.’

There’s likely, however, to be a point at which our understanding stops dead, confronted with so foreign a value system. Enrigue confronts this early in the book, with a scene between Moctezuma and his ‘little cousin’, the designation for his handmaid. The blood relationship is real but doesn’t exempt her from keeping her eyes cast down as she serves food and takes it away, making sure that she never turns her back to the emperor. In the palace an underling meeting the emperor’s eye without sanction will lead not to dismissal but to death. And they’re all underlings, so it’s eyes down for everyone.

During his meal Moctezuma thinks better of a hasty command, but then realises the little cousin didn’t pass it on in the first place, her motive being to protect the princess, Moctezuma’s sister and consort, who helped to bring her up.

Run and find another Little Cousin to wait on me, he said, and you go to the guards, tell them you are to be executed in private. The girl screwed up her face, holding back tears. What’s wrong, Little Cousin? asked the emperor, lifting her chin. He looked her in the eyes … She replied with more sadness than anger: You don’t even know my name; we’ve lived in the same palace for 23 years, as long as I’ve been alive; you’re my uncle; your father is my grandfather; I’ve served you every meal for five years; you’re sending me to be executed and you don’t even know my name; I will rise like fog and no one will remember my passage through this world.

The emperor reaches for a tortilla and dips it in sauce. ‘Go now, he said, and tell them to execute you in public.’ This offhand cruelty, too casual even to be called sadism, encountered 25 pages into the book, is likely to produce revulsion in the reader. It’s hard to imagine that Enrigue, starting from that savage brushstroke, could manage to build up something close to a balanced portrait of Moctezuma, but he does. He also successfully handles a large cast of characters in a modestly proportioned book, and even throws in the hook of thriller intrigue for the benefit of readers addicted to plot: where is the heir to the emperor’s throne? Why has no one seen him lately?

At first sight the Aztec polity was a blood-drenched tyranny, but it contained something remarkably like a system of checks and balances. The succession to the throne, for instance, went neither by dynastic inheritance nor by the incumbent’s choice. A council chose the heir from a shortlist of proven warriors. Granted, an Aztec nominating committee sounds like the premise for a comedy sketch, but it’s worth noting that in this context the duties of someone described as a secretary may include snapping a spine. One residue of a military education is the idea that mediation is best accomplished by killing one of the disputing parties.

The second most powerful man in the empire, the cihuacoatl, is not in the running to replace the emperor, not only because he is in charge of a different set of administrative mechanisms but because there is no overlap in their symbolic function. The emperor represents the sun, a young god, restless, hot-tempered and bloodthirsty; the mayor the moon, an old goddess, comfortable with herself: ‘Moctezuma was the guiding force of the kingdom and Tlilpotonqui was the source of his strength, controlling the perfect wealth and fear-producing machine that was Tenochtitlan.’ The mayor is over seventy, and to some extent disregarded for that reason, but Moctezuma, at 52, is not exactly young. He has become less decisive. Those who have never known limitations on their power find it hard to cope when their bodies start to let them down. When the emperor takes a nap, it isn’t as a concession to middle age but an aspect of his ceremonial duties: ‘The silence his nap demanded was imperial. Nothing moved in the palace between the moment he entered his room and the instant he opened his eyes again and rang the royal bell to ask for something from the latest Little Cousin.’ When he wakes up he is festooned with strands of drool, thanks to the loss of his molars. Ingesting hallucinogens (a paste of magic mushrooms and honey) is standard preparation for the imperial nap, but it can be taken too far and risk addling the senses rather than sharpening them. The sound of that bell is described as waking a whole world, but Moctezuma himself goes straight back to sleep. He has noticed the odd appearance of the Spaniards, with their rosy skin and hair round their mouths instead of on their heads, but isn’t alarmed by it. He seems to regard them as collectables rather than threats (‘if we don’t take them for ourselves someone else will’), though they’re not as interesting as their horses.

In contrast to the emperor, the mayor doesn’t enjoy the human sacrifices and has no faith in their ritual significance, but sees that they are too deeply embedded in the mechanisms of society to be dispensable: ‘The festivals with their severed heads, dismembered bodies and rivers of blood flowing down temple steps were disgusting, but they also brought feasting, music, dances, intoxication … They were a break in the succession of days and they boosted pride.’ It’s as if blood continues to discharge a vital circulatory function even after it leaves the body. In a society based on hierarchy and separation, festivals also permitted mixing. The people were pacified and the priests – always discontented, quick to take offence – were kept ‘well fed, drugged and happy’.

There’s no suggestion that it’s a privilege to be offered up as a religious sacrifice, whether by the emperor himself (theoretically a great honour) or by anyone else. The emperor’s consort, Atotoxtli, aware that she too is subject to Moctezuma’s whims, contemplates her execution with a fatalistic numbness: ‘It was unbearably mortifying to think of her own naked, dismembered corpse tumbling down the steps after her head, but she wouldn’t be there to see it happen.’ The Aztecs lacked the luxury of unanimity enjoyed by the Incas, with their more primitive mental functioning, as Jaynes presents it: ‘When the Inca died, his concubines and personal servants first drank and danced, and then were eagerly strangled to join him on his journey to the sun, just as had previously happened in Egypt, Ur and China.’ He posits an equal eagerness in strangler and stranglee to supply their no-longer-living god with company in the afterlife, with no subjective qualm felt on either side of the garrotte.

In Enrigue’s Tenochtitlan there’s no shortage of subjectivity, and even an awareness of imminent collapse. Moctezuma’s paranoia had led him to mistrust the meritocratic administrative system, the very rough equivalent of a civil service, which he replaced with family members who were loyal to him. He withdrew from public life, apparently unconcerned that subjugated tribes were ready to revolt, and resorted more and more to hallucinogens. There’s plenty of black comedy in the inadequacy of his retinue’s efforts to address the crisis caused by the Spaniards’ arrival. Atotoxtli does what she can, though ‘hurrying didn’t mean cancelling her afternoon bath, of course, just cutting it a little short.’ The mayor attends a summit meeting, convened in the traditional manner, with equipals, chairs described as ‘uterine’, brought along for those attending (the Spaniards find their design strange since there is no way of hanging weapons on them). Before anything can be discussed, the Legend of the Five Suns, the cornerstone of Aztec cosmology, must be sung in full. It seems to take hours. The impression that time has slowed down or stopped is reinforced by the name of the functionary doing the recitation: He Who Looses the Rain of Words and Governs the Songs Lest We Be like the Flowers and Bees That Last but a Few Days. It may be that the mayor is being sent an urgent message in the absence of the emperor, but he can’t make it out. Nothing could make it clearer that this is an ancien régime, exquisitely calibrated internally but with no ability to mobilise when a novel danger presents itself.

There are set formulas for the emperor to use when he dismisses officials, and a special one to indicate that the mayor should stay behind. It goes like this: ‘My soul does not rest, because the eyes of the dead have no eyelids; stay a moment longer with me so that together we may receive the shower of blood and snot about to be loosed on me by the gods; if your voice joins mine, perhaps we may pacify them.’ Aztec civilisation is so remote, at least to Europeans, that this could be a meticulous translation or a wild fantasy. Few readers outside Mexico will know the difference. But when the emperor and the mayor are alone together, how do they speak? There must be a backstage, a realm of speech remote from formalities.

The repetition on every page of words in an ancient language (Nahuatl, surviving but in decline) insists on the otherness of the past, but there is a strong current in the book that moves in the opposite direction, lessening distance by using familiar terms. The continuity suggested by using the word ‘flip-flop’ rather than ‘sandal’ at one point, if only to produce a wayward aphorism (‘In Mexico, authority has always flowed from the smack of a flip-flop’), is purely rhetorical but at least conveys the fact that these seductively comfortable items, astounding to the conquistadors, were not so remarkable among the Aztecs. No examples survive, but there is plenty of testimony to their existence. Enrigue holds back from characterising the conflict between Cortés’s men and Moctezuma’s as a matter of cavalry boots stamping on sandals, though it’s not far off the mark. He delays until late in the book an incident on the Spanish side symmetrical in horror with Moctezuma’s offhand execution order of the little cousin. Cortés polishes his boots, neglected because the expedition’s stock of oil must be reserved for cooking, with human tallow, the fat rendered down from the corpses of natives massacred on the way to Tenochtitlan. His mother told him he should pray while he does his chores, and he’s an obedient son. ‘You who cleanse the sins of this world hear our prayer. When the wood had turned to coals, they stuck an iron bar up the rectum of each torso, nice and straight so it came out the pharynx. You who sit on the right side of the Father have mercy on us.’

There has been​ a sustained reaction in historical fiction against the stylised ‘my liege’ archaism that was once the rule in representing the speech of the past – in fact, the slangy modernity that used to be the province of comedy shows like Blackadder is now close to standard practice on the page. It’s hard to argue against this when the original words would have been in another language. Wimmer’s choices can seem extreme at times, but they aren’t out of line with Enrigue’s Spanish. It may be, for instance, that conversations between drug dealers and their clients are always freewheeling, even when the client is an emperor and hallucination is an embedded principle of government. The chamber-shaman’s first words are ‘Just look at yourself, Mocte.’ He goes on: ‘I have fliers and slides … which do you want? Moctezuma rubbed his face: I want a nibble of flier, just for balance, because I have a meeting soon, but that isn’t why I called you. You don’t say, replied the shaman.’ ‘Fliers and slides’ is presumably as close as Wimmer dares come to uppers and downers without sabotaging tone altogether.

So what happens when the emperor’s consort is alone with the mayor and the emperor’s son-in-law, second in line to the throne? Apparently, she feels able to scold them: ‘Feelings-shaman, boys; a short session once every five days can’t hurt.’ A glaring wrongness of register like this can make its own point, opening up all over again the gap between the historical record and what the imagination can produce to supplement it. One benefit of this almost audible grinding of gears is that it muffles quieter mismatches, such as the way a universal language of gesture and facial expression is assumed to underlie conversational exchanges. Would Atotoxtli’s way of raising one eyebrow and lowering the other really ‘have given her ruling powers anywhere’? It seems unlikely that communication in a vanished hierarchical society could map so smoothly onto the conventions of soap opera, for example when an underlying meaning needs to be signalled (‘He arched his eyebrows when he said accident’) or a shoulder movement conveys an indeterminacy with definite edges (‘The general and the princess shrugged, but their manner somehow suggested it wasn’t a display of ignorance, but a plea for him to understand something unsaid’). The internet has homogenised our understanding of such byplay, but there are still misunderstandings likely between headshakers seeking to indicate assent and those for whom that movement means refusal. Why would there be any overlap between 16th-century Mesoamerican body language and our own?

These are soft anachronisms, moot points beyond the reach of proof. Hard anachronisms are more serious threats to plausibility, but even here there is a sliding scale in operation, according to the degree of factuality being claimed or implied. A small mistake of fact in Wolf Hall would be more damaging than wall-to-wall solecisms in a piece of work like Ford Madox Ford’s Fifth Queen trilogy, where the approach is impressionistic. The same distinction carries over into modernist novels that are no less historical fictions because their authors happened to live through the relevant period. Joyce felt every error in Ulysses keenly, perhaps less as it affected the contract of fidelity with the reader than as a blow to intellectual pride. Proust’s historicity was much softer-edged – so what if Fortuny hadn’t actually started selling dresses by the time fashionable women are wearing them in the novel? Postmodernist anachronism is a different creature, consciously violating the spurious integrity we seek to confer on a vanished period. Perhaps it’s in film that anachronism can give the most effective jolt of energy, though here I’m thinking not of Marie Antoinette or The Favourite, with their clear contemporary agenda, but of the manual typewriter in Jarman’s Caravaggio, the harshness taken off the dissonance by its being a retro machine.

There’s nothing remotely subtle about Enrigue’s use of pop culture anachronism when he deploys it late in the book. At the top of the central temple, Moctezuma contemplates the withered fingers of great warriors sacrificed during the year’s festivals, as they sway ‘like the branches of a small tree to the beat of some music he couldn’t place, though in a possible future he would have recognised it. It was T. Rex’s “Monolith”.’ The lyrics of the song have some relevance of a bonkers sort (‘The throne of time/Is a kingly/A kingly thing/From whence you know/We all do begin’) but otherwise the only logic here is the overthrow of logic. Postmodernism is itself used postmodernistically, as an effect rather than an organising principle.

In​ a charming note to English-language readers in the form of a letter to his translator (‘Dearest Natasha’) at the beginning of You Dreamed of Empires, Enrigue writes: ‘As promised, here’s the new novel. This time around it’s a little more polished, which I hope will make the translation process less torturous for you. With age comes insecurity and I spend more time revising than writing.’ In fact what distinguishes the new book from its predecessor is not polish but discipline. Sudden Death, published in Spanish in 2013 and translated into English by Wimmer three years later, describes an imaginary tennis match in Rome between the Spanish poet Quevedo and the painter Caravaggio, devoting a section to each game of each set, the match being a substitute for the duel that was first proposed. In between those sections are miscellaneous passages about the history of tennis, including the apocryphal notion that Anne Boleyn’s hair was claimed by Jean Rombaud, who had been employed by Thomas Cromwell to cut off her head, and sold on to stuff tennis balls. This is a crowded area of historical fiction: quite apart from the many shelves of Boleyniana and the boom in Cromwell studies, Rombaud has been the subject of a novel (C.C. Humphreys’s The French Executioner, published in 2001), where the relic is not Boleyn’s hair but her severed (six-fingered) hand. It’s understandable that Enrigue should import material from wildly different subject areas to help him stand out from the crowd. ‘Like all books, Sudden Death comes mostly from other books,’ he remarks airily in a bibliographic note at the end. It’s only polite, then, for him to acknowledge as indispensable two particular books about Caravaggio (by Andrew Graham-Dixon and Peter Robb) from which he has drawn an enormous amount.

Sudden Death is full of asides: ‘As I write, I don’t know what this book is about. It’s not exactly about a tennis match … Maybe it’s just a book about how to write this book; maybe that’s what all books are about. A book with a lot of back and forth, like a game of tennis.’ The problems of structure and balance are real, but being unsure about what belongs in your novel and what doesn’t isn’t something that can be wished away with a rhetorical flourish. In fact you could compile a small anthology of irritating statements made about ‘the novel’ in Sudden Death. These assertions are individually over the top and collectively preposterous. In one passage it’s claimed that novels give no access to anything outside themselves: ‘What they produce in a reader’s head are private and unique landscapes of objects in motion that have only one thing in common: they don’t exist.’ In another they are given the power to ‘demolish monuments’, for the curious reason that ‘all novels, even the most chaste, are a tiny bit pornographic.’

Ignore the rhetorical overkill and you’re left with a book that operates like a standard bodice-ripper or codpiece-clutcher. The past is made up of encounters between famous people, and everyone has sex with everyone else. Caravaggio’s referee at the tennis match (the equivalent of his second in a duel) is Galileo. He boosts Caravaggio’s chances of winning, of course, with his ability to calculate trajectories, but he also has a casual sexual investment, believing that ‘in terms of texture and pressure there was little difference between the cunt of a sheep and the ass of the greatest artist of all time, so he might as well fuck him in the name of scientific experimentation.’ Even the adversaries on the tennis court enjoyed a drunken fumble the night before, with Quevedo sliding his hand under Caravaggio’s sash and feeling his ‘member against his palm, squeezing it, exploring it, intrigued by its oils’. During the match they experience erections sometimes visible to the spectators. Meanwhile every moment of history is pivotal, determinant of the world we live in. The papacy of Pius IV was ‘the amuse-bouche of all the pyres of modernity’. He ‘slew one world and founded another’. Naturally, Caravaggio ‘set the history of art on fire with the reds of Judith Beheading Holofernes’, and his discovery of chiaroscuro ‘forever changed the way a canvas can be inhabited’. But it was a glimpse of a piece of iridescent Mexican feather-work that gave birth to his own sense of colour.

To an embarrassing extent Enrigue’s thinking about life and literature lags behind his altogether exceptional talent for inhabiting the past: ‘I don’t know what this book is about. I know that as I wrote it I was angry because the bad guys always win. Maybe all books are written simply because in every game the bad guys have the advantage and that is too much to bear.’ Perhaps he really is a shaman, able to conjure but not to interpret. Sudden Death falls apart the way a club sandwich falls apart when there is too much filling stuffed into too many layers. Beyond a certain point no toothpick in the world is up to the job of holding it all together. This is especially frustrating when material of great intrinsic interest but no particular relevance is included, such as the founding by Vasco de Quiroga, first bishop of Michoacán, of hospital towns for the Indigenous population (‘he saved a whole world single-handedly’), ideal communities directly inspired by More’s Utopia.

In You Dreamed of Empires Enrigue gives himself a second chance to recount the collapse of the Aztec empire, material that was desperately out of place in Sudden Death but is now given proper focus. There’s a bizarre auto-revisionism in play, though, with historical figures being presented very differently in the two books, above all Malinalli. In the new novel she is a victim, helplessly plotting revenge against Cortés, who has raped her. In Sudden Death she was an enthusiastic sex partner, possessor of ‘the clitoris that changed the world’. In this version Malinalli also has any amount of agency, coming up with ‘the idea that changed the world’, that the Spaniards with their horses, helped by the Indians’ arrows, could liberate the Indians from the yoke of the Aztecs. That’s a lot of world-changing for one person. It’s odd to have two clashing portraits of a historical figure from the same author – perhaps not as jarring as it would be to portray Anne Boleyn as a scheming minx in one book, tragic victim in the next, but uncomfortable enough. Still, no law has been broken and postmodernism means never having to say you’re sorry.

After the moment in You Dreamed of Empires that brings together Moctezuma and Marc Bolan, Enrigue has nowhere to go but into reverse. You can’t reinflate a popped balloon, but you can reinstate the fictional consistency you have affected to disrupt. The later parts of the novel may be those that required most of the rewriting he tells his translator he did so much of. He works very effectively to build up an abstract excitement, in passages that recount the actions of different groups of people in different parts of the city in paragraphs with no transitions between them, and then a convergence of the characters in a single panorama – what in the writing of a fugue would be called a stretto. Then he imposes a further compression by having the point of view shift abruptly from sentence to sentence. In all of this he is hampered by the fact that we know how the story ends, though he still has a trick up his sleeve.

Enrigue makes the sensible choice of breaking off before the carnage, which he had tried to describe in Sudden Death:

They came out of their houses in a state vacillating between defiance and apathy: they had sworn to their gods that if there were no City of Mexico – ‘the root of the world’ – there would be no Mexicas, so they surrendered themselves to the ritual of being sacked, raped, beheaded and devoured by dogs, almost happy to go quickly.

The blank submission to slaughter of the warlike people of Tenochtitlan is as baffling to read as Jaynes’s account of the fall of Cuzco, for which he at least offers some sort of explanation. This is a gap that can’t be closed, and an aspect of the past that defies resurrection.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences