A Brutal History Reimagined in “You Dreamed of Empires” – Chicago Review of Books

When the Mexica emperor Moctezuma sent his emissaries to report on the Spanish conquistadors under Hernán Cortés in 1519, neither side understood what the other was saying. It was only through a chain of translations between a Franciscan friar named Aguilar who spoke some Mayan and a young Nahuatl woman given to Cortés as a gift that Moctezuma’s emissaries were able to find out what Cortés and his party were up to. Depending on which narrative account is referring to her, the Nahuatl woman is known as La Malinche, Malintzin, Marina, or the name likely given to her at birth, Malinalli. For her role in history as Cortés’s translator, mistress, and mother to Cortés’s child, she’s described by some as a traitor to indigenous people. Others see her as a maternal authority, or a woman forced to navigate difficult choices between the opposing worlds she finds herself a part of. 

In Álvaro Enrigue’s reimagining of this pivotal meeting between Moctezuma and Cortés, one of the women of Moctezuma’s court wonders why the Mexica call Cortés El Malinche. Moctezuma’s wife (and also his sister) Princess Atotoxtli speculates, “I guess no one ever talks to him, or even looks at him much; they call him El Malinche because the person they’re really talking to is Malitzin – La Malinche, you know.” La Malinche (Malinalli) is more than a cipher though. She’s a skilled negotiator who uses her knowledge of languages to cultivate her own political power amidst the chaotic intrigue of palace politics that have the Mexica and their uneasy Colhua allies distressed. 

You Dreamed of Empires, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, begins with a series of misunderstandings that even the translators can’t make sense of: upon meeting Moctezuma, Cortés moves in for an awkward embrace; Captain Jazmín Caldera can’t stomach the soup that smells like blood; there are no stables for the Spaniards’ cahuayos; and, most troubling of all, Princess Atotoxtli suspects the city’s mayor, Tlilpotonqui, is lying to her about the presence of an army of Tlaxcalteca warriors waiting just outside the city’s gates. Aguilar warns the Spaniards that, “A city like this wasn’t built by being nice to foreigners, and we don’t know yet whether we’re visitors or prisoners.” 

The symbolic order of palace labyrinths and plant-based psychedelics obfuscate things further. At times, Moctezuma appears detached from the intricacies of palace politics, preferring instead to ask questions about the cahuayos and eat mushrooms than confront the very real dangers that threaten his empire. Despite no one really knowing what’s going on, the story remains grounded by humorous observations like, “If there’s anything Spaniards and Mexicans have always agreed upon, it’s that nobody is less qualified to govern than the government itself.” 

Historical speculation and empire are themes in Enrigue’s previous novels, including the Herralde prize-winner Sudden Death (2016), the first of his novels to be translated into English. Like Sudden Death, the list of dead authors and historic figures invoked throughout You Dreamed of Empires coalesce into a continuum between past, present, and future that Enrigue proves supremely capable of subverting in service to the story about colonization and societal power. Just as the conquistador Caldera ruminates over Petrarch’s poetry, the Roman historian Livy, and the heroism of the romantic literary hero Amadís de Guala, the friar Aguilar reminds Caldera that “When somebody puts what’s happening to us now in a book, they’ll think it’s more chivalric romance bullshit.” 

At times, the novel’s self-conscious narrative voice pokes through the seams of its own reporting, adding playful commentary on modern day Mexico City like how “The English historians of the nineteenth century, who really had no clue, would call them Aztecs to solve the problem, and it stuck.” The asides can be annoyingly effective at taking attention away from the characters in scene. Even summarizing five hundred years of Mexican history as the final drug-induced dream of Cortés that ends with the author writing this novel on Shelter Island can feel a bit too clever before seeing Enrigue’s references to Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Secret Miracle” in the novel’s acknowledgements. 

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Enrigue prefaces You Dreamed of Empires with a note to English readers addressed to Natasha Wimmer, who translated Enrigue’s most recent novels into English along with those of Roberto Bolaño and, more recently, Nona Fernández. Enrigue notes the particular spelling of people and places that appear throughout the novel along with admissions of his own personal preference for Tenoxtitlan over Tenochtitlán, explaining, “I just prefer how it sounds: it has the warmth of the language of the ancient Mexicans if you stress the right syllable and pronounce the x as sh.” His notes document the inevitable choices that any author dealing with historical evidence must embrace when speculating about the past. 

In a fictional ending that seems more plausible than the documented historical account of Moctezuma’s death (i.e. being struck by a stone while addressing an angry mob from the balcony of his palace), the Moctezuma of You Dreamed of Empires triumphs over Cortés in an alternate rendering of their fateful meeting that leaves Cortés “exposed, lying there on his stomach propped up on his elbows like a boy reading a novel of chivalry.” Only the deserter Caldera is spared by the Princess Atotoxli because someone will need to teach the others how to mount those cahuayos. And while Enrigue’s interpretation of this brutal period of history doesn’t rectify any of the atrocities that follow, it is a thoughtful reminder of the dangerous power that accompanies self-deception and the ideas of chivalric romantic bullshit that all empires are built on.

You Dreamed of Empires
By Álvaro Enrigue

Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Riverhead Books
Published January 9, 2024

Joe Stanek

Joe Stanek graduated from West Point and has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. He writes about the consequences of war and military culture.

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