Past Perfect

by Rafaël Newman

History is the one true fatality: you can re-read it as much as you like, but you can’t re-write it. —Laurent Binet

One of my oldest friends, an economic historian who serves as the Academic Director of a museum of Jewish life in northern Germany, is, like me, a child of May; and, during our recent birthday month, as is our custom, we exchanged gifts by post. Since we also share a love of books and history and a taste for grand, occasionally outlandish theory, as well as an abhorrence for futuristic science fiction, the novels we sent each other were in equal measures fantastical and backward-looking: examples of counterfactual historical fiction, what has come to be known as uchronia, the imaginative remaking of a bygone era that is the temporal counterpart to utopian geography.

The birthday book I received from my friend, Der Komet (2013), by Hannes Stein, a German foreign correspondent in the US, re-imagines the 20th century without the colossal conflicts that grew out of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. “One billiard ball clicks against the next,” Stein writes, in an appendix detailing the events elided (or avoided) by his alternative history: “The shots fired in Sarajevo >> the First World War >> the Second World War >> the end of the colonial empires, since imperialism had become too costly for the colonial powers.” Stein’s intricate, multi-character novel is set in an Austro-Hungarian Empire still in existence in the year 2000, one in which the Polish and Ukrainian questions have been settled in a series of minor skirmishes and peaceful negotiations, and assimilated Jews pursue their careers unmolested by a fringe party of anti-Semites. Stein mingles nostalgia for the Habsburgs with an implicit and rueful recognition of the progress that was in fact born of war in the actual 20th century: not only the waning of colonial domination, which in Stein’s world is still carried out only by the “barbarian” Japanese in China, but also the spread of pan-European female suffrage, which in Der Komet has only come, with veritably Swiss tardiness, following the revolts of 1968.

Der Komet’s resuscitation of vanished empires is reminiscent of the encomia for imperial cohabitation that appeared in some otherwise liberal quarters when the USSR was disintegrating, and Yugoslavia was going up in smoke, in the 1990s. The Ottomans and the Habsburgs may have been bigoted and repressive, the argument ran, but at least they (and, in their image, the regimes of Gorbachev and Tito) had kept the inter-ethnic peace. And indeed, Stein, a naturalized American and right-of-center moderate who switched his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat only with Trump’s rise, has one of his novel’s more sympathetic characters preemptively eulogize the Austro-Hungarian Empire (spoiler alert!) as “reactionary, progressive, and humane”.

Many of the casualties of the twin totalitarian ideologies of the modern era are similarly revived: the German Empire, unimpeded by the Versailles Treaty, Weimar, and the Third Reich, has colonized the moon, and the Czar, whose forebears were not liquidated by a now very low-profile journalist named Lenin, continues to rule over a sleepy backwater giant of an empire, while the cataclysmic history of our 20th century intrudes only, and quite literally, as a “nightmare from which” two characters are “trying to awake” (two patients in psychoanalysis, descendants of the otherwise unknown Hitler and Stalin, are troubled, respectively, by bizarre dreams of the Shoah and the Gulag Archipelago). Stein’s novel ends with a remarkably staged rewriting of 9/11, in which traditional, non-radical Islam, represented in its most European (Balkan) form, is recognized with approval and respect, and accorded its rightful place in the house of Abraham.

More radical, both in its conception and in the politics of its author, is the book that I sent my friend in return. Civilizations (2019; published in English translation under the same title in 2021) is the latest work of Laurent Binet, “child of a Jewish mother and a Communist father” and sometime French Socialist Party activist, who has also published an account of his work on the 2012 presidential campaign of François Hollande. Now, having interrogated the limits of authentic historical reconstruction in his first novel, HHhH (2010; published in English under the same title in 2012), on the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak partisans in 1942, and with a learnedly screwball send-up of Mitterrand’s first presidential campaign in his second novel, La septième function du langage (2015; The Seventh Function of Language, 2017), which also plays with and distorts the historical record in subtle and not so subtle fashion, in Civilizations Binet does no less than re-invent the history of the West.

Taking his cue from Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), in which the ascendancy of Europe is ascribed to its possession of certain key resources, as well as from the video game Civilization (the S/Z shibboleth is immediately apparent to French readers), Binet imagines a different outcome for Europe, and thus for the world. Beginning around the turn of the first millennium, with the voyage of Erik the Red’s daughter Freydis to the west and south, well past Vinland, through the Caribbean and beyond, to the Pacific coast of a future Peru, Binet creates immunity to European diseases among the natives, who also become adept at metallurgy and horse-breaking, and are thus, centuries later, able to withstand Columbus’s incursion, and to take over his technological advances. The Genoese navigator, a failure in his quest to enrich the Spanish crown, lives out his days teaching Castilian to Higuénamota, the Taino princess, in what will one day be Cuba. Finally, a generation later, in the 1530s, following a war of succession among the Incas, the pretender to the throne, Atahualpa, flees his brother’s army and, safe from an unlaunched Pizarro, crosses the Caribbean, discovers one of Columbus’s abandoned ships, and sails off, with a now fully grown and imperious Princess Higuénamota, to discover the “New World” – Portugal, and parts east. Amid the disarray of a continent riven by natural catastrophe, wars of religion, and ethnic and class struggle, Atahualpa and Higuénamota make common cause with Moors, Jews, and peasants to supplant the Holy Roman Empire, legislate sweeping land reform, and institute, in the place of the “nailed god” Christ, a new and more peaceful, and more egalitarian, worship of the Sun.

Ironically, despite its creative revenge on Columbus, the villain of contemporary post-colonial criticism, and its re-imagining of history to valorize indigenous cultures in the making of the modern world, Binet’s novel has been attacked, particularly in academic quarters, for its alleged eurocentrism: presumably for its heavy-handed casting-against-type of Atahualpa, the non-noble savage, studying and applying the work of Machiavelli in his conquest of Europe, and for its devotion of so much more attention to sending up canonical Western figures, such as Luther, the Fuggers, and Charles Quint, than to its non-European characters. And this despite Binet’s juxtaposing the relatively peaceful and contemplative Inca to the more bloodthirsty Aztecs, who, in his alternative universe, undaunted by Cortés, follow Atahualpa to Western Europe and establish their own rival power base there, in France (where the Aztec custom of excising the hearts of sacrificial victims is enacted on the future sites of the revolutionary Terror).

Ultimately, of course, it is not the Americas, but Europe that Binet truly wants to save: or rather, he wants to redeem his aspirational, social democratic ego ideal of Europe, whose history has in actual fact been shamingly marred by bigotry, injustice, and genocide. For if science fiction, in its commitment to speculation, shares Freud’s characterization of philosophy as institutionalized paranoia, then uchronian, counterfactual fiction may be homologously diagnosed: as a highly socialized form of neurotic behavior, the obsessive repetition of traumatic events in an effort to master them, and thus perhaps to amend them. In The Seventh Function of Language, Binet ascribes the 1981 triumph of Mitterrand to a cabal of post-structuralist magicians, perhaps as a corrective to the lackluster presidency of Hollande (he also cunningly suggests that Obama will eventually benefit from the same diabolical support); now, in Civilizations, Binet broadens his scope to recreate the murderous and prejudiced early modern period as a crucible of social democracy and religious and racial tolerance, and thus to remake the world more to his own progressive taste. In a brilliant epilogue, a fourth section that serves as a satyr play to Civilizations’ trilogy of Europe remade, Binet stages an imaginary dialogue between El Greco and Montaigne – in which the painter represents Christian zeal at its most lethal, while the essayist propounds a proto-Enlightenment cultural relativity that seeks to learn from non-European cultures, and does not presume to interpret divine providence. If only the Western world had followed the latter path as early as the 16th century, Binet seems to be saying, the course of modernity might have been radically altered for the good.

As it happens, the conservative Stein actually goes further, and starts earlier, in his remaking of history than the progressive Binet, albeit in circumspectly parenthetical fashion. For within his alternate reality of Prussian moon landing and perpetual “Danube Monarchy”, Stein imagines a bestselling novel, itself an example of uchronia. Hannibal Barca – Ruler Over Italy, by one Richard Turteltaub, recounts the alternative biography of the Greek historian Polybius. In historical fact advisor to Scipio, the Roman victor in the Third Punic War, Polybius in Stein/Turteltaub’s re-imagined history becomes the scribe of a now triumphant Carthage:

Polybius describes in vivid detail – because he was an eyewitness – how perfidious Rome was definitively conquered, how its walls were torn down, the ashes of its buildings strewn with salt, so that not even their memory might survive. Voilà, a course of history totally different from that found in our pious schoolbooks!

Imperialism, in this novel-within-a-novel, is thus nipped in the bud. But there is a second narrative strand in Stein/Turteltaub’s book. A century and a half after the conquest of Rome by Carthage, in distant Galilee, free of the Roman yoke, an itinerant rabbi named Joshua ben Joseph grows old in the circle of his disciples, unmolested by Roman persecution, adored as the messiah but unknown to the rest of the world. “And would that not have been far better,” wonders Stein’s reader, himself a rabbi:

The Israelites would have remained Israelites and the heathen simply heathen. The belief in the One and Only, the Bodiless and Ineffable God, would have been restricted to that tiny stretch of land on the Mediterranean. … If Hannibal, with his military elephants, had ground ancient Rome into the dust, the heathen world would never have been permeated with monotheistic ideology, which in reality has meant that words like hope, future, and justice – Jewish words, if they are considered in their essential significance – today belong to the common legacy of humankind. And could not this – the permeation of the heathen world with Jewishness – be considered the most profound (that is, theological) origin of anti-Semitism? If Hannibal had been triumphant in North Africa in the year 202 before the fateful birth of Joshua ben Joseph, thought the rabbi, neither Christianity nor Islam would have been born – and how much would we Jews have been spared then!

Stein’s investment in Judaism leads him to create the myth of a triumphant Hannibal (or rather, to take the hint from one of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s late vignettes, and to run with it), and consequently of an unmartyred Jesus, and thus to absolve the Jews from complicity in the depredations of Christian morality; at the same time, Stein also strikes an early blow at colonialism, in the form of Rome, and saves the world from some of that project’s worst excesses, all perpetrated in the name of religion and “civilization”.

Kent Monkman, “The Scoop” (2018)

How much better for the Jews that would be indeed! How much better for us all. For without the twin scourges of crusading monotheism and murderous colonialism, we would be spared, along with so many other horrors, great and small, the mass graves now being discovered of indigenous children, dead of neglect and abuse at the residential schools maintained by Canadian colonial authorities, secular and religious: schools intended to “kill the Indian in the child”.

How I would like to re-make that history, in the interest of salvaging my ego ideal of the colonial project into which I was born! But of course, if it were possible to re-write Canadian history to eradicate the crimes of its white settlers, perpetrated under the Union Jack and the Crucifix, I would in the process have to write myself back into my grandmother’s Ukrainian shtetl in the vicinity of Chernobyl. Which, however, thanks to Hannes Stein, would now be a flourishing part of the reactionary, progressive, and humane Austro-Hungarian Empire.