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Alvaro Enrigue's novel imagines the clash of two great empires in the 16th century

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Two empires met in 1519 when Hernan Cortes' conquistadors entered Tenochtitlan and encountered the court of the Emperor Moctezuma. The Aztecs didn't know what to make of the horses brought in by the Spaniards and their constant invocation of some kind of power they call Christianity. Spaniards didn't know what to make of what we now call chocolate and a kind of cathedral in the palace that was hung with thousands of skulls. The deeper the conquistadors go inside the Aztec palace, they begin to wonder, why did they let us in so easily? And will they ever let us out? "You Dreamed Of Empires" is the new novel from Alvaro Enrigue, the Mexican writer who's been a fellow at the New York Public Library and now teaches at Hofstra University. He joins us from Uruguay. Thank you so much for being with us.

ALVARO ENRIGUE: Thank you for having me, Scott, really.

SIMON: Well, our pleasure. How did these two groups who both thought they were at the center of the world, more or less, see each other when they encountered each other in 1519?

ENRIGUE: Well, the thing - and I think that's the space for the novelist - is that we will really never know. We have very few documents produced in that moment, so we will never know exactly what they thought about each other. We have a much better register of the Europeans, of course. But the way the Europeans saw the Mexica in the beginning and the people from the Americas, in general, changed radically in the moment in which they have cleared that they could extend the empire and occupy the land.

So in the beginning, they speak with enormous admiration of the people from the Americas. And once the actual war begins, they begin to say the most horrid things. So somewhere there, there is the truth. And from the other side, we have very, very few testimonies.

SIMON: Yeah. In the acknowledgments, you mention a tour that the great archaeologist Raul Barrera Rodriguez took you on beneath the center of what is today Mexico City. But what did you see, and what did it mean to you?

ENRIGUE: It is very impressive. The work they are doing under Mexico City is very impressive. But there was this very exciting moment in which we are going to see one of the buildings that they are excavating. So I was able to walk through the streets of Tenochtitlan, the place where Moctezuma had worked once.

SIMON: Wow.

ENRIGUE: Now, it, for a person who has been obsessed about this and reading about this all my life, was the best day of my life. And at the same time, it was a lesson, because what we were going to see was the building where the heads of the people that had been sacrificed in the Temple...

SIMON: Yeah.

ENRIGUE: ...Of Tenochtitlan for centuries were placed. So it was very impactful because I had never seen anything like that.

SIMON: Yeah. Moctezuma has a custom of ordering public executions, including of his family members. A little hard to get used to when you read the novel.

ENRIGUE: Well, I was working with him for years - (laughter) - and reading for years about him. I think that we must remember all the time that it's fiction. Now, who knows how he was. In this thing, we were talking about the freedom of the novelist to explain things that don't have explanation. One of the theories that the novel flies is that he was in this enormous depression (laughter) so - it is true historically that the Triple Alliance, the Empire, was falling in pieces when the Spaniards arrived. He had taken a couple of bad decisions, and he was paying a big toll for that. So in the novel, he's a very depressed, very dangerous man.

SIMON: He - and also in your account, self-medicating is how we'd say it these days.

ENRIGUE: Well, it's a psychedelic comedy. Yes. The novel is mainly a psychedelic comedy. I don't consider myself a writer of historical fiction. And the comedy factor of the novel comes from the fact that he's looking for wisdom through natural means, let's say, all the time.

SIMON: Tell us about the sense of humor in the novel, because I was laughing out loud.

ENRIGUE: Well, humor is our last tool to criticize the powerful - don't you think, Scott? Laughing is the only thing we can do against the powers that be that control our lives. So I cannot imagine a literature that doesn't laugh about the historical figures, the grandiosity of the emperors and the conquistadores.

SIMON: Yeah.

ENRIGUE: They were human (laughter). They were human. And I can't avoid it, you know? I don't know. Maybe I should be a more serious person, but I really don't want to (laughter).

SIMON: No.

ENRIGUE: I really don't want to.

SIMON: The word colonialist is applied a lot these days. Weren't both of these groups colonialists?

ENRIGUE: Yeah. Well, that word - it's loaded with meanings that don't make me feel as comfortable as I was with it just a few months ago. But they were bloody colonial occupiers...

SIMON: Yeah.

ENRIGUE: ...No? - in both cases. I think that it's possible to have so much fun with the story because everybody's savior (laughter) - you know? Moctezuma was not a nice man, you know? And the Aztec Empire was tremendous, the Mexican empire.

SIMON: Not having heroes, or even a lot of admirable people, frees you to be funnier?

ENRIGUE: That's my feeling, because you don't have to be sentimental about it. You can be sentimental about certain characters. No. I was sentimental, of course, about my lead scene - the translator - you know, Aguilar...

SIMON: Yes.

ENRIGUE: ...The other translators. Those characters, I loved to work with. But the powerful guys were so mean that it's easier to laugh about them - not with them, about them.

SIMON: Alvaro Enrigue. His novel "You Dreamed Of Empires," translated by Natasha Wimmer. Thank you so much for being with us.

ENRIGUE: Thank you for inviting me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILLY GONZALES' "NERO'S NOCTURNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.