Following Hypothermia, a collection of stories by (and the quiet English debut of) Álvaro Enrigue, the Mexican writer made a life change. Already acclaimed in Latin America, he went north, trading CDMX for NYC. His second novel in translation, Sudden Death—a fantastical narrative of a sixteenth century tennis match between historical figures, flawlessly translated by Natasha Wimmer—was a hit in his adopted home. “I wrote my book while on a fellowship at the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library,” he said in an interview with the New York Times. “It is a place that protected me, in a way, from the Mexican reality, which lately has become so intense.”
You Dreamed of Empires (Riverhead, 2024), his new and second translated novel (also by Wimmer), may also be his oldest. In an interview with journalist Benjamin Russell, he noted how he had begun researching the novel in 1979, only to correct himself. “That sounds pathetic — no, I didn’t. But it has been a long love story.” Whether or not this is true, the result of such a long gestation written like its predecessor within the chrysalis of New York, has landed the finished text on Sudden Death’s map. Call it a sequel, or a prequel, or a different dream occurring in the same night of sleep.
Set over the course of a single day in 1519, You Dreamed of Empires deploys Enrigue’s playful, materialistic, language-bending technique to create a Borgesian revenge tale. Carried over from Sudden Death is the infamous Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés—a supporting character in that novel, a central one here. It’s clear that the importance and weight of the figure has stayed in Enrigue’s head. You Dreamed of Empires trades the tennis courts of Europe for the royal courts of Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (referred to simply as Moctezuma, his historical prominence far outreaching that of his namesake ancestor). But where Sudden Death toyed with history, You Dreamed of Empires opts for less historical anarchy and for a more radical psychedelic revision of facts.
Split into four sections—“Before the Nap,” “Moctezuma’s Nap” “After the Nap,” and “Cortés’s Dream”—Enrigue’s choice of division playfully plots You Dreamed of Empires as an abstracted battle. The novel opens with Cortes having arrived in the city of Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexico City) and is dining at the palace of the dead emperor Axayacatl, the father of Montezuma. One of Cortés’s translators, Aguilar, an Andalusian priest, explains to his fellow conquistadors: “These people . . . halt their battles at midday so that the opposing armies, each on their own side, can sit down to eat and take a nap.”
“Lazy bastards,” Cortés’s cousin Alvarado quips back.
Not without his flaws, Moctezuma has a penchant for psychedelics. After spending too much time entertaining Cortés, he retreats to his bedroom, where he stays for a significant portion of the book:
“He didn’t leave his quarters, didn’t see to the affairs in the throne room. He spent all day in his nightshirt, smoking—it was whispered in the salons—ingesting more and more magic mushrooms. The conversations of the piptlin, who had once kept him company . . . now seemed irrelevant and unbearable.”
Moctezuma could be any legendary middle-aged stoner, constantly burping, encrusted in spittle, and while Enrigue’s physical descriptions makes this languid mid-life crisis a funny one, after a few repeated scenes of him eating, doing shrooms, and flopping around, there’s only so much fun to be had. Pretty much everyone else in the book feels the same.
Cortés on the other hand acts a contemptible foil, the bravado filled fool pitted against a lazy but wise king. He constantly savages any etiquette, his hide getting saved repeatedly due to blind luck and the intervention of others. When invited to sit on a sacred throne, instead of knowing that he is “unworthy of this sacred seat,” he says, to the horror of everyone watching, “All right, then,” and tries to sit on it before being yanked off.
The bumbling aspects of his nature go far beyond ignorance. In one scene, Enrigue describes Cortés sodomizing a woman named Malinalli, his future interpreter (known historically as La Malinche), an act that for him was “killing two birds with one stone: restoring his courage and punishing her for not having told him sooner that she spoke Castilian and was learning to read it.” This vile act makes concrete his insecure evil, but while his compatriots give us more nuanced visions of the conquistador psyche, his constant barbarism in other spots in the novel can feel cartoonish.
As an author, Enrigue revels in physical action—scatological transgressions, sexual encounters, thwacking a tennis ball made from the hairs of a beheaded English queen head—but his focus in You Dreamed of Empires often makes uncomfortable bedfellows of the somatic with the psychological. But there’s a ruse: “Before the Nap,” the section where Enrigue spends a third of the book, uses grotesque visuals and hair-brained antics of Moctezuma and Cortés to distract from a broader tale of political intrigue. The cihuacōātl (mayor) frets that Moctezuma has lost his spark as a leader; Cuitláhuac, general of the Mexican army, is missing in action; Moctezuma’s grip on reality loosens (he even hears the modern band T-Rex playing in his ancient head); the Spaniards who Enrigue describes as “provincials, nobodies, hicks” wander around huge empty palaces generally having no idea what they’ve gotten themselves into.
So it’s satisfying when Enrigue delivers a blow. You Dreamed of Empires is, after all, a colonizer tale turned on its head, and in moments where Enrigue’s wit cuts with laughter, you can excuse him for wanting to land a few more punches on Cortéz’s legacy, right down to their shit-stained reek that has the Nahuan people sniffing flowers to mask the smell. In Lithub, Enrigue remarked on why Moctezuma admitted Cortéz into Tenochtitlan in the first place:
“And I have to say that no matter how playful the novel is, how anti-historical, I seriously believe—again, after years and years of researching the subject because is what I teach—that the only reason that could explain why Moctezuma brought the Spaniards to Mexico City instead of just taking them out once they disembarked, was because he wanted the horses.”
It is in their form—ravaging, dumb, dreamlike, free—that we can glean momentary order from Enrigue’s comic humor.
It’s in navigating this esotery and symbolism that Enrigue is at his most expansive and striking. In the interlude “Moctezuma’s Nap,” one of Cortés’s men, the fictional Jazmin Caldera, dons a Colhuacan breech cloth and mantel and wanders the labyrinthine city. When the emperor who has been asleep for the whole section awakens in “After the Nap,” a more coltish Enrigue describes Caldera’s journey and revelation:
“If Caldera had taken his walk dressed in Castilian fashion and in the company of the other captains, he would have had to shake his head in disapproval, proclaim his horror, cross himself. Alone and dressed as a Colhua, he would have seen the huey tzompantli as intensely Christian—dust we be—and illuminating, as perhaps we would too if we could shed the moral superiority of societies that do their killings out of sight. He would have seen it for what it was: a triumph of design.”
In the same way that Caldera dons the attire of those he would conquer, the reader adapts to Enrigue’s supernatural writing to understand his exacting view.
There is an eventual twist that reveals itself in “Cortés’s Dream,” the final section of the book, which Enrigue executes with phantasmagoric flair. Without spoiling anything, the naps are revealed to be of a grander revisionary tactic. In a letter to his translator for English-language readers, which provides a sort of foreword to the novel, Enrigue notes “With age comes insecurity, and I spend more time revising then writing.” You Dream of Empires comes across as a perfect manifestation of these anxieties, at first a slumberous text that, we find, can also dream.