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You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue review – colonialism as a ****** heist comedy

The Mexican writer’s imaginative riff on the conquest of the Aztecs is an enigmatic, drily funny farce

Sudden Death, Álvaro Enrigue’s previous novel to appear in English, spun an audacious patchwork of historical reflection around the tale of a tennis match – really a barely disguised duel – between the painter Caravaggio and a Spanish noble in 16th-century Rome.

The US-based Mexican writer toys once more with the factual record in You Dreamed of Empires, an imaginative riff on the foundation of Mexico City by the conquistador Hernán Cortés after the sack of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán in 1521, one of the threads of Sudden Death. This more streamlined retelling of the episode all but abandons digression to cleave to the perspective of a dozen-strong cast, playing colonial conquest as a kind of heist comedy, with the target nothing less than a city. The emphasis is on buffoonery as much as barbarity, with the unsteady dance of diplomacy between the incoming Spaniards and soon-to-be-deposed (or not) emperor Montezuma – here, Moctezuma – a greater focus than bloodshed, which nonetheless arrives in spades.

What most interests Enrigue, you feel, is the absurd chanciness of history, as he presents Cortés’s expedition as a slaver’s errand that got wildly out of hand. Gore and grime are mostly a matter of atmosphere rather than action, but there’s a low-level crackle from casually dropped detail of, say, someone using the spine of a hallucinogenic cactus to draw blood from their ***** as an offering to the gods, or the mention of “buttocks… poorly wiped over months of campaigning”, to say nothing of meals of grasshopper tacos and “warrior arm”.

You Dreamed of Empires by Álvaro Enrigue, translated by Natasha Wimmer, is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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