November 27, 2008
If this review is shorter than usual, it’s because I’ve spent half an hour and most of my reserve energy trying to work out how to type a hacheck (the Czech accent symbol above the r in the author’s name) on a Mac. Now that I’ve worked it out, fořgive me if I oveřuse it foř a břief peřiod. Now: I first became aware of Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana when a reader mentioned it on my blog (thank you Michael Theune) after I wrote about Olivier Rolin’s Hotel Crystal. Europeana is from the same Dalkey Archive stable, and reaffirms them as one of the most exciting publishers around. (Now give me another half hour while I try to find a decent cover image online.)
Europeana (2001, published in English 2005) is subtitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. It is categorised as fiction, its author considers it a novel, yet it has no characters, is rooted in fact, and frequently reads like a mad poem. Where to begin? How about with Vonnegut’s opening to Slaughterhouse Five? “All this happened, more or less.”
Ouředník begins with the Second World War, more or less. “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimetres on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.” The two world wars dominate the narrative, which winds back on itself in a spiral, and it soon becomes clear that it is the horrors of the 20th century which is Ouředník’s particular topic, even if the angle he approaches from is not the expected one. “The twentieth century was said to be the most lethal in human history, and those who looked forward to the twenty-first century said that in all events it could not be worse, but others said that it could always be worse or at least just as bad.”
The shtick here is to present man’s inhumanity to man in a bathetic context, by placing it alongside trivia (the launch of Barbie) or loading it with heavily accented irony. “People who did not like Jews were not racists but anti-Semites, because the Jews were not strictly regarded as inferior, like Negroes, Indians, Gypsies, etc., but more of a natural aberration.” Nazi and Stalinist atrocities are juxtaposed with reports of the popularity of eugenics in the early part of the century.
The first law on the sterilization of defective and asocial elements was enacted in 1907 in the United States. The law permitted the sterilization of hardened criminals and the mentally ill and in 1914, at the urging of psychiatrists, it was extended to recidivist robbers and alcoholics and in 1923, in Missouri, it was extended to chicken thieves of Negro and Indian origin, because in the case of chicken thieves of white origin, the opinion was that they could still find a way back and reintegrate themselves into the life of society through hard and conscientious work.
The tone is deliberately banal, dealing disaster so straight-faced that one again expects Ouředník to adopt a Vonnegutism and end each report of death with “so it goes”. There is a metafictional aspect to Europeana, and Ouředník has points to make also about the very notion of the historical record which his book slyly undermines.
Historians concluded that in the twentieth century about sixty genocides had occurred in the world, but not all of them entered historical memory. Historians said that historical memory was not part of history and memory was shifted from the historical to the psychological sphere, and this instituted a new mode of memory whereby it was no longer a question of memory of events but memory of memory.
(He might be speaking of Geoff Dyer’s meditation on national memory, The Missing of the Somme.)
In an interview on the Dalkey Archive website, Ouředník observes that “when you sell more than a few thousand copies [of a book]—no matter how big the market is—it is probably due to a misunderstanding”. A book such as Europeana stands little chance of such misunderstanding, and we are the poorer for it, as this is a book which should appeal to – and surprise – almost anyone who goes near it.
The overall effect is hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing. The playful, soothing but sinisterly impersonal tone which Ouředník adopts has been rendered beautifully into English by Gerald Turner (who won the PEN Translation Award for it). The cool distance which the book offers, amid so much seductively expressed barbarity, means that after a while, the reader is moved to wonder by all this absurdity: Who are these crazy people? Oh. It’s us.