Patrik Ouředník: Europeana

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.


  1. This book was a small hype in the Netherlands, in 2003. Which was one reason I ignored it for several years. And when I finally read it, it collided with my own views, as a historian, of the 20th century.

    Though I have a great admiration for wat Ouředník did, and in general do like the black humour of so many middle-European writers, the dead do not always need to win it against the living.

  2. I’ve picked this up, put it down so many times in Waterstone’s. So many times. I really don’t know why I don’t buy it. I should; I will. Having just looked over the GoodReads page for it, it’s almost a clean sweep of five star ratings, even if only a few do offer their thoughts on it. Reading wise I seem to be stuck in the Americas indefinitely, so could probably do with some Europeana on my return.

  3. Stewart, I don’t think you’ll regret it: its originality and brevity make it a fascinating read whatever your final feelings.

    ijsbrand, I’m not sure what you mean by “the dead do not always need to win it against the living” – could you elaborate?

  4. I’ll try, but mind you, my views are heavily coloured by a disgust for what passes for contemporary history in the cultures I know best — the Netherlands, and Germany.

    When I look back at the 20th century, as a historian, I cannot ignore the three world wars or its lessons completely, of course, but for me several other developments are far more important. Millions were killed during the wars or in camps, and often unjustly so. Yet, billions more people than ever were born. The world population exploded. And do not forget the enormous expansion of technology and economy that took place. All with their opportunities, all with their new problems.

    Yet, the Second World War especially remains a cultural cornerstone in a lot of European countries, and most often not in a good way. The British — or American — attitude towards that war is rather different. They had to struggle, but overcame. Their outlook is victorious. The European outlook isn’t. Writers or filmmakers are to this day wallowing in their victimhood. The Nazi’s were evil, evil, evil. They were not.

    And even though Europeana is an almost positive exception to this broad rule, it is still written from a point of view I have come to loathe.

  5. Thank you for your review. I liked the book very much. As I’m from central Europe I was quite courious how others get it.
    All the best, I think that I will start to read your reviews on more regular basics.

  6. er…. how do you get hachek on a mac?
    I am trying to write a project proposal based on Europeana and well, I need that Hachek!

  7. It’s also called a ‘caron’, Kate, so try looking for that. I’m not on my Mac now, but a work PC, so I can’t check, but try Option+v, and then the letter ‘r’ (or whatever letter you want to have a hachek/caron over it).

    Alternatively you could just copy and paste the letter from my blog!

  8. Just to finalise Kate’s query, now that I’m home I’ve discovered that the suggestion I quoted above doesn’t work.

    You need to hold in cmd+alt and then press T. This will bring up the Character Palette. You can then select the ř symbol (as I just did).

  9. Thanks John, a definite must-buy for me based on your and Trevor’s reviews. Looking forward to it.

    Nice too to see you focussing on the quality of the translation. It’s a point I’m always curious about.

  10. I have grown old enough to find metafiction not always to my taste (I’m currently revisiting dear old Henry James via Edel’s biography and the shorter fiction), but this does sound intriguing. I’m reminded of reviews I’ve read of Mathias Enard’s ‘Zone’, another middle-Europe, avant-garde exposition of big historical themes in unusual mode (500 pp, one sentence). Thanks for the review (found via Max’s post this month)

    1. I haven’t! It is awfully long, you see, and Nick Lezard’s review quoted a sample of the book’s one sentence and I didn’t feel myself drawn. I accept though that people whose opinions I respect rate it very highly indeed. (Then again, they said that about Knausgaard too…)

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