Posted by: Nathan | March 26, 2008

Europeana

Of the many interesting and noteworthy books I read last term, Europeana may be the most beguiling. Patrik Ouředník gives the reader a novel that details the disasters of the Twentieth Century in 122 pages without any characters. It’s odd to call it a novel considering that almost the entire book is rooted in fact, and the reader recognizes personages and events even if Ouředník doesn’t name them (he rarely does). However, Ouředník never gives the basis for his facts—one never knows if he’s making up a specific detail or simply not citing his source.europeana.jpg

Why is it notable fiction? For me, the book’s merit is in its arrangement. Europeana is not a chronological tramp through the century. Rather, it circles and meanders through the years, touching upon subjects and themes and linking disparate ideologies and movements. Ouředník is ever subtly comparing ideas and beliefs regardless of their different settings and times, and his implication is that it was all connected and futile. Ouředník is never overt in saying this, but after a while the absurdity mounts.

Perhaps a passage would be illustrative:

The Existentialists said that metaphysics was decadent and everything was subjective, but that objectivity existed nevertheless and that we were going about it the wrong way, because the most important thing was intersubjectivity. And the main thing was for everything to be authentic and that history and the course of history were the result of the philosophical question whether people could communicate authentically and, if they could, then history could be more meaningful than previously, so long as transcendental authorities were restored. And linguists said that communication was only a question of the manner of deconstruction and that there were several ways to deconstruct (60-61).

Now that’s dense. One can see how much philosophy and theory Ouředník packs into his paragraphs. Notice all the ands that begin sentences; every sentence runs into the next with almost no breather such that after a while, the reader feels a sense of immense weight. This particular passage (chosen at random, I promise) is discussing the incapability of language, something which first came up in Structuralism and then was ripped up and stomped on by postmodernism.

I read Europeana in three hours. I’m not sure I recommend you do the same—it gets depressing. On the last page, I wrote, “It all sounds tragic and absurd after a while,” and it does. I think that’s one thing Ouředník is after. But his stylized exploration of the ideas and values that collided and became the legacy of the 1900s is well worth your time and attention. The writing is suggestive and always keeps one in a suspended state of mind.

The best way to appreciate the novel is to discuss it with someone afterward to undo all the knots Ouředník ties in the book; some do not come undone, but others need pulling. Europeana is a good book not only for literary folks but also for historians, political people, and anyone interested in re-examining the previous century. 7.5, B.

 

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Responses

  1. Thanks for the review! This sounds like an interesting book; I’d like to check it out now.

  2. ‘Beguiling’ is just the word! I read Europeana a week or two ago and it has consistently risen in my estimation since. There were moments in the early pages when I thought it might all become a bit tiresome, but instead the monotone relentlessness of it all developed into the most extraordinary sort of literary hypnotism. One of those rare books for which one can truthfully follow the reviewerly cliché of saying it’s both funny and horrifying.


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