08 December 2005

Europeana by Patrik Ourednik

There are times when Europeana: A Brief History Of The Twentieth Century sounds oddly like something a bright-but-confused student would write in a high school class about world history. There are other times when it sounds like Vonnegut, others when it sounds like David Markson, and still others when it sounds like the sort of thing someone might ramble after waking up from a nightmare. Except so often the nightmare is true. Except so often truth is just a portrayal, a nightmare of itself.

Patrik Ourednik was born in Prague but has lived in France since 1984. We should not be surprised, then, that the items he returns to repeatedly in Europeana involve Communists and Nazis, neither of whom he much likes. The narrative also swings back to World War I, because it was supposed to end all wars, and to ideas of eugenics and perfection, religion and belief, science and progress. For instance, this passage from the beginning:
Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sunk ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Sengalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them. And in Russia they invented a revolution. And the soldiers wore around their neck or wrist a tag with their name and the number of their regiment to indicate who was who, and where to send a telegram of condolences, but if the explosion tore off their head or arm and the tag was lost, the military command would announce that they were unknown soliders, and in most capital cities they instituted an eternal flame lest they be forgotten, because fire preserves the memory of something long past. And the fallen French measured 2,681 kilometers, the fallen English, 1,547 kilometers, and the fallen Germans, 3,010 kilometers, taking the average length of a corpse as 172 meters.
Yes, there are 122 pages of that. The book is broken into sections of roughly even paragraphs, all about a page or a page and a half long, and all written in the headlong style of the above. The remarkable thing about the book is its structure: so much of the above gets returned to, but with new twists, different perspectives and details, so that the writing gains a kind of music through repetition and revision. Gerald Turner's translation is remarkable for finding an idiom to convey such wit and weirdness without letting it all sound stupid and pointless.

An excerpt from the book on the back cover says it is "from the novel" -- it is interesting to think of Europeana as a novel, because it only fits the most open definition of that form. Yet it would be dangerous to call this nonfiction, because it is so vehemently subjective. There are no footnotes or source notes, no attempt at a systematic representation of history -- no, this is history as it unfolds in a mind, facts and fancies cobbled together in a single consciousness, the echo of a century stuttered by an inner voice. I'm perfectly comfortable with the book as a novel, because the narrative voice conveyed a character to me. As I read, I kept imagining an old man sitting alone in a dusty little apartment full of books, an insomniac nattering on and on to himself like Hamm in Beckett's Endgame. History requires more than accumulation, it needs nuance and perspective, but what we each do to history in our minds and imaginations is the real subject of Europeana, and such a subject is, like the twentieth century, both terrifying and absurd.

2 comments:

  1. I haven't read the book, but from your commentary, and from the excerpts, it seems as if it might be the appropriate way to write about the twentieth century. Ourednik, I gather, is almost grappling with consciousness after the close of an era that defied consciousness; no century has been more barbarous. I think I'm going to have to give his book a try.

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  2. Agreed. It sounds interesting.

    The only antidote to the magic of images is the magic of words.
    --Camille Paglia

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