John Self posted a review of Europeana (2001; tr. from the Czech by Gerald Turner, 2005) nearly three years ago (here). I immediately went out and got the book, but, as sometimes happens, when it came I put it aside, feeling like it would be a book I’d really enjoy and I might as well save it for one of those moments when I needed to enjoy a book. Well, I have been making my way through some of the Booker Prize longlist (with only a limited degree of joy, sadly), and it finally came time to read the biggest book of the bunch, former Booker Prize winner Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child. Well, I hope to get back to that book and review it here in the next couple of months, but let me just say that after reading that book for a week (and getting not very far), I put it down and picked up Europeana. These books are not really comparable, though both range the twentieth century, but let me just say that I got more enjoyment out of this book’s first sentence than I had gotten at any time during the week with The Stranger’s Child (I intend to go back to that book, and I’m hoping I end up really liking it — sometimes you just need a break when it isn’t working).
Europeana is a relatively short book at around 125 pages, but in those pages it meshes together an abundance of events and themes of the twentieth century, from the wars to the introduction of the Barbie Doll, the whole time poking fun at the retrospectively ignorant 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History”; Europeana‘s final sentence is this:
But lots of people did not know the theory and continued to make history as if nothing had happened.
This book is largely a swipe at any attempt to explain history or predict what’s coming; the one constant, the one thing we can rely on, is human absurdity, which is nicely introduced in Ouredník’s tone in the book’s first, scientifically quantitave sentence:
The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans.
It’s a strange perspective on loss, but my favorite part is that last conclusion — “and so they were” — which makes fun of the methods and the conclusions we make as we study this stuff and makes us shake our heads as we realize that something as arbitrary as three centimeters can determine how one sits in history. In a way this emphasizes just how mechanical humanity can become when determining how to best mete out destruction — and then respond to it.
There is a lot going on in this book, but a couple of themes burst through the discussion on just about every topic. One is how dissatisfied some were by the past — the inhumanity, the violence, the injustice — and how they wanted to look forward to a better future, made possible by the optimization of the human race, a guarantee of peace and a harmonious society (with convivial entertainment). One of the book’s principal strengths is that it can at once speak of this goal and the horrors people committed trying to realize it: “And in 1914, American psychiatrists urged that alcoholics be promptly sterilized in the interest of preserving a healthy, superior society.” It almost doesn’t need to be said that the book spends a great deal of time discussing the Holocaust (all in that strange tone).
Europeana doesn’t just focus on these blatantly inhumane attempts to optimize humanity. Science promises much. A favorite passage from near the end is the discussion of sperm banks and how a woman could walk in and go through a long list of attributes so they could mix and match to get the perfect offspring. They are even supplied — if they ordered it — with a recording of the dad’s voice:
The text of the recording was HELLO! THIS IS A REALLY LOVELY DAY, JUST MADE FOR WALKING IN THE COUNTRY. I HOPE YOU’LL BE SATISFIED WITH ME. And one woman who ordered the recording wanted to know if she could have a ten-percent discount because the sperm donor had a lisp.
So this particular “dad” might not bring about optimized offspring, but perhaps the price is right — the sentiment itself doesn’t speak well for our progress.
Contrary to those who believe in the optimization of humanity, there are those who believe the past was wonderful, and certainly the twentieth century — with the inhumanity, the violence, the injustice — was a sure sign that the end of the world was nigh. Here’s a wonderful passage that expresses a bit of this sentiment:
In the Golden Age people were more courteous to each other and criminals were more considerate and did not fire at policemen, and young people treated each other with respect and restraint and did not have sexual intercourse until they were married, and when some young man raped a girl in the fields on her way home from work and she then became pregnant, she would put the child in an orphanage where it was cared for at the state’s expense, and when some motorist ran over a chicken, he would get out of his car and pay for the chicken.
I love how this short passage contains, in one line, one of the book’s many deliberate (though always presented in a tone that makes it look blind) contradictions: “young people treated each other with respect and restraint and did not have sexual intercourse until they were married, and when some young man raped a girl in the fields . . .”
Ouredník is not just making fun of the way we view history; he’s also making fun of the way we study it, the way we manipulate it. Here is another, perhaps better, example of how he does this. This passage comes from early in the book:
News came from the military headquarters that the was was nearing its end and melancholy was to be avoided, spirits were to be kept up and patience and a positive attitude were required, and in 1917 an Italian soldier wrote in a letter to his sister I FEEL THAT EVERYTHING THAT WAS GOOD WITHIN ME IS GRADUALLY LEAVING ME AND I FEEL MORE AND MORE CERTAIN EVERY DAY.
And quite a bit later, with no reference back to the original quote, we have this passage:
And one of the commune’s members became a well-known choreographer in Nazi Germany and devised gestural dance for the German workers in order to increase productivity in the arms factories. And in 1917, an Italian soldier wrote in a letter to his sister I FEEL MORE AND MORE POSITIVE EVERY DAY. And in 1930, a French doctor announced the beginning of a new age that would transpire under the sign of Aquarius, which would give birth to a new human being and usher in a world without war and violence.
Besides showing human ignorance with these types of contradictions (this latter one a good example of stripping out context to further one’s point), Europeana also has a load of marginalia, as if we are reading a textbook and some student has gone through it to prepare for a test. Nearly every page has one or two passages written to the side, meant to highlight what is being said, though these passages are often ridiculous because the marginalia leaves out pieces of information, highlights the insignificant portion, completely changes the meaning of the passage, or is just ridiculously pointless (e.g., the marginalia next to the passage on the sperm donor’s voice I pulled above simply said “Country Walks”).
I really enjoyed this book. It was humorous and serious and very skillfully written (and translated — Turner won the 2004 PEN Translation Award for this), and it provides a nice bit of perspective on just how warped our perspectives can be.