In search of Europe

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Four new books demonstrate a redistribution of literary priorities in Europe. Since 1989 the centre of gravity has moved east, to the jinxed lands of the former Soviet domain

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon
Unterwegs von Deutschland nach Deutschland (From Germany to Germany) by Günter Grass
Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas, translated by Imre Goldstein
On the Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk, translated by Michael Kandel

Prospect, November 2011

In the last two decades, the European literary landscape has been redrawn. Publishers and editors once divided by the Berlin Wall have brought each other’s output to light. The rush of most former Communist states to join the European Union has rehabilitated a European consciousness that no longer comes to a dead end east of Potsdamer Platz and south of the Karawanken Alps. The continent’s east and west have, you would think, been very busy in mutual influence. But deep cultural change is so slow that it resembles one of those huge Victorian steam-engine flywheels, its momentum building at a speed almost invisible to the naked eye. Just as the elements that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall accumulated imperceptibly through the 20-year Communist stagnation that followed the Prague Spring, it is only now that we can begin to grasp the meaning of this redistribution of literary priorities.

A quartet of books published this year and next – two from the literary high table of western Europe, two from eastern European writers – embody some of the shifts that have taken place, not just from west to east but from leisured complacency to a more urgent sense of enquiry, from conventional sketches of the continent to a new reality for Europe – as a place where, culturally at least, neither Paris nor Berlin nor any capital city is its centre of gravity any longer.

“Who am I?” The question put by Captain Simone Simonini (or the man who thinks he might be Simonini) at the start of Umberto Eco’s latest historical blockbuster resonates at a political as well as personal level. In Eco’s Europe identities are rarely what they seem. Strip away the gloss of nineteenth-century prosperity and pugnacious ambition, and Europe is instead the product of its illusions, conspiracies and plots. Imposture, trickery and betrayal are universal here, and the apparent actors—Jesuits, Masons, Jews, secret services, Carbonari and numberless other revolutionary groups—are locked in a danse macabre that leads only downwards.

But Eco’s vision of Europe is hardly radical. As a historical thriller, The Prague Cemetery does more or less what it says on the tin. Framed as Simonini’s attempt to solve his identity crisis by reconstructing his past, the book’s first answer to his question is that he is a hater: of Jews, Germans, French and Italians, women, the clergy. He also believes that he may have a split personality and be a priest he once murdered.

Apprenticed in his youth to a fraudulent notary, his hatreds have led him to become counterfeiter, provocateur, murderer and impostor, emerging at the centre of a Europe-wide gyre of deceit. He creates forgeries that help to bring down the Paris Commune and incriminate Dreyfus, but his masterpiece, in his eyes, is his invention of a conference of rabbis in the Jewish cemetery at Prague, at which they outline their plans for world domination: the antisemitic document now known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Eco’s novel has excited objections from both the Ossservatore Romano and Rome’s chief rabbi that its readers could be tainted by the book’s climate of antisemitism: to which Eco replied that he wanted “to give the reader a punch in the stomach” about how such stereotypes are constructed. Neither claim really holds. The novel’s gruesomely violent elements are hard to take seriously, because Eco’s style is trapped in that alibi of playfulness at which he has always excelled. As a medievalist his interest has lain, since The Name of the Rose, in Europe as a historical reservoir, his fiction drawing on its rich religious and political weave in a deliberately ironic, expository way. A hint of the virtuoso lecturer is rarely absent from his style. Yet the real mystery in this novel is that nothing new about prejudice, or criminality, or Europe is revealed. Brilliant in its fusion of real events and real figures with fictional ones, from Garibaldi and Dumas to Freud, inexplicably narrow in its characterisation, it is humanly shallow and aesthetically humdrum.

Günter Grass’s perspective on Europe, or at least Germany, is more urgent. As a public intellectual he has never shied away from denouncing German hegemony, the colonialist attitude of the postwar state, the danger of its reverting to a belligerent nation. (He has of course been faced with his own moral ambiguity as a witness, when he was compelled to disclose rather late in the day, in 2006, that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS.)

In From Germany to Germany, his diary of the year after the Wall’s fall, to be published in English next spring, he returns to his nation’s defects. Like Eco, he is a writer deeply engaged with the world beyond literature, and intent on inserting himself in the tumult of events. Speaking out on a series of journeys into the GDR, he attempted to alert his audience to the risks of reunification, and in his “Writing after Auschwitz” speech at Frankfurt he sought “to make the so-called right to German unity, in the sense of a reunified statehood, founder on the rock of Auschwitz.”

His attempt failed, and it seems odd that he waited until 2009 to publish his diary in Germany. Its concerns look like ancient history; any other course but unification of the two Germanys now looks unthinkable. Grass, however, appears oblivious to any misjudgment, as the former East German writer Monika Maron noted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in February 2009:

“Now, twenty years after the fall of the Wall, he reveals [his diary]: not in order to admit how many things he misjudged, not to celebrate the fact that the catastrophe he predicted never happened, but to prove that his warnings and his ominous predictions were right, then, later on and still today…. And of course if you warn about absolutely everything you have a decent chance of being right about something.”

Maron reserves her greatest scorn for Grass’s patronising of the population of the GDR, and in the diary he displays a remarkable self-centredness. Far from the shaggy, Rabelaisian author we are familiar with, he is a fastidiously critical figure, as fussy when cooking and shopping as when considering Germany’s destiny. The diary opens and closes in his winter home near Lagos in Portugal, where his chief pleasure is tending to his cacti. By contrast, the GDR’s greyness dismays him. He writes of a train journey to Dresden, “Alone in the first-class compartment. The dirty windows, the godforsaken grey countryside, its scrap-value industrial plants and cowering villages, overlooked by time. Sudden snowfall. Seized by a wish to be among my Portuguese cacti, which are closer to me than this cold strangeness [my translation].”

Disparate as they are, Eco’s and Grass’s books share a curiously clear view. Both possess a comfortable certainty, one that emerges from a post-second world war, liberal, prosperous, stable perspective. Yet it is a certainty whose verdicts, with the EU’s easterly expansion and the eurozone caught with its pants down, have started to look vastly less convincing. This is partly, as I implied at the start, because in the tumbling masonry of the Wall in 1989 a different Europe was already being incubated; but nobody noticed how different. We were too busy celebrating. We lost our perspective.

The period that produced this fixed and confident outlook is past, and the literary importance of Eco and Grass and their generation is fading. A new perspective is perceptible. Central and eastern in origin, existential – in the sense of being speculatively engaged with the human condition – rather than national-regional, it is sharply delineated in two new books that both originate from Europe’s old centre.

The briefest introduction: in 1997 a Hungarian novelist, Péter Nádas, published A Book of Memories, a novel that became something of a landmark for the personal intensity of its reconstruction of life under socialism. This month, Nádas’s new novel, Parallel Stories, broadens its gaze (across 1,152 pages) from Germany and Hungary in the 1930s to the Berlin of 1989. It has a plot—turning around a murder, and the lives of the politically compromised Lippay-Lehr family—but the plot remains subservient to Nádas’s creation of a boundless tapestry of characters, each acting physically on the others. The novel isn’t written, as very nearly all novels are, from the starting point of a resolution towards which everything leads. Instead it captures our experience of the present—events unfold without any certainty of where they will lead, while fleeting, non-verbal interactions are crucially important.

Amplify these ideas, as Nádas does, by a superbly controlled realism of description (particularly erotic realism), and two things happen. The most lurid events—arson, murder with a stake, homosexual play in a toilet—seem normal; and the picture of politics and history being mediated by the body, and of the body being oppressed in turn by those forces, becomes truly arresting. If for ’68ers the personal was political, here it is the erotic, and vice versa. The final result may take Tolstoyan liberties with the reader’s endurance, but must be destined for classic status.

For the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, this same level of meaning—attaching passionate physical significance to where he is—is embedded in an old-fashioned form: the quest, the hunt for satisfaction in places and displacement. Towards the end of his new travel book On the Road to Babadag Stasiuk writes that he keeps a tin box full of loose change on a shelf:

“When I am low, I dump it out on a table, to revisit all the pubs, shops, bus and train stations, petrol stations, and cabs in which I obtained it. The coins remind me of things and places: the street stalls in Saranda, the lane stanchions on the Slovenian highway A1, the ferries on the Tisa, the parking meters on the Szentháromság tér…”

Unlike Grass, Stasiuk embraces the “cold strangeness” of eastern Europe. Yet this is also Europe, wild, other, a sector of the continent that Stasiuk’s cherishing gaze sees slipping slowly into the conferred reality of the European Union and consumerist euro-Europe. Why does it deserve preservation? Because neglect has always been the essence of this region: in Stasiuk’s dirty windows and cowering villages, unlike Grass’s, “History, deeds, consequences, ideas, and plans dissolve into the landscape, into something considerably older and vaster than all the striving…”

Stasiuk’s inspirations are maps of Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans (the more folded and frayed the better), cheap Kossuth cigarettes, the Romanian Romantic Emil Cioran, cows, dogs, gypsies, raki. Stasiuk’s vision of Europe rests on his love for decline and decay: for the ancient hospitality of innkeepers in rural Hungary, the men who smoke on street corners in northern Romania “staring at the emptiness of the day,” their bodies “more expressive the less meaning they have.” He knows his attitude is benighted, that he would be kicked in the arse by those he celebrates if they knew what he was writing.

There is a note of digressive Romantic melancholy about the pleasure Stasiuk takes in decline. Yet On the Road to Babadag helps us see the divide between the not-quite-discredited western idea of Europe as a cultural high ground to be emulated, and the easterly reaction that they had their own Europe all along, even if it was, in Stasiuk’s words, a jinxed “anti-world [of] disorder, untidiness, irresponsibility, insouciance.” The question that haunts his work is how much we would lose if eastern Europe adopts the west’s largely materialistic economic and political models. His answer is: everything. His Europe is irreplaceable.

Stasiuk’s journeys are irresistibly vivid poetry. An important connection also links his restless, battered threnody and Nádas’s novel. Both books are about bodies, and time: indeed, the sheer physicality of both is in some way a token of their strength, as if they are wrestling with a fundamental problem of where, as humans, we find ourselves physically in time as well as space—a very corporeal problem of existence and meaning, a physical existentialism that defines a relation to the world that we need to grasp (Nádas) or feel we are losing (Stasiuk).

What formally also underpins Stasiuk’s travels, and rather beautifully embodies his resistance to the future, is how his prose communicates the working of memory, mirroring its inconsequentiality by an absence of sequence. His accounts are fragmented, shuffled, continued later or not. Time breaks down as soon as it is past; in his mind events “cover space and time in an even, translucent layer.”

Albania is one country that he returns to. He criss-crosses the south, lured by its absurdist challenge to reality and its landscape that “brings to mind species and epochs that are long extinct and have left no likenesses.” Here, suddenly, he offers an insight that nails his enterprise, confirming his “other” Europe as fully European. It is a statement that ought to prick the satisfaction and sleep of anyone, bureaucrat, central banker, or writer, who still regards Europe’s values as those of its westerly half alone, but also reminds us how writers get things straight long before politicians do (his book was originally published in 2004):

“Yes, everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the subconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.”

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