Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century
By Ryan Brooks
Chicago Reader, June 17, 2005.
First published in the Czech Republic in 2001, Patrik Ourednik’s is now available to English readers thanks to Dalkey Archive Press. An absurdist history with no chronological narrative, the book strings together the big ideas and facts of the century impressionistically, mixing up periods and sprinkling real events with painful little anecdotes that may or not be fictional: “And one young Jewish woman survived the war thanks to playing an aria from on the violin on the railroad platform at Struthof concentration camp.” The historian/narrator’s disembodied voice rambles dispassionately between the theoretical (“And among philosophers the opinion increasingly spread that the twentieth century has marked the end of the era of humanism and a new era had commenced, which they called post-humanist”) and the childlike (“And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened”). The patchwork highlights the similarities among promises made by different movements in art, religion, science, and politics. The young people who went to live on communes in the 1960s, for instance, are described in the same terms as those who went to live on the Monte Verita commune in 1906 and later joined the Nazis “because the Nazis preached natural harmony and the coalescence of the individual with the Earth”. As in a history textbook, phrases are pulled out of the main text and put in the margins to highlight “key points”. These notes are will-fully obtuse and show the inevitably reductive, repetitive ways we make sense of history. They invoke certain recurring themes of the century (“SOLDIERS LAY IN WAIT,” “FASCISM UNIVERSAL”), but also the century’s obsession with determining what invisible parasite — whether scientific or metaphysical, the “millennium bug” or the contagion in the blood of “inferior races” — people were blaming for their problems at any given moment. Time and again we see that the cures are worse than the disease: the truth of one particularly horrible tale is that soap made from humans gassed and boiled in the name of “hygiene” doesn’t make you cleaner. Yet we also see how society refuses to grow up, clinging to its differences and stereotypes. Ourednik tells the story of a concentration-camp survivor and the ex-lover of a Nazi, both with shaved scalps: “They danced together with their heads against each other and other people found it improper and almost in bad taste.”
In a recent interview in the online journal Context, Ourednik explained that his goal was “to find a form that would enable the narrator – like History itself – to be terribly banal, while pretending to be original.” The book’s terrible banality – like the inappropriate appropriateness of a concentration camp Barbie or an assassination manual written in Esperanto, two souvenirs from his century of violence – will make you laugh hollowly at the idea of progress.