“Europeana” by Patrik Ourednik
The Complete Rewiev, April 2005
Europeana really is, as the subtitle explains, A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. A distinctive voice relates the story of the century (focussed almost entirely on Europe and the United States), but there is no additional embellishment – no narrator musing on what it means to compress a century’s worth of history into a little over a hundred pages, or characters discussing the implications of the events that are recounted. Arguably, it is not even fiction: in its presentation of (and reliance on) facts, events, and competing ideas it consists entirely of non-fiction. Yet it is undeniably a work of the imagination, and in the way he presents the material Ouﬁedník challenges the reader in a way that a straightforward history-text does not.
Europeana is not judgmental: events are often baffling (genocide, wars, ideologies, fads), but the narrator does not presume to say what is good or bad. Europeana is an account-book, collecting facts and information. Contradictory ideas – especially that of bettering humanity by killing lots of people – are a constant, but the narrator does not even bother to spell out the contradictions for the reader, opting instead merely to list, describe, and juxtapose. Any inferences are to be drawn by the reader (though some are made fairly obvious by the presentation).
The book is divided into sections of a page or two in length, each a riff on some aspect of the twentieth century, or some specific events. The World Wars, various religions and ideologies, and technological advances are among the subjects frequently returned to, but from a variety of sides. A typical section progresses like this one:
“Some historians preferred the Second World War to the First and said that the First World War was a national and patriotic war, while the second was for the defense of civilization. And in the First World War people were fighting for narrow-minded concepts that were already outdated, while in the Second World War they were defending a humanist ideal. After the Second World War people did not become pacifists and instead tended to speculate about whether a Third World War would occur between the democratic and the Communist countries. And there were spies snooping around everywhere. And the ministries of information pondered on ways of assisting the final victory. And scientists invented new weapons and new poison gas and atom bombs and warheads and carriers and bombs with parachutes and electromagnetic perturbations and neutron radiation and macromolecular cytotoxicity. And new words and expressions were invented to describe the new scientific discoveries and inventions, as well as the new social phenomena and theories, THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY and BLACK HOLE and TELEVISION and YUGOSLAVIA and CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY and RADIO and MODEM and DADAISM and SOCIOGENETICS and POSTMODERNISM and GENOCIDE and BIOETHICS and EUGENICS and TRANSGENETISM and CUBISM and EXOBIOLOGY and NUCLEAR DISINTEGRTAION and INTRA-PERSONAL RELATIONS, etc.”
The wondering narrator does occasionally peek through – the observation that: “After the Second World War people did not become pacifists”, for example, is a clear if subtle rebuke – but s/he generally offers only the facts themselves. The only other device of note: the tired: “etc.” that’s frequently used to cut off what otherwise could be a catalogue of endless variations and possibilities.
Any summary-description is bound to give the impression that Europeana is a very odd work – and it is. It may sound like an awkward mix of fiction and non-fiction – and lacking the best or at least vital qualities of each (plot and character in fiction, a clear, orderly presentation of facts in non-fiction) – and a tiresome one at that, but it’s absolutely compelling. Most of what is related is familiar material, but this presentation does allow – or even demand – the facts be reconsidered and recalled; especially in the connexions that are made as events, ideas, and fads are rattled off one after another. Compressing the century into so little space is also a reminder that while all these facts and events can be dissected and analysed at great length, and an endless number of motives and reasons can be found for every- and anything, they can also be reduced (largely in their foolishness) to such simplicity. Ourednik’s novel is dry, but not without humour, and it’s delightfully subversive without revelling in the absurdities and contradictions that defined the century too obviously Europeana probably isn’t for everyone: the approach might prove very enervating to those not receptive to it, and that’s fair enough. But Ouﬁedník presents this material very well: it’s not your usual fiction, but a compelling read nonetheless. Europeana is a convincing sum of that ugly century. Certainly recommended.