The Asylum (John Self)

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG


By John Self

The Asylum, November 27, 2008

Europeana (2001, published in English 2005) is subtitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century. It is categorised as fiction, its author considers it a novel, yet it has no characters, is rooted in fact, and frequently reads like a mad poem. Where to begin? How about with Vonnegut’s opening to Slaughterhouse Five? “All this happened, more or less.”

Ouredník begins with the Second World War, more or less. “The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimetres on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers.” The two world wars dominate the narrative, which winds back on itself in a spiral, and it soon becomes clear that it is the horrors of the 20th century which is Ouredník’s particular topic, even if the angle he approaches from is not the expected one. “The twentieth century was said to be the most lethal in human history, and those who looked forward to the twenty-first century said that in all events it could not be worse, but others said that it could always be worse or at least just as bad.”

The shtick here is to present man’s inhumanity to man in a bathetic context, by placing it alongside trivia (the launch of Barbie) or loading it with heavily accented irony. “People who did not like Jews were not racists but anti-Semites, because the Jews were not strictly regarded as inferior, like Negroes, Indians, Gypsies, etc., but more of a natural aberration.” Nazi and Stalinist atrocities are juxtaposed with reports of the popularity of eugenics in the early part of the century.

“The first law on the sterilization of defective and asocial elements was enacted in 1907 in the United States. The law permitted the sterilization of hardened criminals and the mentally ill and in 1914, at the urging of psychiatrists, it was extended to recidivist robbers and alcoholics and in 1923, in Missouri, it was extended to chicken thieves of Negro and Indian origin, because in the case of chicken thieves of white origin, the opinion was that they could still find a way back and reintegrate themselves into the life of society through hard and conscientious work.”

The tone is deliberately banal, dealing disaster so straight-faced that one again expects Ouredník to adopt a Vonnegutism and end each report of death with “so it goes”. There is a metafictional aspect to Europeana, and Ouredník has points to make also about the very notion of the historical record which his book slyly undermines.

“Historians concluded that in the twentieth century about sixty genocides had occurred in the world, but not all of them entered historical memory. Historians said that historical memory was not part of history and memory was shifted from the historical to the psychological sphere, and this instituted a new mode of memory whereby it was no longer a question of memory of events but memory of memory.”

The overall effect is hypnotic, dizzying, funny and disturbing. The playful, soothing but sinisterly impersonal tone which Ouredník adopts has been rendered beautifully into English. The cool distance which the book offers, amid so much seductively expressed barbarity, means that after a while, the reader is moved to wonder by all this absurdity: Who are these crazy people? Oh. It’s us.