Patrik Ourednik’s “Europeana”
Context, 14, 2003
Patrik Ourednik – unobtrusive admirer of the pataphysical persiflage of Alfred Jarry and Boris Vian, cultivated popularizer of experimental literature, poet, prose writer, translator, and essayist – was born in 1957 to a Czech-French family in Prague and emigrated to France in 1985. He unites a learned (but decidedly un-academic and extrauniversity) interest in linguistic and literary questions with his own original works. In addition to numerous translations (both from French to Czech – Beckett, Jarry, Queneau, Vaché, and others – and from Czech to French – for example, Vancura, Hrabal, Holan, Skácel), he has written reference works such as the Schmierbuch of the Czech Language, attempting to capture Czech argot and slang, and There Is Nothing New Under the Sun, “a dictionary of biblicisms and para-biblicisms,” explaining common sayings in their original biblical context. He has also written poetry, a children’s fairy tale, and above all, a pair of originally conceived prose works. In Year Twenty-Four (1995), Ourednik captures the atmosphere of communist normalization in Czechoslovakia of the 1970s and 1980s through his own stylized memories of childhood and adolescence. Taking the role of a naive, absurdly literal, and unbiased narrator, he records the phrases and clichés that permeated the ideologically inflected language of those years – clichés that shamelessly blurred the boundary between reality and fiction, failed to distinguish between the banal and the important, and confused the social and the private. It makes for charming and nonsensical reading, but at the same time the book is a horrifying reflection on an era devoid of thought. Ourednik’s second achievement in prose, Europeana (2001), offers “a brief history of the twentieth century,” viewed “from below” rather than through an undistorted lens. The book does not respect chronology, does not rank historical events by their importance, does not look for chains of cause and effect, and does not dwell on historical personalities. On the contrary, it becomes a concordium of ordinary things, giving equal rights to banal realities and events that killed millions of people. The book examines how, in the twentieth century, humanity was degraded, swallowed up by the absurd mechanisms of the establishment in various ideological forms – how the world voluntarily surrendered its spiritual dimension to empty materialism. “What is truth? The historical truth of history? The literary truth of the text? The truth of utopias? The truth of memory?” asks Vlastimil Hárl, author of the book’s afterword – and Ourednik does not give unequivocal answers to these questions, for the accumulation of facts alone is eloquent enough on its own terms.
Translated from the Czech by Jonathan Bolton.