City2Cities, Utrecht 2012 (Friso Wiersum)

Friday 4 May 2012
by  NLLG

Mister Ourednik, ladies, gentlemen, friends of the festival organisation,

It is a great honor to have been invited to introduce this second print of the book Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century in the Netherlands. In preparation for this occasion I have been reading the paragraphs of the little treasure, such as I consider Europeana, for the so manieth time in my tife. There are parts in the book where I even don’t need reading to know what’s written. In repetition the sentences and images of Patrik Ourednik have gained such a continuous flow, such consequent wanderings, that my brain while reading jumps in happy advance of what is to come.

Because people, it is a great book. A book to cherish. A book to buy your friends.

For many years, since 1998, the first phase of the Kosovo war, I have been keeping a little published letter to the editor from a Dutch daily in my wallet. It is a small anecdote written by a mother. She wrote: « Whilst watching the evening news my eldest daughter, seeing Albanians fleeing, asked me whether some of those refugees would be allowed to come to the Netherlands. My affirming answer was responded with a spontaneous exclamation: Yippie, more people in the Netherlands, there might be good friends among them. »

It is a little story, and no quote for eternity, but apparently it is one that sticks to me. Like parts of Europeana reading this little piece of paper reminds me there are numerous ways of dealing with a fact.

Fact: war in Kosovo. First reaction: there always was war. Another reaction: future friends.

A bit absurd perhaps, but friendly.

Although the little girl’s stream of thought is divisible into what, when, where, who, why and how, she just doesn’t, but rather thinks of a because. Picking two dots on the thread of history she made a decision – the other possibilities don’t matter.

It is a certain kind of naivete which Ourednik shares with her. But since he wasn’t a young boy anymore writing Europeana his view is different. Rather than focusing on his personal story, Ourednik in Europeana concentrates on the Twentieth Century. Along the girl’s line of thought chronology is not too important for Ourednik. He moves from one era in the century to another, in an irresistible rhythm.

Neither is he analytic on what happened in last century’s bloody history. Ourednik just seems to throw the basket of history upside down and select his stories randomly. Seems, since you will be recognizing his prevalence for statistics, for numbering, for counting. He didn’t write this book to explain a century but to show the real face of History. And that story, as we all fear, isn’t teleological, but random. There is no unfolding story leading us towards a bright future, there simply are too many absurd derivations to maintain that idea.

As Karl Strauss wrote in 1919: « Und das Chaos sei willkommen, denn die Ordnung hat versagt. » Within that chaos we are free. And what Ourednik does is unveiling that chaos. He deconstructs the official histories of the victorious powers. Shows us the banality of heroic events. In the first sentence of the book already. « 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 kilometres. »

Ourednik’s view on the Twentieth Century has been called childish, has been compared to the one of your favorite grandfather, to one of a nutty history professor and it has been called alien. But in fact there is no narrator in Europeana, adding to the absurdity of the interwoven poetic paragraphs. Ourednik has explained the book’s origin as follows: « Is it possible to express a period of time, a specific historical time, without using narrative means, however direct or elusive they are, such as a historical novel or an intimist narrative? To find a form that would enable the narrator – like History itself – to be terribly banal, while pretending to be original. »

Born in 1957, Ourednik spent much of his youth in an occupied country. His hometown of Prague, along with the rest of Czechoslovakia, was invaded by the Soviet Union in August 1968, putting a stop to the Prague Spring. He grew up in a society where language was violated by political euphemisms and thoughtnumbing clichés – for example the Soviet invasion was officially referred to as « fraternal assistance ».

Born to a French mother and Czech father, he grew up bilingual. I don’t know whether this fact added to his interest in language, but in my story on Ourednik it does.

Fact: He grew bilingual. First reaction: That is useful. Another reaction: He runs a samizdat publishing house and in 1984 is convicted for non conformistic behaviour.

He exiles to France voluntarily and has been living there ever since. He has translated extensively from French to Czech – a selection of Boris Vian, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – as well as in the other direction.

He published novels, poetry, essays, dictionairies and pastiches. His first book was The Dictionary of unconventional Czech in 1988.

ln 1995 Ourednik publishes Year24: progymnasma 1965-1989. This twenty-four-year span stretches from Ourednik’s eighth year to his thirty-second, from the relatively liberal 1960s through the Soviet invasion and the subsequent twenty years of repressive « normalization », all the way to 1989. But what is a progymnasma? The word refers to a set of exercises for students of rhetoric, in which they practice writing fourteen basic rhetorical forms. The form practiced here, however, is not one of the traditional fourteen. The form Ourednik uses there might be called « I remember ».

In Europeana there is no narrator to uther « I remember ». The century unfolds like a pandemonium without direction. Europeana uses irony to get beyond rhetoric, to approach what may be spoken about but always remains unspoken. To approach the incomprehensible and the banal at the same time.

It won Ourednik the Czech writers and critics book of the year award in 2001. Europeana has been translated in more than twenty languages. Edgar de Bruin did a wonderful job on the Dutch translation.

What did critics think of it?

According to the Guardian it is one of the decade’s best books.

The New York Times Book Review wrote: « Touching on subjects and events as disparate as the invention of the bra, Barbie dolls, Scientology, eugenics, the Internet, war, genocide and concentration camps, it unspools in a relentless monotone that becomes unexpectedly engaging, even frightening. »

And Le Temps:

« Enthralled by matters of language, Ourednik offers a burlesque vision of the history of contemporary Europe, combining the tragic aspect of the situation with anecdotal facts that stress the absurdity of the twentieth century. »

Now that you have been hearing so much on Ourednik’s language, shall we than listen to how it sounds?

« In the twentieth century there was a turn away from traditional religion because when people realized that they descended from monkeys and could travel by train and make telephone calls and go down in a submarine, they began to turn away from religion and go less and less to church and they said that no lord god exists and that religion maintains the people in ignorance and darkness and that they were for positivism. »

Patrik Ourednik isn’t the kind of author to believe in positivism as a historical force. He doesn’t trust the language of those who proclaim the « End of History ». In Europeana he stubbornly refuses to conform to any hierarchy of events by making no distinction between the supposedly major currents of the times and insignificant incidents that came along with them.

Numerous authors described us the faces of the people carrying out those insignificant incidents. Patrik Ourednik offers us the lauging mirror in which we ail recognize ourselves in those faces.

Thereby unveiling to us a certain idea in the chaos of Karl Krauss: that absurdity is no end, but a starting point. And that our impulsive revolting responses to that absurdity are worthless when they aren’t accompanied by a deeply felt human solidarity. The solidarity a little girl, a grand father, a nutty professor or an alien might feel. Europeana teaches us, at least taught me, we are all statistics, equal in our banality.

« After all manner of professors have done their best for us, the place we are to get knowledge is in books, » said Albert Camus, « the true university of these days is a collection of books. »

He wasn’t complete in his aphorism: The true university of these days is a collection of books, but must include Europeana. A Brief History of the Twentieth Century.

I wish you all a pleasant afternoon and a great reading of Patrik Ourednik’s wonderful book,

Ladies, gentlemen, Monsieur Ourednik – thank you.