In search of Europe

Four new books demonstrate European literature’s new schism, says Julian Evans. Since 1989, the centre of gravity has moved east, to the poor lands of the former Soviet domain
October 19, 2011
New writing from the east side of the old Berlin Wall makes the west look complacent

The Prague Cemeteryby Umberto Eco (Harvill Secker, £20)

From Germany to Germanyby Günter Grass (Harvill Secker, £14.99)

Parallel Storiesby Péter Nádas (Jonathan Cape, £35)

On the Road to Babadagby Andrzej Stasiuk (Harvill Secker, £14.99)

In the last two decades, the European literary landscape has been redrawn. The rush of most former communist states to join the European Union has rehabilitated a European consciousness that no longer comes to a dead end east of Potsdamer Platz and south of the Karawanken Alps. The continent’s east and west have, you would think, been very busy in mutual influence. But deep cultural change is so slow that it resembles one of those huge Victorian steam-engine flywheels, its momentum building at a speed almost invisible to the naked eye. Just as the elements that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall accumulated imperceptibly through 20 years of stagnation after the Prague Spring, it is only now that we can begin to grasp this change in European literary priorities.

A quartet of books published this year and next—two from the literary high table of western Europe, two from eastern European writers—embody some of the shifts that have taken place, from leisured complacency to a more urgent sense of enquiry, from conventional sketches of the continent to a new reality for Europe. This is a place where, culturally at least, neither Paris nor Berlin, nor any capital city, remains a centre of gravity.

“Who am I?” The question put by Captain Simone Simonini (or the man who thinks he might be Simonini) at the start of Umberto Eco’s latest historical blockbuster resonates at a political as well as personal level. In Eco’s Europe identities are rarely what they seem. Strip away the gloss of 19th-century prosperity and pugnacious ambition, and Europe is instead the product of its illusions, conspiracies and plots. Imposture, trickery and betrayal are universal here, and the apparent actors—Jesuits, Masons, Jews, secret services, Carbonari and numberless other revolutionary groups—are locked in a danse macabre that leads only downwards.

But Eco’s vision of Europe is hardly radical. As a historical thriller, The Prague Cemetery does what it says on the tin. Framed as Simonini’s attempt to solve his identity crisis by reconstructing his past, the book’s first answer to his question is that he is a hater: of Jews, Germans, French, Italians, women, the clergy. He also believes that he may have a split personality and be a priest he once murdered.

Apprenticed in his youth to a fraudulent notary, his hatreds have led him to become counterfeiter, provocateur and murderer, emerging at the centre of a Europe-wide gyre of deceit. He creates forgeries that help bring down the Paris Commune and incriminate Dreyfus, but his masterpiece, in his eyes, is his invention of a conference of rabbis in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, at which they outline their plans for world domination: the antisemitic document now known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Eco’s novel has excited objections from the Osservatore Romano and Rome’s chief rabbi that its readers could be tainted by the book’s climate of antisemitism: to which Eco replied that he wanted “to give the reader a punch in the stomach” about how such stereotypes are constructed. Neither claim really holds. The novel’s gruesomely violent elements are hard to take seriously, because Eco’s style is trapped in that alibi of playfulness at which he has always excelled. As a medievalist his interest has lain, since The Name of the Rose, in Europe as a historical reservoir, his fiction drawing on its rich religious and political weave in a deliberately ironic, expository way. A hint of the virtuoso lecturer is rarely absent from his style. Yet the real mystery in this novel is that nothing new about prejudice, or criminality, or Europe is revealed. Brilliant in its fusion of real events and real figures with fictional ones, from Garibaldi and Dumas to Freud, inexplicably narrow in its characterisation, it is humanly shallow and aesthetically humdrum.

Günter Grass’s perspective on Europe, or at least Germany, is more urgent. As a public intellectual he has never shied away from denouncing German hegemony, the colonialist attitude of the postwar state, the danger of its reverting to belligerence. (He has of course been faced with his own moral ambiguity as a witness, when he was compelled to disclose in 2006 that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS.)

In From Germany to Germany, his diary of the year after the Wall’s fall, to be published in English next spring, he returns to his nation’s defects. Like Eco, he is a writer deeply engaged with the world beyond literature, and intent on inserting himself in the tumult of events. Speaking out on a series of journeys into the GDR, he attempted to alert his audience to the risks of reunification, and in his “Writing after Auschwitz” speech at Frankfurt he sought “to make the so-called right to German unity, in the sense of a reunified statehood, founder on the rock of Auschwitz.”

His attempt failed, and it seems odd that he waited until 2009 to publish his diary in Germany. Its concerns look like ancient history; any other course but unification of the two Germanys now looks unthinkable. Grass, however, appears oblivious to any misjudgment, as the former East German writer Monika Maron noted in the Süddeutsche Zeitung in February 2009:

“Now, 20 years after the fall of the Wall, he reveals [his diary]: not in order to admit how many things he misjudged, not to celebrate the fact that the catastrophe he predicted never happened, but to prove that his warnings and his ominous predictions were right, then, later on and still today...”

Maron reserves her greatest scorn for Grass’s patronising of the population of the GDR, and in the diary he displays a remarkable self-centredness. Far from the shaggy, Rabelaisian author we are familiar with, he is a fastidious figure, as fussy when shopping as when considering Germany’s destiny. The diary opens and closes in his winter home near Lagos in Portugal, where his chief pleasure is tending to his cacti. By contrast, the GDR’s greyness dismays him. He writes of a train journey to Dresden: “Alone in the first-class compartment. The dirty windows, the godforsaken grey countryside, its scrap-value industrial plants and cowering villages, overlooked by time. Sudden snowfall. Seized by a wish to be among my Portuguese cacti, which are closer to me than this cold strangeness [my translation].”

Disparate as they are, Eco’s and Grass’s books share a curiously clear view. Both possess a comfortable certainty, one that emerges from a post-second world war, liberal, prosperous perspective. Yet it is a certainty whose verdicts, with the EU’s easterly expansion and the eurozone caught with its pants down, have started to look less convincing. This is partly because in the tumbling masonry of the Wall in 1989 a different Europe was already being incubated; but nobody noticed how different. We were too busy celebrating. We lost our perspective.

The period that produced this fixed and confident outlook is past, and the literary importance of Eco and Grass and their generation is fading. A new perspective is perceptible. Central and eastern in origin, existential—in the sense of being speculatively engaged with the human condition—rather than national-regional, it is sharply delineated in two new books that both originate from Europe’s old centre.

The briefest introduction: in 1997 A Book of Memories by Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas was published in English. It had become something of a fictional landmark, for the personal intensity of its reconstruction of life under socialism. This month, Nádas’s new novel, Parallel Stories, broadens its gaze (across 1,152 pages) from Germany and Hungary in the 1930s to the Berlin of 1989. It has a plot—turning around a murder, and the lives of a politically compromised family—but the plot remains subservient to Nádas’s creation of a boundless tapestry of characters, each acting physically on the others. The novel captures our experience of the present: events unfold without any certainty of where they will lead, while fleeting, non-verbal interactions are crucially important.

Amplify these ideas, as Nádas does, by a superbly controlled realism (particularly erotic realism), and two things happen. The most lurid events seem normal; and the picture of politics and history being mediated by the body, and of the body being oppressed in turn by those forces, becomes truly arresting. If for ’68ers the personal was political, here it is the erotic, and vice versa. The final result may take Tolstoyan liberties with the reader’s stamina, but must be destined for classic status.

For the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk, this same level of meaning is embedded in an old-fashioned form: the quest, the hunt for satisfaction in new locations. Towards the end of his new travel book On the Road to Babadag Stasiuk writes that he keeps a tin box full of loose change on a shelf:

“When I am low, I dump it out on a table, to revisit all the pubs, shops, bus and train stations, petrol stations, and cabs in which I obtained them. The coins remind me of things and places: the street stalls in Saranda, the lane stanchions on the Slovenian highway A1, the ferries on the Tisa, the parking meters on the Szentháromság tér…”

Unlike Grass, Stasiuk embraces the “cold strangeness” of eastern Europe. It is a wild part of the continent that Stasiuk’s cherishing gaze sees slipping away as it merges into the European Union and the consumerist west. Why does it deserve preservation? Because neglect has always been the essence of this region: in Stasiuk’s dirty windows and cowering villages, “History, deeds, consequences, ideas, and plans dissolve into the landscape, into something considerably older and vaster than all the striving…”

Stasiuk’s inspirations are maps of Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans, cheap Kossuth cigarettes, the Romanian Romantic Emil Cioran, cows, dogs, gypsies, raki. Stasiuk’s vision of Europe rests on his love for decline and decay: for the ancient hospitality of innkeepers in rural Hungary, the men who smoke on street corners in northern Romania “staring at the emptiness of the day,” their bodies “more expressive the less meaning they have.” He also knows that he would be kicked in the arse by those he celebrates if they knew what he was writing.

There is a note of Romantic melancholy about the pleasure Stasiuk takes in decline. Yet On the Road to Babadag helps us see the divide between the not-quite-discredited western idea of Europe as a cultural high ground to be emulated, and the easterly reaction that they had their own Europe all along, even if it was, as Stasiuk has written, a jinxed “anti-world [of] disorder, untidiness, irresponsibility, insouciance.” The question that haunts his work is how much we would lose if eastern Europe adopts the west’s largely materialistic economic and political models. His answer is: everything. His Europe is irreplaceable.

Stasiuk’s journeys are vivid poetry. An important connection also links his battered threnody and Nádas’s novel. Both books are about bodies and time: indeed, the sheer physicality of both is in some way a token of their strength, as if they are wrestling with a fundamental problem of where, as humans, we find ourselves in time as well as space—a corporeal problem of existence and meaning, an existentialism defining a relation to the world that we need to grasp (Nádas) or feel we are losing (Stasiuk).

What formally also underpins Stasiuk’s travels, and rather beautifully embodies his resistance to the future, is how his prose communicates the working of memory, mirroring its inconsequentiality. His accounts are fragmented, shuffled, continued later or not. Time breaks down as soon as it is past; in his mind events “cover space and time in an even, translucent layer.”

Albania is one country that he returns to. He criss-crosses the south, lured by its landscape that “brings to mind species and epochs that are long extinct and have left no likenesses.” Here, suddenly, he offers an insight that nails his enterprise, confirming his “other” Europe as fully European. It is a statement that ought to prick the satisfaction of anyone who still regards Europe’s values as those of its westerly half alone, but also reminds us how writers get things straight long before politicians do (his book was originally published in 2004):

“Yes, everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.”