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 domainby Julian Evans / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
New writing from the east side of the old Berlin Wall makes the west look complacent
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvill Secker, £20)
From Germany to Germany by Günter Grass (Harvill Secker, £14.99)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas (Jonathan Cape, £35)
On the Road to Babadag by 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…