Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century
Chicago Review, December 22, 2005
Among the commonplaces of literary criticism is the idea that any literary work, in particular any stylistically unconventional work, must teach its readers how to read it. This does not mean that the work should point readers toward a single interpretation, but that it should allow readers a means of interpretation, a sense of how its various parts are working together or some clues about what it is attempting to do. Such clues provide a “way into” the work, a space through which readers may access the author’s project, leading, ultimately, to a recognition of shared (or not shared) ethical and artistic concerns. A book that fails to allow such points of entry is not successful in the sense that its purposes remain obscure; a thing can only be successful if there is something to be successful at.
As measures of literary success go, this one strikes me as better than most, since it at least focuses on the reader’s relationship to the text. But like any rule, or at least any literary rule, it is particularly interesting in its exceptions. One such exception is Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Czech writer Patrik Ourednik, which provides readers with an encyclopedia’s worth of information but flatly refuses to tell us how to read its catalog of odd facts and observations concerning twentieth-century wars, genocides, scientific innovations, technological developments, and cultural marginalia. Instead we get:
The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 cm. on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in World War I who measured 176 cm., and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans.
The narrating voice is funny, scientific, infantile, sarcastic, and eerie; yet while it is filled with what we usually call “personality,” it remains morally ambiguous regarding the statistics it relates. For 122 pages, it moves quickly, often in large jumps, from philosophy to psychology, the moon landing to Barbie dolls, the death of humanism to the ethics of Amish people to a rise in popularity of pets:
And people in cities got themselves dogs and cats and tortoises and guinea pigs for their homes, because dumb animals were faithful friends even in an alienated world. And dogs and cats had their own hairdressers and beauty salons and fitness centers and convalescent homes and morgues and cemeteries, etc. And American soldiers returning from the Vietnam War joined together to build a memorial to the 4,100 American dogs who fell in Vietnam for freedom and democracy.
We read cynical undertones in “for freedom and democracy,” and, as a result, think we can read the whole book as a comprehensive cultural critique, commenting on the moral decrepitude of situation X, philosophy Y, and social entity Z. The problem is that while the reader may follow such a reading, the book refuses to confirm it, remaining content to catalog and juxtapose. We can also read the book’s non-narrative structure as subverting the means by which we usually construct history, except insofar as Europeana does not resist the impulse to focus on the “important” events – war, major technological and social developments – that typically define historical experience. It just doesn’t comment on or evaluate these events.
If we see the book as concerned primarily with information rather than with cultural criticism or historical narrative, we can read a passage near the end of the novel as a kind of thesis:
...and mathematicians invented the theory of information ... and conceived of information as something that was unrelated to meaning ... and they posed the question of whether the absence of significance in information had any connection with the absence of meaning in history.
This “absence of significance” would seem to contradict our reading of the text as a cultural critique— but here too there is no authorial wink or nudge; the text simply moves on to relativity theory and the persistence of nationalistic stereotypes after WWII. The quote may serve as the reader’s thesis, but it is not necessarily the book’s.
Ourednik himself, in an interview included at the end of the review copy, comments on readers’ interpretative impulses: “What the reader finds in [any novel], what probably calls out to him – 90% of the time – has to do with his imagination, not [the author’s].” This might seem to work against the book’s interpretive openness, but what Ourednik proceeds to tell us about his aims for the book only increases the book’s plurality. For Ourednik “the primary question wasn’t to know what events, what episodes were characteristic of the twentieth century, but which syntax, which rhetoric, which expressiveness belonged to it.” As interesting as these intentions may be, they do not explain or encapsulate the text any better than our other readings. “What is funny,” Ourednik says, “is the profusion of interpretation that the narrator [has] aroused for critics. An extra-terrestrial being? A really perverted professor of discourse? Bouvard without Pecuchet, Pecuchet without Bouvard? [...] Personally, I never met him ... I have no clue who he is” Ourednik tells us only as much as an author can actually know: why he wrote the book, not what it does or means.
Interpretive openness is, of course, a quality of all novels, but the openness of Europeana marks its objecthood (in Michael Fried’s use of the term). It is a list, the least fictive of all literary forms insofar as the list denies signification and the connective tissue of narrative, plot, climax, and even chronology. As Gilbert Sorrentino remarks, “The list is precisely the opposite of that which we think it is, i.e., rather than acting as a bearer of data, as a means of simple communication of uncluttered information, the list is actually an object.” If we take Europeana as a list-object (and as “objective” in at least two senses: perspectivally and ontologically) we see right away that it doesn’t mean anything; it simply is. It turns history into an “object” in the sense of a thing that we encounter and must react to. Of course it is a specific object with particular characteristics – this list as opposed to that one – but it nevertheless continually frustrates our interpretive impulses.
Thus Europeana is both a very strange work of history and an ingenious work of art for one and the same reason: because it leaves readers at a loss. It places us in the uncomfortable position of having neither our expectations satisfied nor our assumptions confirmed. It presents us with something specific and strange, something seemingly familiar yet eerily not, then refuses to tell us what to do with it. We are left to our own devices.