Reading Dangerously

Wednesday 7 March 2012
by  NLLG

Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana

The Year of Reading Dangerously

June 21, 2011

Europeana was the first of Czech writer Patrik Ourednik’s novels to be translated into English, though another two have since followed (all published by the wonderful Dalkey Archive Press). It is subtitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, and that is exactly what it is, reaching only 122 pages in its coverage of those hundred years. 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.”

We should therefore not be surprised when we begin not at the beginning but halfway through, and with the following fact:

“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.”

Here we see evidence immediately of both originality (not only is it not an obvious starting point, it is not a statistic that you would be likely to include in even a detailed history of the twentieth century), and banality – any suggestion that it is being used to make an emotive point relating to the number of casualties is quickly undercut by the next sentence:

“The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimetres…”

Ourednik sustains this flat, detached but pedantic, tone throughout, using not only an array of bald statistics, but a limited repertoire of connectives (largely “and”), and even repeating information: for example the fact that the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks first mentioned on page 1, reappears as quickly as page 2. This is perhaps most effective when presenting attitudes; the lack of commentary is starkly reductive:

“The Germans said they were the natural upholders of European civilisation because they knew how to make war and carry on trade, and also to organise convivial entertainments. And they said the French were vain and the English were haughty…”

This doesn’t just work for out-dated national stereotypes, however:

“Sex became very important in Europe in the twentieth century, more important than religion and almost as important as money, and everyone wanted to have sexual intercourse in different ways and some men rubbed their sexual organ with cocaine to prolong their erection even though cocaine was banned in all circumstances.”

Here, the juxtaposition of the general with the specific creates a jarring comedy: from an accepted truth to a ridiculous example.

Ourednik focuses largely on the West, and does not attempt, as, for example Eduardo Galeano does in Mirrors, to present a balanced world history. He returns again and again to the First and Second World Wars (the First World War is last mentioned on page 120). But on the way he covers the Barbie doll, the invention of the bicycle, the hippy movement, scientology and psychoanalysis among many other topics. Never has history been so delightful.