At the beginning of the century there was a strong belief in positivism

Europeana, by Patrik Ouředník and translated by Gerald Turner

Some books, often the most interesting, defy easy categorisation. Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana is a history of the 20th Century, except it isn’t, or if it is it’s the most random and partial history I’ve ever read. It’s a novel too, except it isn’t because there’s no plot, no characters, nothing I would normally associate with fiction. Here’s how it opens:

The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters 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 the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was nknown as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again.

Ourednik

What follows is a 122 pages of history by association, history without causation. The opening sets the theme, one of war and waste and sheer absurdity. The tone is banal, matter of fact, and what I can’t reproduce here is that on each page a small quote or two is reproduced in tiny font in the margin. For the passage above it’s “the English invented the tank”, but so faint and hard to read I had to photograph it and enlarge it to quote it here. What’s the point? Why does the book pull out that line from all those above? Perhaps because in doing so it undermines the very concept that we can pick out what’s important, the idea that there’s a heirarchy to history.

Here’s a quote from the second and third pages:

Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and towns and civilians, and submarines sank ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical, but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Senegalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them.

That paragraph continues for roughly another page, covering as it does so references to the Russian revolution, to nametags to identify dead soldiers, the numbers of dead on each side in World War 1 measured in kilometres, and the Spanish flu. The tiny and faint sidebar quote this time was “germans invented gas”.

So what’s going on here? At first I wasn’t sure, but as you read on themes start to emerge, patterns swirl out of the apparently random and unsupported factoids (and nothing here is referenced, nothing backed up).

The twentieth century to us now seems a century of grand narratives. Communism versus capitalism. The allies versus the axis. Democracy versus fascism. It’s a period in which we reinvent the concept of the self through psychoanalysis (a theory formed without any meaningful evidence that went on to dominate psychology and literature for decades, and that still lingers on despite the near total absence of any hard data supporting its claims).

New utopian philosophies emerge and briefly flourish, artistic movements come one after another in dizzying succession and new scientific developments from the pill to the internet to transgenic cows dazzle us. It would be easy to construct a narrative of progress if we wanted to. A clash of ideologies creating a furnace from which emerged ourselves, modern, scientific, democratic and free.

Of course it’s not that simple. We can only have that narrative if we choose to omit certain facts, if we elect not to dwell on where the desire for progress led us:

In 1910, the Americans devised a Eugenics Board, and in 1922, the Director of the American board sent the U.S. government a list of socially inadaptable citizens who should be sterilized in order to to preserve a healthy and fit society. […] And in Norway after the war they took away from unmarried mothers children whose fathers were German soldiers and sent them to mental hospitals. And lots of biologists and geneticists and psychiatrists and anthropologists believed that, alongside electricity, eugenics was modern science’s greatest contribution to mankind and just as electricity had transformed people’s material conditions and enabled the world to enter a new epoch, eugenics for its part would radically transform society’s biological base and enable the world to enter a new era. But some eugenicists said that sterilization served no purpose and calculated that it would take twenty-two generations to reduce the number of lunatics and psychopaths by 0.9%, and a further ninety generations before the proportion of lunatics and psychopaths in society stabilized at one in a hundred thousand. And they said it was necessary to find a quicker way of making mankind healthier.

Eugenics emerges as a key theme here. Ouředník returns to it over and over, looping back to the topic and as he does so he touches too on the twentieth century’s numerous genocides and the many mass-slaughters which may or may not be genocides depending on who you ask, but which whatever you call them still involved industrialised murder. The Communists, the Nazis, the Americans, they each wanted to create their own vision of the better society, and they each ran into the same problem. What to do with the people who didn’t fit their future? All too often the suggested answers started with preventing them from reproducing, and ended with concluding that a more immediate, a more final, solution was required.

Another key theme here, and a more controversial one, is the exploration of the Holocaust not as a unique event in history but rather as a particular example of what was if anything a marked historical trend. Not only not unique, but not even uncommon. The Jews, the Gypsies, the Armenians, each was singled out for massacre. The Albanians in what used to be Yugoslavia fared better, but not by much since they still had to face ethnic cleansing and deportation (in the 1930s and again of course in the 1990s, it’s not just Ouředník that repeats).

For Ouředník the impression is that eugenics, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and genocide form a spectrum of responses across societies and philosophies. We collectively spent a century purging ourselves of people we decided didn’t fit in, didn’t belong to our future, our end of history. Our narrative may be one of progress, of freedom triumphing over tyranny, but our reality is one of partisan butchery carried out with ever greater efficiency. Narrative is dangerous, it involves editing and when the narrative is about who we are and who we want to be as a society what gets edited is people.

In places Ouředník’s approach becomes problematic. This isn’t history so he cites no sources, but in at least one place I spotted an error, he credits concentration camps to the Communists in 1918 but Britain was deploying them in Africa as far back as the 19th Century (a time and place that saw its own share of genocides).

That in itself didn’t particularly bother me, but then when he claimed that the World Jewish Council in 1985 issued a statement that the Nazi euthanasia of the Gypsies was not a genocide because it based on social rather than ethnic eugenic principles I found myself wondering if that was actually true – and I couldn’t find any trace of it on a web search. I also couldn’t find any reference to a World Jewish Council, it appears to be the World Jewish Congress (possibly a translator’s error though I admit, but generally this is an excellent translation).

I also found myself questioning whether the reference to the 1985 statement was fair. My quick websearch for example easily found a page on a site called the Virtual Jewish Library titled “Roma victims of the Holocaust” which directly compared the treatment of Jews and Gypsies as people selected for slaughter by virtue of their ethnicity. If the 1985 statement was made as described, it’s clearly just one view among several.

It might seem I’m focusing too much on this relatively narrow point, but earlier in the book Ouředník says “the Turks said that the Armenian genocide was not a real genocide, and most Jews agreed.” Did he survey them? Ouředník’s concern is clearly claims of uniqueness for an event he doesn’t regard as remotely being so, but I get distinctly uncomfortable when blanket comments are effectively ascribed to a race. We’ve seen where that kind of thinking can lead, and given that’s precisely one of the points of the book quite frankly Ouředník should know better.

That rather sour note aside, Europeana is blackly funny in its sheer absurdity, which is our absurdity. It darts about between ideas and incidents, bringing them to light as if they were items briefly picked up by a bored shopper rifling through the bargain bin of history. It was a century of innovation adapted in large part to ever better ways of killing people we labelled as somehow other than ourselves, and so far the 21st century isn’t looking any better. So it goes.

I owe my discovery of Europeana to John Self’s review at The Asylum, here. As ever, his take is well worth reading.

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15 Comments

Filed under History, Novellas, Ouředník, Paul

15 responses to “At the beginning of the century there was a strong belief in positivism

  1. While I appreciate what the author is trying to do here, this doesn’t have a great deal of appeal for me–mostly because of these sweeping generalities noted above.

  2. John Self didn’t have my reservations, so it’s worth seeing that counter-view. Overall I did find it a rewarding read, just not one without some areas of concern.

  3. I thought that Ad Acta was darkly funny. This one seems to have the same DNA. He lives in France and he’s part of the Oulipo movement, so it must influence his writing.

    I’m not a historian but I wonder if the first modern war wasn’t the US civil war because of the incredible number of people killed in a short time, the presence of some incompetent commanding officers (later found again during WWI) and because it’s documented on photos. Wasn’t it the first time war was recorded on photos? I hope Brian will stop by, I’m sure he knows.

    PS: In French, yperite is called “gaz moutarde”.

  4. I am intrigued. Off to source a copy from somewhere….thanks for a great review:)

  5. sendra

    Seems really interesting. I’ll get a copy. Never Again always sounded rather naive and blinkered. Of course we have genocides. We always will and they’re all easy to spot. But what do you think the author’s intent is? Why write in that style and to what purpose? Also . . transgenic cows? Save me from looking that up.

  6. This seems reminiscent – in one way – of Borges, in the sense that he is deliberately subverting two of our intuitive categories (i.e., that history follows a linear, chronological and approach, and that history progresses through causation), and in so doing, making us rethink some of our basic assumptions (again, in this case, about history).

    The Borges essay I have in mind is The Analytical Language of John Wilkins — http://www.entish.org/essays/Wilkins.html

  7. Tredynas Days

    Thanks for another intriguing post, Max. Just visited John S’s piece from a few years ago, and despite my reservations about metafictional novels, feel inclined to take a look at this one.

  8. Emma, mustard gas in English, the same thing. I’ll see if Ad Acta is available in English. I didn’t know he was Oulipo.

    No idea regarding wars.

    Lisa, I hope you find and enjoy it! (If enjoy is quite the right word.)

    Sendra, I think he’s making points in part about how we impose narrative on history. In a sense his associations are as valid as any others, and bring out themes and facts that are often ignored. Is it necessarily more valid to say X did this then Y did that so X did this in response? It may have happened, but is it that simple? I think that’s part of it.

    Transgenic animals have been a thing for a few years now, human dna put into an animal for the purpose of developing vaccines for example. We live in the future authors like William Gibson used to write about.

    Guatambhatia, thanks for the link. I’ve still not read Borges, concerns about translations, but I really do have to I admit. I’ll certainly read that essay.

    You touch on the point I was just making in response to sendra. We treat history as a linear sequence of causation, which is actually highly questionable (I’m not suggesting it doesn’t happen in an order of events, just that it’s not nearly that simple to show necessary links and narrative between them). We say this happened because of that, but the truth is there were things that happened and we can at best establish some connections between them.

    Tredynas, if you do please let me know how you get on. It’s not flawless (though actually mine is probably the most critical review I’ve seen, most are just flat out positive) but it is definitely interesting.

  9. It’s on its way to me from the Book Depository:)

  10. sendra

    Thanks. I wonder if his take is more chaotic then. I guess I’ll find out soon enough. I’ve ordered it. History seems to be an attempt to order a sequence of events into a digestible narrative. But, of course, it isn’t as simple as that. Nixon’s cramps probably had more of an effect on his term than it should have. i prefer the high view, the facts and leaving supposition alone. But then that’s my unthinking wish for a simpler read. Fascinating.
    I’ve always found genetic research rather thrilling and never understood people’s instinctive mistrust about it. I can imagine nightmarish scenarios in less enlightened countries, but for me, they are overshadowed by the tremendous possibilities. Perhaps others feel their bodies are sacred somehow. But then I’m sure their bodies are more or less healthy. Keep it up, Max. Your blog often makes me genuinely curious about your choices and whether I should choose them as well.

  11. Hope you enjoy it Lisa!

    sendra, it’s not that simple, but at the same time if we don’t create some form of narrative for a simpler read there’s no way we can make any sense at all of what’s happened. I think we have to simplify, to create a false narrative, to have any hope of understanding the past. I guess it’s then important though to remember that it is a narrative, a tool for understanding, and that we probably left more out than we left in.

    Genetic research I think has both thrilling and terrifying possibilities. Overall though I’m very positive. There are horrific diseases and conditions which a better understanding and ability to intervene at the genetic level could alleviate or cure. That has to be worth trying for.

  12. sendra

    Oh yes. On both counts. The glue of narrative is essential, but not all historians are as high-minded as Herodotus (though that is an interesting romp of a read). Historians can play games. I guess part of the fun is detective work on the part of the reader. I loved reading Gibbon and I strongly recommend him. But his personality and agendas are clearly there. He was not keen on Christianity or (sadly) Jews. As fascinating an individual as he was, he had quirks.
    I’m with you on genetic research. Of course there are problems. Would the gay gene survive in Saudi Arabia? But a world without schizophrenia or any mental disorder would be an exciting and bracing world. I eagerly look forward to what will be possible in 20-30 years. As always technology is neither good or bad. These advances test our judgement. Ditto the internet. It serves and reveals. Looking forward to Europeana.

  13. A little aside on the history-as-causation point: there’s a very fascinating book by the anthropologist Joanne Rappaport, called “The Politics of Memory” (https://www.dukeupress.edu/The-Politics-of-Memory/), which describes how a non-linear conception of time and a non-chronological conception of history can serve as a very deliberate strategy of political resistance. For instance (and putting it reductively), by treating mythic/heroic figures on par with recent setbacks, or by holding long-ago victories on the same plane with more contemporary defeats, the Andean tribes construct a version of history that provides them with the resources to continue colonial resistance at the present moment.

  14. (The book starts with a delightful little comment by Marquez – “we must tell our stories before the historians have time to arrive.”)

  15. Sendra, good call on Herodotus. He is rather fun isn’t he?

    Gautambhatia, thanks for that. fascinating point, and a lovely Marquez quote too – one with a definite point to it.

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