Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson
A while back I read a short story by Dave Hutchinson featuring a knight who falls lasciviously in love with his own castle. It was funny and strange and really rather good.
I read the short story as a taster to Hutchinson’s work, because I’d heard great things of his 2015 novel Europe in Autumn. Great and accurate things.
(As an aside, the cover is a bit over-dramatic. Images of trains and maps suggest someone has at least read the book which is often not true of cover art, but that rather portentous line about “No border can hold him” completely misses its mood.)
Europe in the 21st Century is a fractured place, riven by deep nationalist fissures and a sense that its day is past. Clearly we’re in the realm of science fiction…
Rudi is an Estonian chef working in a Krakow restaurant. He’s approached by the local crime syndicate to run an errand to a nearby micro-state. The task goes well and before long he’s recruited into a shadowy organisation of underground couriers – the romantically named Coureurs des Bois.
Rudi’s Europe is a mess of borders and new nations, some of them as small as a handful of buildings. Breakway states find themselves choked by the larger nations they’ve seceded from.
He picked up his glass and took a sip of vodka. “I saw on the news last week that so far this year twelve new nations and sovereign states have come into being in Europe alone.” “And most of them won’t be here this time next year,” said Rudi.
Emails and internet access can be blocked; post intercepted; road and rail traffic stopped at crossing points. A good courier though, armed with fake passports and plenty of native cunning, they can still get through and Rudi’s nondescript appearance and easily transferable day-job are distinct assets. All he needs is training in tradecraft, which he receives from the highly experienced Fabio:
EVERY STUDENT NEEDS a teacher, Dariusz had told him, and Fabio was to be his. He was short and chubby and well-dressed enough to be mugged within minutes of setting foot on any street in Western Europe. His suit was from the cutting edge of the Armani Revival and his shoes had been sewn by wizened artisans in Cordova. His luggage cost more than a flat in central Kraków. He was, Rudi thought, one of the least covert people he had ever seen. He thought it was a miracle the English authorities hadn’t arrested Fabio and then just looked for a crime to charge him with, because he was almost a caricature of a Central European biznisman. Fabio had a dim view of Kraków’s hotels. The Cracovia wasn’t good enough for him. He refused to even cross the threshold of the Europa. He claimed the head chef of the Bristol was a convicted poisoner. He wound up staying at Rudi’s flat.
Fabio’s training reminds Rudi all too strongly of Le Carré and Deighton. There’s a sense of amateurism to it all:
IN RUDI’S OPINION, whoever had set up the Coureurs had overdosed on late twentieth century espionage fiction. Coureur operational jargon, as passed on by Fabio, sounded like something from a John le Carré novel. Legends were fictitious identities. Stringers were non-Coureur personnel, or entry-level Coureurs, who did makework like scoping out locations in the field or maintaining legends. Pianists were hackers, tailors provided technical support, cobblers forged documents – Rudi knew that euphemism had been in use in espionage circles as far back as the 1930s. He thought it was ridiculous.
At first I thought that was Hutchinson passing off his own over-obvious literary inspirations as a device within the fiction. As the novel progresses though it becomes clear it’s not that at all and that what I thought was a flaw was both intentional and subtle. Rudi’s right. The coureurs are sometimes effective, but they’re motivated less by money than by an ideological dislike of borders and bureaucracy coupled with a need to inject a little theatre in their lives. They’re living their own little espionage dream and doing some good in the process, but there are people in their world for whom this isn’t a game. Le Carré could have told them that the romance fades when people start firing real bullets.
Much of the novel is a series of Rudi’s missions, mostly the eventful ones which means mostly the unsuccessful ones. Rudi keeps getting promoted even though his hit rate is middling at best, leading him to wonder if he’s one of the better agents what the rest are like. He learns though and through trial and error becomes fairly effective in his role, while still spending his downtime cooking in his Krakow kitchen.
As you’d expect, eventually Rudi finds himself in over his head and having to go on the run. There’s a lovely sequence where he’s taken prisoner and sort-of-imprisoned in a luxurious London flat watched by polite staff who seem there to serve him but somehow prevent him leaving. Much of the charm of this novel is how well Hutchinson brings Central Europe to life. It’s refreshing to have an Estonian chef as a protagonist and to have the action mostly in Poland and former German states. Hutchinson’s central European sections persuaded me, but even more reassuringly his London section takes place about two minutes from where I work and the descriptions were spot on:
AT WEEKENDS, THE area was deserted. You got some tourists wandering up and down Fleet Street, but it didn’t start to get busy until you were past the High Court and heading towards Trafalgar Square. On a Sunday, you could walk up out of the Mitre Court gateway onto Fleet Street, and for minutes on end you wouldn’t see another living soul.
I’ve spent enough weekends on Fleet Street to know how true that is.
By the two thirds or so mark I had Autumn pegged as an enjoyable near-future hybrid SF spy novel. It was fun, I liked the characters and the writing had a nice lightness of touch and sense of humour which worked well for me. Then, as Rudi starts to work out what’s going on, the novel takes a Borgesian swerve. To say too much would be a massive spoiler, but a McGuffin enters stage left in the form of an alternate ordnance survey map of extraordinary inaccuracy showing in minute detail historic English towns that never existed. In an ordinary SF novel that would be the flag for some alternate-history high jinks. Here it’s something stranger and more interesting.
The novel ends abruptly and with much unresolved. Hutchinson has since himself recognised this as something of a flaw, though I was happy with the ending and while I know it’s now part of a trilogy I’d have been perfectly happy with it had it just been a free-standing novel.
Autumn appeared on a great many SF prize lists back in 2015, and rightly so. This is intelligent and well written SF with good ideas which for once are supported by credible characters. I was reminded of George Alec Effinger’s wonderful Budayeen novels with their own fractured future and memorable cast. It’s good company to be in, and it’s a shame Effinger never got to read Hutchinson because I think he’d have liked him.
A great many, but not on the blogs I typically follow most of which don’t cover much (or any) SF. I liked this review from Yellow and Creased and rather wish I’d written this paragraph myself because it’s spot on:
Hutchinson displays quiet but powerful sensibilities in his work: a deep humaneness, a potent but unobtrusive wit, a remarkable grip on his world-building. And it’s also never overwritten, always perfect: the sly, sardonic wit never felt forced or overused; the near-future tech remained on-hand but comfortably in the background.
I also liked this typically excellent review by Maureen Kincaid at her Paper Knife blog. Here’s a paragraph from her review:
Rudi’s wry commentary on the new milieu in which he finds himself is a delight. (Indeed, there is a sly humour at work throughout the novel, manifest in almost sotto voce asides that leave the reader thinking “did he really just says that?” and such miniature absurdities as the village-state run by fans of Gunther Grass – “Rudi was vaguely sorry that Grassheim had been reabsorbed by the Pomeranian Republic […] He really liked The Tin Drum” (27).) However, Rudi’s observations do raise some interesting points about what a reader might expect of a narrative that dresses itself in the costume of a spy novel, or indeed of an organisation that apparently models itself on a fiction. Should we read this as someone somewhere recognising that Le Carré’s fictional model of the Circus is so damn good they might as well put it to actual use, or is Hutchinson ever so gently pointing out that our perception of how the secret service works is shaped more by the fiction we can access than the reality we can never experience, with the underlying possibility that they might just be the same. Or is all of this a distraction from something else, a “legend” that Hutchinson himself is fabricating, to draw our attention away from something else?
The rest is just as insightful, particularly where she analyses the London episode and how it fits with the novel’s pacing as a form of “hinge” in the narrative between the spy capers and the stranger material to follow.
Edit: David Hebblethwaite reviewed this for Strange Horizons. His review is here.