Monday, September 26, 2011

Patrik Ourednik's "Europeana"

Patrik Ourednik's Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century (Dalkey Archive, 2005) is an unusual book. It's not quite a brief history of the 20th century, and it's not quite a novel. However, it does discuss the 20th century, and it is told by an unreliable narrator, who sometimes jumbles disparate topics and misreports events.

In fact, this book is all about the narrator, and the rhetoric of the narrator, which is dispassionate, detached, and more concerned (if we could even say "concerned") with accounting for the century in statistics and numbers than recounting a story of the century. I think it's necessary as well to say "the narrator" rather than "Ourednik" because I don't think that the book provides any clue into Ourednik's own stance on the 20th century until the final sentence of the book. And, if I tell you what that sentence is, it will probably deflate the exercise or experience of reading it. 

And while you are reading it, you are going to wonder why you decided to. For the Europeana century is marked primarily by war, genocide, and body counts. And statistics. The first few sentences set the tone:
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. 
The next 120 pages continue in the same vein--the statistics, the quick leaps between events (in the above, how did we jump from the Second to the First World War?), and detached cynicism. The book is more than a criticism of the idea that human history is a story of progress, it's also a critique--or at least, I think, on the basis of the end of the book that I can't discuss, that it is a critique--of the attempt to "survey" or "look over" history from a standpoint that is able to definitively account for it. As Ourednik states in an interview with Context (also published by Dalkey Archive):
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, in what sense was it redundant, etc.  
Thus it strikes me the book is a critique of its own rhetoric and "expressiveness," an 'auto-reductio ad absurdum' of the attempt to quantify historical change and void the subjectivity of historical agents. Sure, your patience will be tested by the statistics, the body counts, and the repeated references to Nazism (which appears over and over and over in the narrative, sometimes leaving the reader feeling as if nothing happened in 20th century Europe other than World War II). Nevertheless, those final few pages, with their critique of the smug arrogance of late twentieth century chroniclers of political power, are edifying enough to warrant a trip through the 20th century of Europeana.

(See also my review of Ourednik's The Opportune Moment, 1855)

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