Contemporary Czech Prose Writers

Patrik Ourednik's Europeana: a satire of the 20th Century?
Patrik Ouredník's slim volume Europeana, subtitled A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, was voted Book of 2001 in Lidové novinys poll. Read critical reaction to the book by scrolling down.

This review, by Viktor Slajchrt, was first published in Respekt (18.02.2002).

Patrik Ouredník's Europeana defies categorization. At first glance, it gives the impression of disjointed excerpts from the author's reading furnished with comments and modest commentaries. These might serve as a basis for a lucid essay on the recent past in the spirit of the mediaeval chroniclers who interspersed their accounts of real events with invented stories, wondrous statements by miraculous sages, obscure teachings and religious doctrines, and unverifiable hearsay. But Ouredník doesn't even respect the procedures of the old chronicler and refuses to string the events he refers to onto a time axis, allowing them instead to wander freely through the space of the entire century like liberated atoms touching each other, disappearing and returning, colliding and fusing no distinction being made in terms of importance. The invention of the brassiere is ranked equally with the discovery of nuclear fission.

The apparently spontaneous testimony is reminiscent of Uncle Pepin's monologues in Hrabal's 'Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age'. However, the narrator of Europeana is no rhetoricist rambling on in orgies of endless self-expression. There is not the slightest hint of his involvement in events and he is present solely in the tone of the language; we simply sense him, which makes his desperate irony all the more poignant. Apparently devoid of composition, the text achieves its effect by a discreet construction principle akin to Kolár's 'rollages', where two pictorial reproductions cut up into narrow strips blend into each another. Ouredník has 'cut into strips' two basic thematic levels. The first of them consists of information about the frightful brutality of wars and revolutions, the collaboration of science and technology with evil, bizarre games with liberated sex, the misrepresentation of reality by the media, the madness of redemptive utopias, and other phenomena associated with human hysteria. The second basic 'picture' consists of an outline of various intellectual theories that Ouredník denudes of their speculative magic by re-formulating them laconically and laying bare their foundations, which often betray emptiness, confusion or sterile striving for effect. The result of this blending of the two worlds is a grim burlesque, in which the picture of life in the mirror of intellectual interpretation appears even paltrier than in the first place.

Europeana may be seen as an attempt to cleanse social memory. The author has created a narrator who has broken free from all particular loyalties, knee-jerk attitudes and adopted standpoints in order to relate afresh the general experience of the twentieth century. To a certain extent the reader shares that reality with him, knowing it from school, the press, books and TV documentaries, and one would think that its narrator would need some unusual opinion or provocatively sharpened attitude to draw attention. But that would run counter to the sense of the text, in which striving for a sharpening of attitude and a radical departure from common sense appears as one of the main causes of the tragic events. Instead, the author places the narrator in the position of a kind of Martian, approaching human history with the detachment of an impartial researcher, whereby the reader is enabled to view notoriously well-known events as if for the first time. Fresh light is also shone on them by placing them in unexpected contexts and providing revealing, though maybe fictitious detail.

European integration has been accompanied by intense efforts to replace traditional national historiography with the image of a shared history. Everything that divided the European nations in the past and led to conflict ought to take a back seat and allow the common features of a supranational European identity to assert itself. Over the centuries, many nations were encumbered with countless faults, each of them was guilty of war, genocide, enslavement of the defenceless and looting of weaker neighbours. In the relaxed climate of the new Europe, however, past transgressions cancel each other out and any remaining incongruities will be eliminated adminstratively after careful discussion in Brussels. Once more a splendid future awaits us, but we must come to terms with the past and call things by their proper names before putting it all behind us like so much useless junk. Who wouldn't be ready to assist in the achievement of such a hopeful vision? Only a dyed-in-the-wool prophet of doom, perhaps. Ouredník does not adopt a categorical attitude. His Europeana can be seen as Euro-optimistic or Eurosceptical. The text provides plenty of instances where bestiality resulted from the pursuit of national aims, but also demonstrates the frightful outcome of messianic ideologies and the pursuit of radical change with the help of various universal panaceas. The narrator does not join the chorus of enthusiasts who sing the praises of Europe as a delightful maiden. So far he tends to see it as an old Beast that Beauty can be enthralled by, but need not be. The book's message is a warning: even if Europe looks good in its new outfit, caution is imperative.

Europeana: what the critics said

'An exhaustive history of 20th-century Europe in a 126-page paperback? With one of the most enigmatic figures of contemporary Czech literature nothing is out of the question.'

Ondrej Bezr, Rock & Pop

'With unflagging irony, Ouredník lays bare the pettiness, infantility, cruelty and perversity of the last century in Europe.'

Marcel Kabát, Lidové noviny

Real literature is not concerned with the ceremonial march of history but instead the blows and kicks meted out to individuals in the course of that march... Ouredník's book proves that literature's chances aren't entirely lost yet.

Jirí Penás, Týden

'For the first time in ages I have been enraptured by a book. It has a depth and style that is utterly unpretentious.'

Jirí Grusa, Právo

'Every event, every sentence and virtually almost every word of Ouredník's Europeana is lit up from many sides. Europeana is actually a novel par excellence, albeit without any unifying hero or traditional story line.

Jaroslav Richter, Souvislosti

'Ouredník has skilfully managed to relativize the entire frenzied history of the last century believed by many to have been a major step forward for human civilisation.

Ivan Matejka, Hospodárské noviny

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