This isn’t Europe
- June 22, 2023
- Nicholas Harris
Ben Judah's uneven history of Europe has moments of thrills and revelation. But focusing on the stories of people living and working on the Continent - and beyond - leaves the narrative prone to fragmentation.
It takes a writer of immense ambition to crib the title of Anthony Trollope’s masterpiece for his subtitle. ‘The way we live now’ was the subject of the social-realist novel long before Trollope, and has continued to be so long after sleepy Barsetshire was bulldozed, tower-blocked and ring-roaded. In Ben Judah’s presumably conscious appropriation, we can detect a more profound mission statement. To seize the domain of what Martin Amis called the nineteenth-century ‘superpower novel’ — the novel that is ‘800 pages long, about the whole of society’ — and claim it for journalism.
And forget just the whole of society. As Judah delivers an introductory slap on Europe’s shoulder and announces ‘this is…’ we realise that whole landmasses, entire tectonics are within his purview. His last book (This Is London, to which this is something of a sequel) had a tight thesis. London changed dramatically within the two decades Judah had lived there, primarily due to the rapid rise of multiculturalism. And this migrant megacity, he rightly identified, required the fresh and probing literary treatment he gave it. This Is Europe misses such occasion or argument. By turns revelatory, thrilling, boring and baffling, Judah’s history of the present is necessarily uneven. In trying to gather up his vast subject — this ‘continent of seven hundred and forty-eight million people’ as he reminds us in his opening lines — he drops as much as he carries.
This Is Europe is, first and foremost, an epic work of assiduous and empathetic reportage. It takes the form of 23 social vignettes, interspersed with the monochrome, Sebaldian photography that was scattered through his London book (though there are more here). Each chapter is named for a town or city, and each focuses upon a specific individual, sometimes telling their life-in-a-day, sometimes a more concerted narrative (the progress of a refugee; the flight of a political dissident). And we are told at the end that these were constructed through hours of interviews with the subjects, later retold and cross-checked, as well as that the photographs are almost all Judah’s or theirs. His research, labour and (judging from the confessional, confiding details that suffuse his stories) his sympathetic world-curiosity, cannot be doubted.
We open promisingly, after the briefest preludial spiel, in Rotterdam. Jelle is one of the pilots who guides container ships into the port, which serves as Europe’s economic mouth. This chapter sets the tone: we hear Jelle’s story retold by Judah, with his direct quotations suitably marked and his thoughts italicised. And, approaching the lights of Europe by sea, we can also begin to make out our author’s preoccupations. Jelle is stranded between worlds. His job has unpredictable hours (we see him fretting over whether to bother to sleep when he is on call). He interacts with people of different languages and nationalities every day. He is ambivalent about his part in the Continent-wide economic churn. This is Jelle:
And then I think I’m on this huge cargo ship carrying 10,000 containers. And then I suddenly think … What rubbish is actually in these containers? Toys. TVs. Chairs. Tables. Bicycles. Shampoo. Only rubbish. Plastic American or Chinese rubbish.
It’s a mesmerising opening, one of the most successful chapters in the book. And it seems to indicate a geographical-narrative route forward. Safely arrived in Rotterdam we might proceed upriver — or around Europe’s shore? Instead, though, we teleport haphazardly around the Continent (and well outside it) bouncing from Hungary to Siberia to sub-Saharan Africa and back to County Cork via the south of France.
Over time, thematic patterns emerge. Judah is interested in the great migrations of the twenty-first century, and its new economic and cultural nomads. Like Ionut, the Romanian lorry driver who winds through Europe from Bucharest to the M1, lost in the borderless nether of Schengen. He likes intercontinental romances — the anodyne how-we-met behind Turkish Sezen’s marriage to German Andi has little momentum beyond its happy ending. Judah can hardly be accused of sentimentality. This Is London displayed a marked interest in underworlds, and here he turns his eye to the digital subterranean, producing a pair of deft dispatches from ville d’Houellebecq. There’s Ibrahim, the Syrian refugee turned prolific pornstar, and the harrowing story of Nora, a Latvian teenager forced into cam-girling to pay for school.
These searching chapters are always greater than the sum of their parts. Judah tells us at the end that he wanted to avoid anything like the cohesiveness of a ‘travel book’ or a study of ‘political systems’. He would focus instead upon the ‘lived Europe’ of ‘people’ and ‘impressions’. But an intentionally scattered book is scattered nonetheless. And this fragmentation is not even the book’s most glaring formal choice, which is its absentee author. Judah has conducted a chastening stylistic retreat since This Is London, with its impressionistic street scenes, its prose-poetry effects, its axial ‘I’ with his handy notebook. He has packed away such ornaments, and instead adopted a rhythm of jagged transparency. Here, he writes in telegrammatic starts, short simple sentences of prodding minimalism. These are the thought-processes of Jean-Marc, a French winemaker:
The words hung there for a moment. Heavy. He was right. That was what pulled the trigger.
This writing indicates; it doesn’t impose. This is closest we get to florid, in the hills of Portugal:
There is a purple light. Where the sun was, bands of fading red. Darkness falls. You can hear the insects sing. Candles are lit.
Judah is unwilling to flex the more successful high style he previously deployed. The intention is to subordinate his voice to his subjects’, reducing the writer to little more than verbal conduit. The effect is one of flat voicelessness, and the rendering closer to that of a promising screenplay awaiting its actors.
This stylistic flaw is indicative of the book’s beating paradox. Judah wanted to write a kaleidoscope, allowing the shards of Europe to speak for themselves between his hard covers. Despite its author’s descent into anonymity, this isn’t Europe. It’s his Europe, edited and selected by Ben Judah. His choices — and most fundamentally his choice to turn Europe into a descriptive rather than intellectual or cultural phenomenon — govern the text we read. The nineteenth-century novelist would take it as their job to gather these disparate threads and knot them into a narratological cat’s cradle, tightening and deepening with every page. Judah lets them hang disparate and loose.
Is it possible to write a book titled This Is Europe in a purely descriptive mode? Judah clearly feels the weight of European history behind him — he has referred to witnessing Hegel’s ‘world spirit’ on his travels. And his writing is a welcome rejoinder to the geopolitical ‘smart thinking’ industry. An injunction to re-centre the human, to get up from the desk and inspect the living, breathing, panting, gasping Continent. Where can Judah really take us, what can he introduce us to, when he is barely there? He has soberly, astutely inspected some of Europe’s most telling edges and vertices, but he has not grappled with its centre, its heart. In fairness to Judah, is it possible to write a book titled This Is Europe that won’t invite the response: ‘Is that it?’