To think about Europe is to think about the thorny old issue of longing and belonging; nostalgia, homesickness, exile, migration and community. To think about Europe is to make sweeping statements, often about history and philosophy. ‘No other continent’, we may begin, or ‘The European Enlightenment tradition’, or ‘Our values’. But if history and anthropology teach us anything, it is that few cultural traditions properly belong to one place – people have traded stories since time immemorial, and still do; good stories and bad, merging and re-emerging. And yet places have themes, particular melodies and phrases and rhythms that are curiously durable.
We asked a number of European writers to select, and (briefly) reflect on, a quote about Europe. We were curious about what writers like Orhan Pamuk or Ludmila Ulitskaya might choose – who would our contributors turn to when asked to think about ‘Europe’, and what do they make of our continent, now? Tellingly, with one exception – Marie Darrieussecq, who quoted National Geographic – the quotes are steeped in history. Our authors evoked the great (male) canon: Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Blake, Bertolt Brecht, Joseph Conrad, Albert Camus. The quotes speak broadly to the darkness of Europe’s history, not its freedoms and affluence: ‘What times are these, in which / A conversation about trees is almost a crime’ (Brecht, 1939). Some are defiant – ‘Our Europe is a shared adventure which we will continue to pursue, despite you, in the wind of intelligence’ (Camus, Letters to a German Friend, 1944) – others caustic: ‘Well then, eliminate the people, curtail them, force them to be silent. Because the European Enlightenment is more important than people’ (Dostoevsky).
Europe’s song, it seemed to me reading these pieces, is set to music of grandiosity and lament, hubris and guilt. The weight of history binds us. Even Marie Darrieussecq turns mournful in her piece. There is a Europe of death and a Europe of life, she writes. Mass graves, bloodstained snow, sublime forests, there you have it. History divides ‘Europe’ from ‘Britain’, these symbolic entities of shifting borders.
That atmosphere remains in the longer texts, too. Thus William Atkins follows in Chekhov’s footsteps to the Russian island Sakhalin north of Japan, a penal colony of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. What is that neglected land like now? This is beyond the edge of Europe, a place whose Indigenous people, the Nivkh, have been marginalised for so long that they are nearly forgotten.
Katherine Angel writes about the attempt to decolonise a Belgian museum – the Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale. The most racist objects in the museum, including the Leopard Man (see illustration in the text), are now regarded as hors-jeu – out of play – and gathered in a special room. But Angel’s essay is also about her ambiguous relationship with London, where she lives and works. She ends with a quote from Günther Anders, the German-Jewish philosopher. He was born Stern, but published under the name Anders, a Nordic-sounding name and also the word for ‘other’, or ‘different’, in German. Günther Stern was Walter Benjamin’s cousin, and at one time Hannah Arendt’s husband. He fled to France, and then the US, returning to Europe (Vienna) in 1950. ‘Each of us knows that our mother is mortal, none of us knows that our home is mortal’, he wrote.
The Holocaust haunts us. British cultural historian Lara Feigel describes a long-ago visit to her Belgian grandmother, a survivor of Birkenau, who had cut herself off from the family of her eldest son, Feigel’s father, after he married out. Feigel reflects on an old diary entry describing the visit and the (almost) lost Jewish heritage of her family.
Joseph Leo Koerner, an eminent American art historian, travels with his children to the Nazi site of mass murder on the outskirts of Minsk in Belarus. His Viennese paternal grandparents were killed there, buried in a mass grave. Koerner explores a complex familial resistance to the painful question of what, exactly, happened to them. They were gone, deported and killed, no one knew where. He recalls childhood summers in Vienna, where his artist father compulsively painted street and landscape scenes; prolonged and unarticulated rituals of grief. The text is illustrated with one of Henry Koerner’s paintings; an interior of his childhood home. A thread, a surreal element, unwinds like a spider’s web from the ball of yarn on the table to the lamp above his mother’s hands. The stillness of the scene, the association to cobwebs, speaks of death and loss. There is another image in the piece: a poster, dating from 1941, showing the deportation (‘emigration’) of Austria’s Jews – other threads winding their way from Vienna to the complex of Nazi camps and killing fields.
The story of the Holocaust is also the story of failed asylum systems. We live with that legacy still. Ulf Karl Olov Nilsson, a Swedish psychoanalyst and poet, writes about his work on a psychiatric ward. A young woman from an unnamed African country has been denied asylum after a linguistic assessment cast doubt on her national origin. She is now almost catatonic. Nilsson eventually got her to speak: she revealed that she had witnessed several members of her family being killed, after which she was imprisoned in a cellar, where she was repeatedly raped. This essay, a chapter from his book Glömskans bibliotek ( The Library of Oblivion), is concerned with the paralysed silence at the heart of trauma and the obscenity, in that context, of interrogating asylum claims on behalf of the state.
And yet of course the work of assessing, recording and interrogating acts of violence has to be done. We can’t approve legal claims without due process; there is no restorative justice without investigations. Without that, we have no history and no analysis, only laments: eulogies for the dead and wounded. But interrogating trauma has to be done with compassion and respect, a delicate balancing act between emotions and facts and context. Somewhere in-between is the truth. Somewhere in-between is the story, or at least the European story.
Brexit note: I apologise in advance if this issue reaches you later than normal. We have printed Granta in Italy for many years now, transporting it across open borders – good luck with that, someone said. Good luck indeed.
We all know that our mother is mortal, none of us knows that our home is mortal.