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Sunday, 16 October 2016 12:01

My European Bookshelf: Chinua Achebe to Tomáš Zmeškal

Written by Lucy Duggan

16438065636 6a14a51f38 zPhoto: Michqel D Beckwith (Flickr); Licence CC0 1.0 

What is Europe? Is Europe more a geographical, cultural, political or economic concept? What defines the European identity? These are all questions E&M has pondered from the very beginning, and over the years we’ve come up with many very different answers. Indeed, our vision of what Europe is and should be is influenced by many factors. With this new regular feature, My European Bookshelf, we wanted to consider one of those factors: literature. In this space, E&M has invited young Europeans to share the books that have shaped their understanding and perception of Europe. 

 hoert eins tumben wîbes rât,

schônt der gotes hantgetât.

ein heiden was der êrste man

den got machen began.

...

wir wârn doch alle heidnisch ê.

Heed the advice of a foolish woman, spare the creatures of God’s hand! The first man God made was a heathen! [...] After all, we were all heathens once.

Willehalm, Wolfram von Eschenbach 

Who belongs to Europe? Who is included in “European identity”, and who is allowed to join the debate about what it means to be European?

I didn’t ask myself these questions ten years ago, when I first began to define myself as “European” rather than “British”. I was too excited to have found a label that felt comfortable, an idea I could wear with pride. I felt much happier in multilingual spaces than I had in my schooldays: to me, the Britain where I grew up seemed to be monolingual, insular, and strangely nostalgic for the Second World War. Spending time with young people from other European countries, I felt free to create my own blended self from the new words, thoughts and perspectives I found.

Lately, though, my feelings about European identity have become much more ambivalent. I have begun to be more aware of the voices which are often excluded when we talk about European identity. When I look at my bookshelves and think about what I’ve read in the last few years, a few novels catch my eye which have encouraged me to question the ideal of Europe.

Willehalm, by Wolfram von Eschenbach. Written in the early thirteenth century, this epic poem in Middle High German describes the religious war between Christians and Muslims in France and Spain around the year 800; its hero is based on William of Gellone. Reading the poem at university, I remember my tutor saying that until 9/11, her students found the subject matter of crusading poems bizarre and difficult to relate to. Following the attack on the World Trade Centre and the outbreak of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, anti-Muslim rhetoric became so common that the triumphant descriptions of Christians killing “heathens” in works like the Chanson de Roland no longer seemed so odd.

What makes Wolfram’s Willehalm special, both in its original context and in the present day, is the fact that its most powerful speeches are made by a female convert, Gyburc, who was born a “heathen” but became Willehalm’s wife. She exhorts the Christian soldiers to treat their enemies mercifully, using biblical examples to question their assumptions about what it means to be “heidnisch”. Willehalm breaks the mould of the crusading epic, by giving a voice to those who seem to be the enemy, and by pleading for more tolerance.

Životopis černobílého jehněte (‘The Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb’), by Tomáš Zmeškal. Vašek and Lucie are twins growing up in 1970s Czechoslovakia. As mixed-race kids, they stand out in Prague – and they use this to play pranks, wandering around Prague Castle with tour groups and pretending to be foreign. Later, they each begin to realise how difficult it is for them to live freely in a society which is not only authoritarian, but also suffused with racism. In one of my favourite scenes, Lucie works at a summer camp for Roma kids, and starts to feel that she belongs – though a visiting official is appalled to see that a non-white woman has been put in charge. Zmeškal himself is of mixed Czech and Congolese origin. His first book, Love Letter in Cuneiform, has now been translated into English.

9343011030 8c3bc3fd79 zPhoto: master_xpo (Flickr); Licence CC BY 2.0

Things Fall Apart, No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God, by Chinua Achebe. When we think about Europe, it doesn’t make sense to ignore the difficult relationships between European countries and their former colonies. But all to often, we’re so busy patting ourselves on the back for securing peace and prosperity within Europe that we forget what we have done to the rest of the world. This thoughtlessness can have embarrassing results – like this cringeworthy ad for European unity, which implies that non-white people are a violent threat.

Achebe’s three books form a loose trilogy, following three generations of Nigerians and showing the effects of colonisation on their lives. Written in beautiful, measured prose which incorporates Igbo stories and proverbs, the novels open up multiple perspectives, confronting the reader with difficult, stubborn characters for whom there is no easy way out. Things Fall Apart is required reading at schools across the world, but I’m embarrassed to say that it was absent from my reading lists; we didn’t study any texts from former British colonies, other than American literature.

Ali and Nino, by Kurban Said. “Our old town is full of secrets and mysteries, hidden nooks and little alleys. I love these soft night murmurs, the moon over the flat roofs, and the hot quiet afternoons in the mosque’s courtyard with its atmosphere of silent meditation.” Ali and Nino immerses its readers in the Baku of the First World War, where the ancient martial traditions of the old Muslim aristocracy are confronted with the threat of Russian domination. Ali is a Muslim Aserbaijani who falls in love with his schoolfriend, a Christian Georgian girl. Their love story is intensely sad – particularly the moments in which Nino realises that she and Ali cannot understand each other, even though they love one another.

The story of the novel’s authorship is just as intriguing as the book itself: Kurban Said is probably a pseudonym used by Lev Nussimbaum, who was born to a Russian Jewish family in Baku but had to flee many times, crisscrossing Europe. Although he converted to Islam and rejected his Jewish heritage, Nussimbaum never belonged to any of the cultural worlds which the novel describes with such passion.

I am part of a privileged group of young Europeans – I travel easily across borders, I have attended universities in several countries, and my white skin means that I don’t need to worry too much about being accepted wherever I go. Sometimes, I am asked whether I come from Finland or Holland, and I feel flattered. If I looked ‘African’ or ‘Arab’, people might not be so polite. If we young Europeans want to protect the diversity of our continent – which has brought us so many benefits – we need to listen to the people who are treated as outsiders.

Last modified on Sunday, 23 October 2016 13:13

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