Europe, Europe by Hans Magnus Enzensberger - review by Matt Seaton

Matt Seaton

Going Down the Drain

Europe, Europe


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In Europe, Europe Hans Magnus Enzensberger, renowned poet, essayist, journalist and dramatist, has turned his hand to a type of protracted travel-writing. His pen-portraits avoid the ‘great powers’ of Europe, dwelling instead on the satellite countries and giving an impression of a lumpen Occidental under-class which strikes a resounding note of discord with the ‘white-heat’ optimisms of the Single Market’s more fanatical supporters. Enzensberger finds a widespread disaffection with bankrupt regimes and an apparently universal alienation from politics and ideology – a common prognosis of post-Modernism. Like all tourists he discovers more a reflection of himself and his brand of enlightened cynicism, than any absolute or essential truth about Europe.

Enzensberger’s Europe then is a fragmented continent whose imminent union appears like an ill-judged practical joke. Instead of progress or evolution, albeit uneven and limited, this Europe’s past and future are marked by decay, muddle and compromise. For a piece of writing which is impressionistic, full of episodes, anecdotes and chunks of conversation, Europe, Europe is unexpectedly polemical in this respect, and it is easy to be lulled by his laconic, reflective discourses. The first stop is Sweden, back in 1982: the steady, predictable successes of Swedish social democracy are grist to Enzensberger’s intellectual mill. He persuasively points out the sterility of social vision encoded in the over-arching welfare state, and by the end of the visit he has quite systematically dismantled the basis of the hegemonic social-democrats’ complacency, predicting an awakening of Sweden’s somnambulant social life.

He is full of praise, however, for the free-spirited Italians; he finds much to admire in their cheerful, inventive pragmatism in contrast to the plodding north Europeans with their Protestant work ethic, morality and stolid altruism. Enzensberger illustrates many of these questionable generalisations by rehearsing the story of the small-change crisis of the late 1970s, during which bizarre mismanagement led to severe under-production of coins at the national Mint. Before the root cause of the problem was resolved, the government turned a blind eye while everyone from the bankers through to the black-marketeers resorted to innumerable ad hoc measures by which everything from Monopoly money to sweets became legal tender. Enzensberger wrings out each drop of social symbolism from this unlikely story to reinforce his view that the ‘Italian paradigm’ of anarchic opportunism, in which it makes no ultimate difference whether you are a member of the Communist Party or the Camorra, prefigures much of the ‘United States of Europe’s’ future development.

The move to Hungary provides another dramatic contrast: from the Italians’ chaotic dynamism to the Hungarians’ slow retreat from Stalinism. Enzensberger, a refugee from a decisively non-Communist New Left, brings all the vitriolic potential of his writing to bear on his memorable portrait of the Party newspaper editor – ‘the last of the mohicans’ as the piece is captioned. Enzensberger’s scorn for the shortcomings of the Swedish social democrats is like a gentle admonition beside his contempt for this functionary-intellectual fighting a pointless ideological rearguard action. Hungary, as reported by this sardonic and unsentimental guide, is a grim and dismal place – its human resources ground-down and apathetic. There is little sense of the positive side to the people’s distrust of government and aversion to ideology – the blunt resistance of ordinary people, deflecting all attempts at social engineering, which Enzensberger finds so appealing and hopeful in the Portuguese.

In his meandering journey through the backwaters of Europe, picking his way through the debris of capitalist exploitation and Communist re-education, it is in people’s peasant-like, pre-political stoicism and stubbornness that Enzensberger locates some hope for the future. This could not even be described as a ‘democratic instinct or sentiment’: he would reject this as, already, a construct of political rhetoric and therefore subject to deformation and corruption by those who have something to gain from advocating ‘democracy’. Enzensberger is a man who carries a large supply of shattered illusions and broken promises in his intellectual hand luggage. His vision of the everyday folk as a kind of impervious bedrock nevertheless expresses an understated solidarity with their ways of life, customs and cultural identities which continue oblivious to the ravages of history (particularly as perpetrated by their rulers and representatives). This fragment of romantic identification recalls his own generous tribute to André Gide in the excellent essay ‘Tourists of the Revolution’, in Dreamers of the Absolute (also published by Radius), which is a superbly researched critique both of the literature, and the conditions that gave rise to it, by visitors to the Soviet Union after 1917. ‘This solidarity with the Russian workers and farmers,’ he writes, ‘is what distinguishes Gide’s report from the tirades of the other disillusioned ones, that separates him once and for all from the anti-Communist filth of the cold war, as well as from the arrogant know-it-all attitude and malicious gleefulness that survives in some writers of the Left to this day’.

By 1986 Enzensberger has reached Poland: the writing was very evidently on the wall for Jaruzelski and Polish Communism – our guide is almost assaulted at a bus-stop for the carelessly anti-social crime of wearing a red scarf (against the cold). He gets into a similar scrape with his own guide, a woman called Jadwiga, who does not appreciate his jibe ‘that in Germany, on the whole, people did not regard Woytila [the Polish Pope] as a competent counsellor on gynaecological matters’: as the poet Tadeusz Rosewicz explains, the susceptibility of the Polish people, intellectuals included, to mysticism and Catholicism is ‘an occupational hazard, like silicosis for the miners’ – both, in their ways, the result of too many four-and-five-year plans with no thought of the human consequences.

After a short stop in Spain, which sees some skillful deployment of the now customary Enzensbergerian scepticism, on the multiplication of centrifugal political movements based on dubious claims to local particularism and ethnic identity, Europe, Europe ends by wreaking a little havoc on the continent’s future with the air of a weary Cassandra who’s seen it all before. Ostensibly our more ingenuous guide for this trip is a reporter for the New Yorker in 2006, but the hand of Enzensberger appears in the interview with the businessman in The Hague: he is making a mint out of auctioning rare clarets in which he’d cannily invested during the nuclear disaster of 1996 that destroyed the entire wine-growing region of Bordeaux, with a proportion of its population. As ever, that ‘Italian spirit’ of cynical opportunism modifies the apocalyptic eco-disaster into a good return on the investment, and Enzensberger gets the last laugh. This is a tough book with bruising hard edges, but it is an immensely provoking, rewarding and at times compelling read. He may have shed much of the political commitment and excitement that colours the pages of Dreamers of the Absolute, but by placing the margins and peripheries of Europe at the centre of his enquiry, Hans Magnus Enzensberger raises some uncomfortable questions about the Europe which is dawning on us.

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