Maureen Kincaid Speller has already written THE review of Hutchinson’s brilliant novel. This is more a set of random, inconsequential (babbling) thoughts!
I tried to read Europe in Autumn at the start of the year, after a barren autumn of reading, and it didn’t click. Returning to it after two months of solid, day in, day out reading was a very different experience. I felt rewarded for my concentration. It’s not exactly the most propulsive narrative – I had no urge to read it quickly in a day. Rather there is an accumulation of detail and the very pleasant feeling throughout that the text is never telling you what to think – instead there is much for the reader to question, ponder and work out for themselves. The backdrop of a slightly future, slightly alternative Europe, splitting into ever smaller states, with its citizens condemned to a world of borders and bureaucracy, corruption and criminality – but surviving, and sometimes thriving nonetheless - is brilliantly realised. AND, may I say, about 200 pages in I suddenly sat up and realized what a WEIRD book it is and how much it was making me smile. How good is that? Answer – VERY good!
The novel does several things particularly well. First of all it doesn’t tell us too much. This might sound like a useless compliment but trust me, it ain’t! We get dropped into the story. Rudi is a hard-working chef living in Krakow who is approached by a local Mafioso to travel to a nearby state to deliver a message. Rudi is successful and is then trained up to become a Coureur – a courier and spy in order to cross borders and dodge intelligence agents. Why does he choose to work for the coureurs? Are they the good guys or just more bad guys? Is that even the right question? The text is intriguingly contradictory. There is the sense that Hutchinson is figuring them as anarchistic democrats and freedom fighters, overcoming the stupidity of borders and bureaucracy to deliver information that would otherwise be clocked by governments and corporations. Yet Rudi sees murder, mayhem and intrigue on his adventures. On one he retrieves a suitcase that is metaphorically, and literally, hot. Does it contain something dangerous? Presumably, but Rudi delivers it anyway. On one level it’s the logic of what I don’t know can’t hurt me but Rudi’s doggedness and, increasingly, we hope, his idealism, is very appealing.
Rudi has very little control over the events that take over his life. His main characteristics seem to be his obstinacy and his easy-going nature. In his youth Rudi seems powered by his enthusiasm and passion for food – a chance discovery that he follows up with determination and commitment. Yet in the main body of the text, to begin with at least, he goes with the flow, seemingly without much thought or direction. I’m not sure there are any easy answers to the question of ‘character’ in Hutchinson’s novel or even whether it is one of the main preoccupations of the text. It worries at me though, is there a critique of common sense beliefs about identity here or a more general comment about what the life of a spy would do to one’s sense of self. Throughout people get trapped in their worlds and in their (real life) contradictions, wear masks or keep rigidly to their idea of themselves. Not sure!
Other reviewers have mentioned Kafka, something I’m loathed to do as he is invoked too regularly, but I can see why. There is a disorientating complexity to Hutchinson’s Europe and a sly humour deftly secreted throughout. You can see it too in a quiet sense of the absurd, of farce even, which surfaces from time to time. There is a moment halfway through when Rudi is abducted by the SAS that gave me a brief but very pleasant Gilliamesque rush. It’s even more surreal when he wakes up! Otherwise I was reminded of Orhan Pamuk rather than Le Carre or Furst – something to do with the mystery and history of cities and a playfulness too. Europe in Autumn then is one part sci-fi, two parts espionage thriller, one part surrealist puzzle….and one part something I can’t really describe. Good quality pulp? Unpretentious intellectualism? Understated sophistication? Lolz, I’ve been puzzling over it for days and I still can’t find the right words. It’s a good thing though whatever it is – I felt myself thinking of comics, especially the old 2000AD of my youth – something to do with that amazing accretion of detail, an abundance of ideas and a desire to be a good witness to the world’s shenanigans.
Europe in Autumn is also really good at posing questions around nationalism. For many of us nation and nationalism are just there, a huge part of our identity - history, memory and common sense - but of course they are constructions, used ideologically to divide and rule and to create bonds that don’t exist naturally. Historically there is another trend too – the nationalist movements that fought, often heroically, against against colonial and imperialist oppressors. For those of us deeply suspicious of any nationalist sentiments the recent Scottish referendum was a lesson in remaining open-minded and guarding against conservatism – such movements can obviously still be a useful tool for activists organizing against the excesses of neo-liberalism and imperialism, whatever its limits and whatever the illusions those activists still hold on to.
Hutchinson taps into this brilliantly. Rudi’s father, enraged by the greed of the Estonian state is planning to set up his own small polity. When Rudi confronts him all the contradictions come out – the ingrained stereotypes about one’s own country, the anger at foreign investors and the loss of the land to privatisation and ‘progress’, the political machinations to undo and undermine a movement and the disregard for the violence that might follow when people have decided on “No compromise. No surrender”. Throughout, characters use racial and national stereotypes to describe others, and think of themselves in those terms too. Maybe that’s the way of the world anyway and I’m just too idealistic to want to believe it’s true.
Which brings me to my last point, Europe in Autumn feels somehow a warning against idealism – we must live in the world in all its grisly, mundane entirety – because of course it holds out compensations too. Yet, the novel also gives us the slightest possibility of a better world. Whether it will turn out to be a poor kind of escape, we might find out in the novels to come. Europe at Midnight is out in the autumn: can’t wait.