Premature Evaluation: In Europe

Less than 10 percent of the way into the book (to be fair, my edition weighs in at just under 900 pages), I’m liking In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak a great deal, and looking forward to the rest.

In 1999, Mak was commissioned by a Dutch newspaper to travel around the continent at the cusp of the new millennium, and to take stock of both the present — particularly with enlargement of the European Union in mind — and the century just passing. In Europa was published in the Netherlands in 2004, and an English paperback edition came out in 2008.

So far, I most like the specificity. This is a clear advantage of having newspaper writing as a source material. He spoke with a specific person in a specific place who said one particular thing. From Paris:

At Opéra metro station I start a conversation with Pierre Maillot. With his grey beard and plain spectacles, he is standing in one of the corridors holding a tin can and a cardboard sign: ‘I beg your forgiveness. But I am hungry.’ This is how he earns about a hundred francs (roughly fifteen euros) a day, enough for a bed and a lonely meal with a quarter-litre of wine. The older people are generous, but the young ones tease him. ‘I have my only friend right here with me,’ he says, reaching into his inside pocket and pulling out a bible with a red plastic cover. Then he tells me a complicated story about prison, a divorce, problems inside his head, vanished unemployment benefits and other vagaries of a man’s life.

The art, of course, is in choosing the stories, and in the narration in between. Mak seems to have plenty of art.

I’m also not looking for new theses about the sweep of the twentieth century, though if he has some, I will surely be interested. It’s the details that I think will be interesting; how do his views (from roughly my parents’ generation) fit with the picture of Europe that I’ve built up? So far, so good.

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