Kitsch Meets Kafka
By Helen MarshallNovember 4, 2015
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
WALK INTO practically any souvenir shop in Berlin, and you can buy gleaming plastic bubbles filled with slivers of spray-painted concrete. These fragments of the so-called “Wall of Shame,” as mayor Willy Brandt called it, which divided postwar East Germany from West Germany, have become ubiquitous in recent years, as have larger remnants that stand in city parks and public buildings, proclaiming splashy messages of peace and freedom. For less than $10, you too can own a piece of history. There is something inherently absurd about both the attempt to divide a city in half for nearly 30 years by means of permanent barrier and the growth of a tourist industry based on the sale of its relics. But as the 20th century has proven in spades, history is full of such absurdities.
It is Dave Hutchinson’s sensitivity to these sorts of absurdities — both of geopolitics and kitsch! — that animates Europe at Midnight, his eagerly anticipated follow-up to Europe in Autumn, a novel short-listed for both the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award earlier this year. These two books invite readers to explore a Kafkaesque alternate future as slyly warped as it is meticulously constructed. In the wake of a global economic collapse, the outbreak of a devastating Xian Flu pandemic, and the collapse of the EU, Europe has disintegrated into chaos with countries splintering into a thousand nation-states:
The Continent was alive with Romanov heirs and Habsburg heirs and Grimaldi heirs and Saxe-Coburg Gotha heirs and heirs of families nobody had ever heard of who had been dispossessed sometime back in the fifteenth century, all of them seeking to set up their own pocket nations. They found they had to compete with thousands of microethnic groups who suddenly wanted European homelands as well, and religious groups, and Communists, and Fascists, and U2 fans.
In Europe in Autumn, we follow the Estonian cook, Rudi, through his recruitment into “Les Coureurs des Bois,” an organization of entrepreneurial smugglers capable of slipping across the ever-changing borders of these micro-territories. With little to rely upon beyond a basic knowledge of 20th-century spy thrillers, Rudi learns what it takes to thrive in this strange new world, a world that Hutchinson convincingly renders with the boisterous energy of Ian Fleming and the bureaucratic surreality of the The Trial. Beaten and tortured, kidnapped, double-crossed, and generally ill-treated, Rudi traverses the Continent from Krakow to Berlin. Little does he know that he has become a pawn in the schemes of those seeking to suppress a secret that would change the world forever: the existence of a pocket universe accidentally created by a group of obsessed English landowners.
As the attention it has already received announces, Europe in Autumn is one of the most sophisticated science fiction novels of the decade: a tour-de-force debut, pacey, startlingly prescient, and possessed of a lively wit that never fails to convince and charm its readers. When approaching its follow-up, I felt both nervous and excited. Would Hutchinson be able to pull off the same magic a second time? The answer is undoubtedly yes. Europe at Midnight is pitch-perfect, bursting with the same charisma and intricate world-building as its predecessor.
Europe at Midnight abandons Rudi to his own devices in order to focus on Jim, a British intelligence officer who becomes accidentally embroiled in transdimensional politics after a routine investigation reveals more than he expected. The origins of the threat can be traced to the beginning of the 19th century, when a family of English landowning gentry — called the Whitton-Whytes — took to mapmaking, copying Ordnance Survey maps, stealing data, and bribing surveyors, all in service to a peculiar hoax: the documentation of the growth of Stanhurst, a fictional village located west of London in an imaginary county called Ernshire. Except, as it turns out, Ernshire isn’t imaginary at all. It is up to Jim and his band of “Twilight Zone department of the Service” to suss out what kind of threat this shadowy region poses to England and the world — all with the help of an asylum seeker from Ernshire’s own pocket dimension.
Reading Europe at Midnight is a little like unlocking an insane Matryoshka doll. Each layer is exquisitely crafted on the surface, but it never fails to give way to an even more outlandish layer beneath. And like the Matroshka doll, every aspect of his world is invested with a glorious sense of kitsch. Take, for example, the “pork gun”: a vat-grown weapon that fires ammunition made of bone. Its conventional name — the Cronenberg pistol — is a sly nod to the Canadian filmmaker’s cult classic, eXistenZ (1999). Equally irreverent is Hutchinson’s extrapolation of the Eurovision Song Contest — perhaps the single kitschiest of Europe’s traditions! — in which participating countries submit original songs to be performed on television and subsequently cast votes to decide on the winner. The novel’s alternate reality offers a staggering tally of 532 entries:
In its own way, Eurovision was as good a reflector of the current state of the Continent as many Foreign Office briefings Jim had read during his career. Countries, polities, nations, sovereign states, principalities, all wanted to take part — the sundered wreckage of Ukraine and Moldova alone accounted for seventeen national entries — and one could analyse the voting patterns of the various national juries and sometimes see geopolitical trends developing. It was now almost fifty years since England — the United Kingdom, as then was — had won.
Half of the fun of reading Europe at Midnight comes from the almost guidebook sketches of these bizarre polities. For example: Dresden, a major site of intrigue in the novel, is reimagined as the wealthy but dysfunctional city-state of Dresden-Neustadt after its well-off inhabitants secede from Greater Germany by sealing themselves beyond an impenetrable, guarded wall:
One night, Dresden experienced the thunder of hundreds of heavy transporter engines arriving from all points of the compass, delivering thousands of tonnes of prefab fencing, machinery, and a small army of workmen, attending the workmen as they began to erect temporary barriers across every road and street were seemingly hundreds of thousands of armed security consultants. It was as if this little corner of Germany had suddenly come under invasion from a heavily-armed corporation of civil engines […] By the next morning, all roads in and out of a large part of the city had been barricaded, and a huge arc around the town had been enclosed with flimsy metal fencing. Three days later the outline of what would become the wall of Dresden-Neustadt was complete.
As farfetched as such a state sounds, it has precedents. In 1934, a similar wall was erected in Oxford by Clive Saxton of the Urban Housing Company, dividing the Cutteslowe estate from the poorer, private housing to the west. A petition was raised in protest, but four years later, when the Cutteslowe Wall was demolished by a steamroller, a successful lawsuit forced the City Council to rebuild it. The barrier survived various disasters, including a collision with a misguided tank that accidentally drove through it on a training exercise. It was not until 1959 that Councillor Edmund Gibbs was able to drive a ceremonial pickaxe through the barrier after having first purchased the land on which it stood. Truth, it seems, is often as strange as fiction.
The creation of Dresden-Neustadt also shows off the very human practicalities of such grand political gestures. After all, the urban planners responsible for the wall manage to get everything right, except for the sewers. “They think about security,” remarks the sanitation expert-cum-smuggler, Rolf Müller, “they think about cementing grilles across the main connections with the rest of Dresden […] But nobody worries about what will happen when the tunnels deteriorate or become blocked.” Apparently, it’s easy enough to be an upstanding Neustadter — up until the toilets stop flushing. Here, too, Hutchinson may well have been riffing on postwar Berlin. Although a wall may have separated the East from the West on the surface, the infrastructure and public transit networks, which had served the entire city, were still remarkably difficult to untangle. The existence of U-bahn ghost stations, bricked off and guarded from the public, led to a number of bizarre border-crossing attempts, but none, as far as I know, required wading waist-deep through rivers of raw sewage.
Europe at Midnight is high-powered fiction of the cleverest sort, mining the rich vein opened up by Philip K. Dick’s classic The Man in the High Castle as well as Lavie Tidhar’s provocative new novel A Man Lies Dreaming. Hutchinson’s keen sense of irony and his sheer imaginative exuberance set him apart from the recent wave of dystopian authors presenting ever bleaker visions of the future. He does more than simply expose the danger that Europe’s cultural and political divisiveness represents; he revels in the potential it offers for literary play. His riff on the Cold War–style spy thrillers of John le Carré comes across as remarkably current, and therein lies his greatest trick: reminding his readers that the specters of the political past continue to haunt us, as much in the guise of potential tragedy as colorful kitsch.
Helen Marshall is a critically acclaimed author and editor. Her collections of short stories have won the World Fantasy Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer. Her debut novel Everything that is Born will be released by Random House Canada in 2018.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"Sing Me Your Scars" is not always a pleasant read. It's hard not to squirm as the women in these stories are crucified, stabbed, beaten, bruised, and incised....
"Aurora" and "Seveneves" break us out of our supremely well-rehearsed habit of apocalypse and let us see the option of a different future than permanent, hopeless standoff....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.