We are going to meet time as it seeks us”, so an epigraph from Shakespeare opened that wonderful autobiography on Europe and its time that Zweig wrote and published posthumously: The world of yesterday. Memories of a European. In these days of great distress for the Union, eaten within it by the cancer of populism, in which we are truly sought after by the dark times, Zweig often came to my mind: his tragic gaze on the twentieth century that would have canceled a world apparently free to the sound of wars, exterminations and deportations.
But how can we today be Europeanists and optimists at the same time? Declaring to be satisfied with what we have arrived at, and also, let’s say if you like, in a low voice, are you proud of a model that has been able to guarantee freedom and well-being to a very large segment of the population, in a way that is unique in human history? Should the writers of my generation, those born around the 1980s, defend this model of peace, which has also coincided with their coming of age, or not? And if so: why this silence? In my opinion, we have before us a good to defend, to criticize, of course, but also to support, beyond our distinct political affiliations, liberals, leftists, centrists, rightists, whatever they may be.
For example, I received with great enthusiasm the news that in this year’s program of the London literary festival organized by Italian writers (the FILL, acronym for “Festival of Italian Literature in London”, and born precisely as a reaction to post-Brexit temperatures ) the Italian Nicola Lagioia and the French Mathias Énard have talked about the fate of the European novel, and not only. There would be more to do than this: talk openly about the state of health of the narration of our European people (full of differences and contrasts), of our physical but also linguistic boundaries, of unexpressed feelings and of those now saturated. But time, to resume again the Shakespeare of Zweig runs towards us with great vigour; and it is an ugly time, difficult to tell, except in a suspended, rhythmic and poetic way, like Ali Smith in his Autumn, always reacting to the post-referendum whirlpool.
The next European elections in May 2019, could be the tombstone of many certainties, the final. And who cares about Juncker and the aged grey bureaucrats, who will always be incomprehensible to most people, with their slides and their monthly reports? I’m talking about freedom (including editorials), rights that are also services guaranteed to the citizen, inclusion policies (perhaps to be reviewed), all those values (the list is long) that gave me being (and then having to be) European, even if only in minimal form. What can we do to avoid the collapse of this model? First of all, tell us about our history today almost forty Europeans.
My first experience “as a European” I could make it coincide with the twenties just completed, in the early 2000s, thanks to the today overused Erasmus experience. My girlfriend was then from nearby Granada, and my adventure was formative and loving together; how all of them should be, if they could, the formative experiences. Starting from the perched Granada, there was a moment when I set about searching for the spectrum of William Burroughs up to Tangiers, passing through Gibraltar and the restless cities of Ceuta and Melilla, symbols of that fallacious and brutal “Fortress Europe” on which I have written a novel – and on which many authors have spoken more accurately than me, see Alessandro Leogrande. But the migrants clinging to the walls dotted with barbed wire, or worse, the corpses that I really spotted on the Spanish beaches, they were not, however, a solipsistic view: the German, French, English and Spanish students with whom I spent the nights in the Albaicín, the disturbing Arab quarter all uphill and dominated by the Alhambra took part; they were their voices mixed together, threatened by the Arab himself but also by the Andalusian, whom I would find in Cubans in Latin America ten years later, forced to find fortune elsewhere.
Latin America, by the way: my first idea of Union also had tremendously to do with a copy of Salvajes Detectives by Roberto Bolaño bought randomly in Granada, and with his death that same year, in 2003, in a hospital in Barcelona. He, only one of the last great Latin Americans who lived, prospered, loved, suffered distance from home, in Europe, free from caudillos, censorship, persecution (I am thinking, for example, of a great singer from Paris, the Argentine Juan Jose Saer, which makes the ubiquity of its characters one of its hallmarks). This is why, when you travel to Latin America and you say you are European, people light up their eyes. In those years I experienced my first Europe as an apprenticeship guaranteed by a bureaucratized program, a possibility of growth, and if we want a low-cost possibility, a Europe of flights at 0 euro excluding taxes, of parents’ pocket money spent in Norwegian beers or Spanish tapas, night-time at the Trocadero and Castellucci in Hamburg. A journey allowed by a grey sheet signed by Brussels, and then loaded with feeling.
Having spoken of German Castellucci, my idea of European identity was forming in those years also thanks to the novel, not only Latin American: we could say more about WG Sebald than about Montaigne. Being European meant in Sebald walking on the ruins of an ever recent holocaust, in an attempt to mend a community or at least to think of it. No coincidence that his novels are investigations on the traces of more or less famous characters and of sudden encounters, as in Austerlitz, but also autobiographies of forgetful Europeans, with trembling legs, disrupted in their own ego as in the splendid Vertigini.
Perhaps this is why the great “walking” writers are and have been Europeans. Building a lost memory and dizzying self-criticism, always wanting to go on but also retrace one’s steps, have always been part of the European spirit, at least in my idea. I say this as a frequent visitor to American peoples, for whom they are scared of memory are an annoying track to censor or ghettoize – it happens even today that both Mexican and non-American writer Álvaro Enrigue wrote the definitive novel on Geronimo and the Apaches, the newly released by Anagrama Ahora me rindo y Eso es todo ( “Now I give up, and the party is over” ). The fact that the Americans hardly love to walk, if not in competitive form or by thoreauana vocation, here, even this perhaps means something to define us.
However, Sebald’s walking Europe of ruins also has the somewhat retro feel of the stations, it is a Europe of sumptuous stations: its greatest student is that already mentioned Énard, who wrote the most beautiful stream of consciousness of the last 20 years, Zone. He didn’t do it on a Ryanair flight, but following a train journey by a spy ready to deliver a briefcase full of secrets to the Vatican. Even there, Europe (and its relationship with what is around it, especially in its Mediterranean heart) returns as a horror and as a self-criticism together, wound and mend at the same time. And it is Énard who allows me to return to Granada: you cannot read Zona without passing through his recent Compass, another long monologue, this time of love and madness directed to the East – a dialogue that is part of our being Europeans. Go and get back on track, therefore, to understand and defend our identity, E Pluribus Unum, as Javier Cercas said this year at the Turin Book Fair. Europe appears as a constant, obsessive rewriting of its own steps, its own stops: think also of the children of the dead of Jelinek or HHhH of Binet. While, further east, in the Visegrad area, the Hungarian Krasznahorkai and the Romanian Cartarescu are pressing. Both, from the ruins of communism, have succeeded in exploding the rigid imaginary limits of their readers, the first telling about their post-Soviet messianic anxieties as melancholia of the resistance (a very useful book to understand Orban’s rise today), the second once again writing a sort of hyper-sensory autobiography together of Self and one’s own nation, in the Orbitortrilogy .
Unlike some of these European writers, my generation, which these same authors read, or read, has been touched by the fire of a single subtle war (that of terrorist attacks), but all in all it is still a generation that, as Daniele Giglioli theorized, he lives and writes “without trauma”. This does not mean that it lacks the tools to avoid new ones. What happened to these readings, if we do not put them into practice and defend an idea of Europe?
For this reason, we should, during these months that separate us from the spring of 2019, defend our Europeanism: to make it our Spring, although we are all tired and in pain. Take up the massive European Diaryof a fanatical builder of Europe as was Altiero Spinelli. Open it to the years 1970-1976, read its first pages, which tell of when it finally becomes a member of the European Commission. You will find a man from the first days lost in the bureaucracy, in the dirty and ugly politics of every day. But Spinelli also tells you about his health, his relationship with his wife Ursula, the feelings, the tremors of not being able to sustain, physically, the heavy weight of such a great responsibility. “Of course, it’s a diary,” you say. I believe that our idea of Europe to defend should be like this: “diary-like”: frantic, but also committed and in love, hard to carry on in everyday life, sometimes grey, but also the best and the most optimistic as possible.