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"This is Europe": On the outside, looking in

In his new book, Ben Judah attempts to tell the inner stories of contemporary Europe as lived by the people who inhabit it - but can never seem to get close enough. 

September 16 2023, 12.00pm

Turn a map of Europe 90 degrees anti-clockwise, and you will get some idea of how  it feels to be English. You find yourself at the bottom of an enormous funnel through which everything, good and bad, must pass. To escape the pressure you take to the sea: to the new world, South Africa, Hong Kong and the antipodes. 

Yet escape is futile, “the Continent” is too close, too rich, and too similar. Britain was never quite John of Gaunt’s “precious stone set in the silver sea/Which serves it in the office of a wall/Or as a moat defensive to a house.” Whether it was Henry Bolingbroke crossing the moat to depose the Richard II that John of Gaunt opposed, Henry VIII appropriating the Reformation for his own ends, William of Orange removing James II, the Union with the Hanoverian monarchy, decisive in defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, or Winston Churchill’s desperate appeal for indissoluble union with France in 1940 -Europe is Britain’s continent.

After almost a decade in which England (not Britain: Brexit is such an English nationalist impulse that it would have been  more easily achieved by English secession from the UK) has been busy discovering how difficult it is to separate itself from Europe. Now that Putin has shoved an invasion down that funnel, an attempt to acquaint the English with what Judah calls “the lived Europe” is to be welcomed.

Yet that Europe is still an Other to him: of the 23 stories in This is Europe, each named after the place on which they are centred, not a single one is set in the UK: the reader is left looking at this Europe from the outside. It is a perspective compounded by a style that can descend to a pastiche of Raymond Carver.

Judah tells us he wants to give us the direct experience of how what we might still call ‘ordinary people’ live in Europe through a collection of non-fiction short stories, based on interviews and written up. Sentences are short. Narration is kept to a minimum. The subjects’ replies are equally brief: they respond like those people whose text messages consist of a series of one-line phrases. 

The effect is intended to be pacy, but is instead disorienting. He relates the events that happen to them, but the subjects aren’t given space to reflect on their  experience beyond the immediate. He looks at them from the outside, and keeps us away from both their inner life and the societies they live in.

Judah’s two best stories are about love and making lives between countries: ‘Istanbul’ about a Turkish-Dutch couple, and ‘Linhares da Beira,’ set in rural Portugal, but the dominant themes are miserabilist. Syrian and African migrants suffer mostly grim experiences, while nothing good seems to happen in Eastern Europe. With two stories relating to the sex industry (a middle-eastern refugee porn star in Budapest, and a schoolgirl working on a sex chat line in Liepaja, Latvia) it is as if the region had barely moved on from the most lurid tales of the 1990s.

The argument for focusing on the negative is that social criticism has to start from somewhere. Rolling good news belongs on staid state TV channels. If we don’t expose problems, we’ll never be motivated to solve them. The biggest substantive weakness of Judah’s book is the absence of the critique needed to inspire the development of solutions.

One of his major themes is migration and people’s struggles with it. His stories provide anecdotes: of Syrians in Germany struggling with isolation, Africans freezing to death crossing the Alps from Italy to France, a woman in Greece surviving at the margins of the informal economy, a lorry driver from Romania trying to make his living across Europe, even another Syrian who has been able to live his sexuality in Germany, but in ways that leave him terribly vulnerable.Judah asks no questions about why their lives are so hard, whether alternatives are possible, and if there are, why they have not been put in place.  

Might different things have been done to deter Assad from mass murder? Or another way have been found of helping the people who fled his tyranny, or just come to Europe looking for more money and a less violent life. If alternative policies are technically possible (they are: we could eliminate the people smuggling industry by allowing people to travel to the West to be processed there, instead of making shipping firms and airlines liable for repatriation costs), he could have devoted some of his 500 pages to thinking about why they haven’t been adopted. What are the political reasons behind immigration policy failing as miserably as that other area of fruitless border control: drug policy? If wholesale change isn’t realistic, are there at least small steps we could take to ameliorate things, or if even that isn’t possible, couldn’t he at least identify the villains that have produced the mess?

Critique is the first (though not the last) step towards progress: because without critique we’re left, like pre-modern peasants, to lament the state of things and accept defeat at the hands of individuals and social forces we haven’t even bothered to identify.  

Judah’s vision of Europe isn’t only selective — it is largely passive (his accounts of Belarussians escaping Lukashenko’s extreme repression are a notable exception). He finds atomised Europeans with little agency: it is telling that in his Europe it is the migrants that do. 

Had this been developed into a line of argument, he might be onto something. The case that Europeans, unlike Americans, for example, look too much for security and not enough for progress is one that can still be made. But Judah’s subjects, at least, have not been able to emancipate themselves. Getting together to change their societies for the better is ruled out by his decision to exclude politics or social activism, so he doesn’t find what he doesn’t think worth looking for.

Life without politics is a luxury, accessible only to the very rich who can buy their way out of most trouble, and Singaporeans unrelated to Lee Kwan Yew. The rest of us need to be involved at least a bit in public business if we are to do more than accept our lot.

Observing a society from the outside is similarly a luxury, granted to those who don’t live within it. Judah’s Europe is a foreign land over which he casts an unduly jaundiced eye.

This is Europe by Ben Judah is out with Pan MacMillan, and available in all major bookstores.