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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry / history

Our Europe

Laurent Gaudé

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To purchase Our Europe

Title: Our Europe
Author: Laurent Gaudé
Genre: Poem
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 191 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Our Europe - US
Our Europe - UK
Our Europe - Canada
Nous, l'Europe - Canada
Nous, l'Europe - France
Noi, l'Europa - Italia
  • Banquet of Nations
  • French title: Nous, l'Europe
  • Translated by Alison Anderson

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting attempt at an EU-epic

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Point . 11/5/2019 Tahar Ben Jelloun

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tout écrivain est témoin de son époque. Il est normal que Laurent Gaudé ait écrit Nous, l'Europe, banquet des peuples, un long poème, un plaidoyer pour sauver cette dame, pas très vieille, mais qui souffre d'arthrose et d'autres maux dus à quelque maltraitance. Il le fait en poète courageux, qui dresse d'abord un tableau inquiétant puis nous dit avec élégance ce qu'il faut faire pour que l'Europe renoue avec ses valeurs et son destin. (...) (U)n long poème simple et vivant, une évocation de l'histoire de cette Europe qui devrait consolider son identité et faire le choix des valeurs qui ont été à son origine." - Tahar Ben Jelloun, Le Point

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Laurent Gaudé's Our Europe does not refer to all Europe, but rather to the twenty-eight countries that decided to: "host a great banquet of nations" -- the European Union (soon, perhaps, one country short, if the UK does, indeed, brexit). Gaudé opens his book noting that: "For some time now, Europe seems to have forgotten that it is the daughter of epics and utopias", and he proposes to try to help remedy that situation -- by composing an EU-epic, the story of its coming into being, and what it has become. That is what Our Europe then is: a verse (!) epic of history and politics, an origin-tale with a specific intent and purpose -- to win us (or at least EU-Europeans) over to the project. (The French title ties readers even closer into the undertaking: Nous, l'Europe, i.e. 'We, Europe'.)
       Gaudé zooms back to present the big picture, with much of his story focused on presenting foundational material: the changing European (and global) circumstances, political, social, and economic that led up to what became the EU. Hence it's only three-quarters into Our Europe that he gets around to:

The European Coal and Steel Economic Community was born.
Then the Treaty of Rome was signed.
       (The ESCS -- Gaudé (or translator Anderson) added an 'Economic' to the Community that wasn't originally there -- was a six-nation forerunner of what became the EU; the 1957 Treaty of Rome led to the formation of the European Economic Community, essentially the EU's predecessor-organization.)
       Gaudé begins by looking for a starting point -- "What is our date of birth ?" -- and finds it in 1848 (specifically: Palermo, 12 January, the Sicilian revolution), with the rise of a new-found nationalism, and revolutionaries across the continent:
They want to overthrow the old world,
The world of the Vienna Congress that restored the monarchies.
They want to throw off Metternich's policies
That chose order over freedom.
       Nationhood becomes determinative -- down to the imperialist exercise of map-drawing, carving out new nations on other continents:
And as our countries were so small,
We invented the Conference of Carving Up.
       He notes: "The model will be used again and again", and focuses in specifically also on Berlin, 1885, and the carving up of Africa.
       Economic change, spurred by advances in technology and rapid industrialization, are major factors in reshaping Europe -- Gaudé's efforts to present some of the urgency accompanying this tending rather to the breathless (and, perhaps, not entirely the hoped-for effect):
Faster, harder,
Stoke it, hotter !
Production, combustion,
More, more !
Gee up, you machinery, grinding the faceless masses,
Gee up, flat out, with your burning steam,
Everything is heating up, getting excited.
       The two World Wars, devastating so much of the continent ("Slaughter, / Slaughter. / Never has the earth smelled of so much blood"), of course figure prominently as failures of the continental order, and the idea of creating a 'United States of Europe' arises out of this.
       An interesting point that Gaudé makes is about how this new conception of continental order came about:
Europe was born without the crowds chanting its name in the street,
And that is new.
Europe was built without the enthusiasm of the people,
As a precaution,
Because the enthusiasm of the people led to crime.
       Political transitions continue, from dashed hopes (such as the Prague Spring) to the fall of the 'old generals' in Portugal and Spain -- "Europe has thrown out its fascist patriarchies" -- and finally, on 9 November 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall, when: "Everything falls and is turned upside down". Yet the European ideal still struggles, as with the Yugoslavian conflicts: "Europe is very good at hesitating", Gaudé notes, long standing by and not getting involved.
       More recently, things have looked reasonably good -- peaceful, certainly, at least -- but:
Citizens wanted peace.
Today, they have it,
And they're bored with parliamentary democracy.
They want a leader, a strongman ...
       Gaudé remains hopeful -- but closes his epic with a call to action. Passivity and resigned acceptance are dangerous; instead, he suggests: "We have to get back to the passion of nations". And:
A great banquet.
That's what we need, now.
Flesh, and words !
       There's lots of enthusiasm to Our Europe. Gaudé acknowledges many of the dark missteps in European history along the way, but suggests we (can) learn from them; he acknowledges some of the difficulties a project such as a European Union faces, but suggests they can be navigated -- if, perhaps, not without considerable effort:
We have built a Babel continent,
Strange and complicated,
That only holds together thanks to this subtle balance
Between independence and brotherhood.
       The (currently) on-going debates surrounding the UK's possible exit from the EU suggest the current priorities are, in many cases, elsewhere; it would be interesting to see UK reactions to this exuberant endorsement of the EU ideal but it doesn't seem to have even managed to fall on deaf ears; as I write this, none of the English-language editions listed at the UK Amazon have any sales-ranking whatsoever (suggesting no one has purchased the book via them (unlike, interestingly enough, the French original); at the US Amazon the sales rank of the English-language paperback is, at least ... 4,525,714), nor does there appear to have been any critical/media notice of the book yet. True, Gaudé's epic is more continentally-oriented, but it's still amazing to see no engagement with it in the country where, at this very moment, the question of the EU's purpose, and whether to remain part of it, are the most urgent.
       Gaudé's embraces of the epic form can be seen as almost desperate -- implying that nothing else, or nothing less, could work. It allows for language that would not pass in most prose -- (over-)heated, full of ardor and passion --, but maybe that is necessary, as the only possible counter and answer to the populist voices that have so undermined the European project in recent years. Gaudé does manage, along the way, to both compress European history effectively into his story, and make a good case for the necessity of a European union of some, and arguably even this sort (though some work is obviously still and always needed), but the form also undermines part of his mission (and, yes, he is definitely on a mission), as it's hard nowadays not to see some of this versifying as comic.
       As to how persuasive he is, that's debatable: the epic form is not particularly well-suited for didactic writing, and Gaudé's work here is very much on-message. The quality of the poetry isn't really of that much importance here, and Gaudé uses language as a fairly blunt instrument here -- it's mostly heat and high drama, and succinct; the flights of (attempted) eloquence feel a bit forced but are fitting enough --, but that works for his ca(u)se: there's no question about his enthusiasm (and much of his case rests on enthusiasm, as that is what he is calling for).
       Our Europe is certainly well-meaning, and as potted history of how the EU came about -- and the good reasons for such a continental union -- it's really not that badly done: a bit silly at times, and a bit simple, but readable and to the point. His arguments are also worth making -- and do deserve a wider audience (just maybe not in this form ?).
       But what the hell ? Why not take a flier with something like this ? There are no end of prose versions (and talking-points oratory) of arguments and analyses pro, contra, and about -- so a verse-epic variation is actually welcome. And while it doesn't really make its mark as a literary work -- you're not going to read it for the poetry --, there's enough to it, with its unusual form and enthusiasm for its subject matter, to be of some reader-interest.
       An oddity, no doubt, but worth a look.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2019

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Our Europe: Reviews (* review of stage version): Laurent Gaudé: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       French author Laurent Gaudé was born in 1972. He won the prix Goncourt in 2004.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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