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Writing Europe

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Ursula Keller

The Western Bloc

Eugenio Fuentes
Traduction de Stephanie Carmona

Texte intégral

Si, como escritor, intento aprehender qué es Europa
para los personajes que recorren sus calles, advierto
que es al mismo tiempo una promesa y una amenaza.

I

1When navigators from my country arrived in America for the first time they were searching for a new maritime route around the world from the west to reach the spice-rich East Indies. It didn’t take many more journeys for them to realize that what they had found was a new continent, which they called the West Indies before it was eventually given its definitive name. European colonial expansion into the new lands and the imposition of the colonizers’ languages, doctrines, and customs meant that Europe and America ended up forming a bloc called the West, to differentiate itself from the East. Ever since, with the passing of the centuries, history has cited Europe and America as a unit with a more or less similar attitude towards the rest of the world, sharing more or less similar culture, beliefs, and customs.

2However, in this third millennium it may be necessary to establish another, more detailed geographic entity, because the traditional division into two cultural hemispheres has become imprecise. It is still too early to say, but the latest political orientations and changes may be introducing significant differences that distinguish two different poles of gravity in the West: the European and the American. Although this has not yet caused a short-circuit between the two sides of the Atlantic, there are already sparks of dissonance warning of a clash of attitudes.

3After the terrorist outrages of September 11, the United States changed its political outlook, becoming more globally and unilaterally aggressive. It now appears intent on creating a new world order in which Europe, speaking metaphorically, could find itself tied to two runaway horses galloping unchecked in opposite directions and threatening to tear it to pieces: on the one side, Bush’s warmongering policies — I don’t think we should use the word doctrine — and his decision to impose military and political hegemony on the rest of the world; on the other, the terrorist movements, with their spectacular, bloody, and grisly acts. In the face of both, the European option should be, more than ever, to consolidate and defend its identity.

4Among other things, the twentieth century has bequeathed to us a fundamental lesson: a country can only be at peace within its own borders. In the past, under colonialism, dominion over other peoples brought wealth and prestige to the dominant power. Today things are less simple. With the onset of globalization and the newfound ease of transporting goods and people, any nation that is bent on the domination of other peoples is exposed to risks, to an uncomfortable state of alert, to huge expenses that cannot be offset by whatever benefits it derives from domination, to cruel attacks, to fear amongst the civilian population. In short, to instability.

5Fortunately, Europe appears to be free of this temptation. Although Europeans watched with horror the attacks against the Twin Towers, and have cooperated in the subsequent efforts to ensure that it could never happen again, they did not use these events as an excuse to mount a permanent crusade. I believe that in spite of all the inevitable implications, September 11 was not, nor should it be considered, the starting point of a new world order in which Europe distances itself from the principles that shaped its identity, its personality, its very essence.

6Our culture is made up of the sum of Hebrew theology, Greek tradition, and the social, geographic, and legislative organization of Rome, all of it superimposed on the previous cultural capital of each people. It is the sum of these influences that defines us; and although there is still unfortunately room for the occasional welling up of barbaric tendencies, these three main sources of our historic heritage contain everything we need to define ourselves as a continent of peace and civilization.

  • 1 José Ortega y Gasset, De Europa meditatio quaedam, Complete Works, vol. 9 (Revista de Occidente, 1 (...)
  • 2 Jürgen Habermas, “Political essays” (Peninsula, 2002), p. 128.

7I have selected a few ideas derived from these sources that, in my view, have made Europe into a privileged place in which a large part of the population lives in freedom and contentment: the civic awareness that a community must be guided by political representatives elected at the polls and not by a shady oligarchy of powerful men; the outright separation of church and state and tolerance toward others’ beliefs and customs; a healthy respect for the shared history of Europe’s peoples — to quote the words of Ortega, “European society predates the existence of the European nation state”1; scrupulous respect for human rights and a ban on the death penalty; the memory of atrocious wars, both civil and national, and the subsequent pain of atonement; skepticism toward any kind of utopia; the maturity to surrender legally held territory and submit to the international legal order of which Kant used to dream2; the determination of governments and society not to allow citizens’ social well-being to be governed by market forces; the requirement of neutrality; punishment of corruption in bureaucratic and administrative systems; consensus in developing the Third World; a concern for the environment, for protecting forests, rivers, and seas and making cities habitable; the primacy of knowledge over opinion; the certainty that science and technology alone cannot meet all of man’s needs; the acknowledgement that Culture is not a mere ornamental or ancillary aspect, but the very foundation upon which the basic institutions by which we are governed have been built; the tendency to resort to the vast body of culture handed down to us over the generations for inspiration and support in dark times, in the knowledge that there will always be a book, a piece of music, or a painting in which to find solace.

II

8When writing, I always ask myself, “what is happening on the streets that doesn’t find its way into books?” Or, to put it another way, how much does what takes place on the streets of Europe affect the content of its books? To answer this question, the writer must constantly query the interface between his mind and the outside world.

9In my case, this process of questioning has expanded from a regional to a European level as my own outlook has gradually expanded.

10Practically all the books I have written up to now have been set against a single background, a fictitious place whose geographic location could be situated in northern Extremadura, the region where I was born and where I live. Its genesis corresponds to the ancient idea that the entire universe is contained in the tiniest stone, that the entire animal kingdom is to be found expressed in the most modest butterfly, that a single tree contains the potential essence of an entire forest. So when one speaks of a stone, one is speaking of the world itself.

  • 3 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Die Vielfalt Europas — Erbe und Zukunft (Stuttgart, 1985), p. 20.

11The name of that imaginary place is “Breda,” which, as you all know, is also the name of a Dutch town. I gave it this place name, which is a departure from regional and customary names, because in the story it is founded by a veteran of the wars in Flanders. Breda is a place where no one can call me to account for my actions, where I can grant passage to whomever I choose, where I banish characters or create their descendants; the story unfolds in 1985, a few years after Spain emerged from an interminable dictatorship and a few months before it joined the European Union. At the time the Pyrenees Mountains were still something more than a mere geographic barrier. However, even then the influence of European history was already coloring my writing; I was well aware that Spain’s relationship with Europe had made the country what it was and what it is now. In the words of Gadamer, himself pondering on the Europe of 1985, I was “looking backwards in order to be able to look forwards.”3

12The novel I have been writing over the past two years features a woman who is looking for the father of her son. Her journey begins in Madrid and takes her all the way to Cadiz, Europe’s southernmost point, where she contemplates the masses fleeing north from wretched and teeming Africa, before traveling all the way up to the northern Baltic. The Greek geographer Estrabon once noted in amazement that a squirrel might cross the Iberian peninsula without ever coming down from the trees; today, two-thousand years later, the descendants of the men who lived at that time can crisscross almost all of Europe — from Tarifa in the far South to the Norwegian fjords, from Finisterre to the banks of the Volga, from Hamburg to Sulina, without getting out of the train or car to cross a border.

  • 4 It will be my small contribution, covering all the distances, to the current abundance of European (...)

13I believe that were it not for some of the journeys I have made in the past, were it not for the new political and social integration of Europe and the newfound feeling of being at home in the other countries of Europe, I would never have written this novel.4

14However, the transition from a regional to a continental outlook has not been without its upheavals. If, as a writer, I try to grasp what Europe means for the people who walk its streets, it is my duty to warn that the concept holds both promises and threats. Europe is promising for many people because being part of it ensures they have a stake in the progress and the security that I mentioned earlier. It is threatening for others because they feel that the European Union constitutes a rejection of everything traditional, rural, and manual in favor of things new, urban, and technological. Thus a polarization is emerging between the opposed yearnings of escapism and permanence; Europeans are split between loyalty to their roots and the temptations of a multicultural population. The ability of leaders and thinkers to show people that belonging to a Whole do not necessarily imply betrayal of their unique origins will be crucial in order to ensure the future of this dream.

15I come from a poor region, in a country not known for its riches, where this tension between tradition and progress is in constant evidence. Part of my book is therefore dedicated to describing a number of characters who, moved by the unease that stems from hardship, become embroiled in an internationalized world that is completely alien to them as the old order wanes forever.

Bibliographie

Further Reading:
The Depths of the Forest. Translated by Paul Antill.

Independent Publishers Group, 2002.
The Blood of the Angels. Arcadia Books, 2004 (forthcoming).

Notes

1 José Ortega y Gasset, De Europa meditatio quaedam, Complete Works, vol. 9 (Revista de Occidente, 1971); Sir James George Frazer, in his monumental work, The Golden Bough, shows examples of how the sameancestral rites and customs are repeated throughout ethnographic Europe.

2 Jürgen Habermas, “Political essays” (Peninsula, 2002), p. 128.

3 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Die Vielfalt Europas — Erbe und Zukunft (Stuttgart, 1985), p. 20.

4 It will be my small contribution, covering all the distances, to the current abundance of European authors who travel, observe and write about countries in which they were not born. See Claudio Magris: The Danube; W. G. Seebald: Saturn’s rings; Cees Nooteboom: The Detour to Santiago; Rafael Chirbes: Mediterraneans. All of them speak of European soil as if it were their own, almost with familiarity, without seeking exotic or outrageous facts like the romantic travelers.

Table des illustrations

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Auteur

Spain
Born in Montehermoso (Cáceres) in 1958, Eugenio Fuentes studied Spanish literature and worked as a teacher. He has published many short stories in magazines and anthologies. Since 1997 he has written commentaries for ABC and other newspapers. For his novels set in his home region of Extremadura, he has received numerous awards, including the Premio Cáceres de Novela Corta in 1990, the Premio Internacional de Novela Ciudad de San Fernando in 1993, and the Premio de Novela Extremadura a la Creación in 1997. In 1999 he received the Premio Alba/Prensa Canaria for En el interior del bosque.

Stephanie Carmona (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2003

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