To hesitate is fine

Photo: Peter Župník

“Europa has the shape of my brain, Romanian author Mircea Cartarescu once wrote in an essay and explained: “To be a European means for me not to be good (better than others) but to be complex, to be a complicated character, riddled with internal contradictions but able to accept and reconcile them.” *

My image of Europa is also subjective, I too associate Europe with diversity, complexity, complicated inconsistency. As much effort as the EU may expend to achieve European unity, the fact remains that there are many Europes, “a real multidimensional confederation of Europes” (Cartarescu) which can exist disseminated in time and space because they are not only characterised by reality but also by imagination, dreams and memories.

Much could be said about collective imagination and memories, as Europe, which bears the responsibility for two horrific wars in the 20th century alone, has plenty to redress in this regard. Instead, I would like to shift the spotlight on my own history with Europe, which sufficiently moved an American friend to pointedly remark: “You with your Eastern European melancholy!” For my friend, a staunch believer in the American Dream who saw life as a self-propelled success story, I was too thoughtful, too complicated, too backward-looking. Should I have explained myself? To what end?

Although I was born after the war, I took my first steps in bomb-ravaged Budapest and saw American and British soldiers in Trieste. I learned fairly early that the world is very diverse and contradictory. Amidst all the disconcerting, even scary facets of the world that I saw, were things of fascinating beauty: the sea, Hungarian folk tales, Venice (I was four). I was curious about everything new, I enthusiastically acquired languages (besides Hungarian, I learned Slovenian, Italian and not least, German), I observed different peoples, customs, landscapes, and came to the conclusion even as a child that life consisted of paradoxes. I have never abandoned my observer’s perch, especially because the frequent childhood relocations made one thing impossible: to feel at home somewhere. There was no fixed place to which I could develop a sense of belonging, I could only sprout aerial roots. To this day, I do not know what it means to call a country home but I have created substitute homelands for myself: in writing, in literature, among chequered cosmopolitan circles of friends.

These homelands are essential to survive. What would have become of my life had I not, for instance, come upon Dostoyevsky’s novels early in life? Without “Crime and Punishment I would probably not have opted for Slavic Studies, not travelled for a year to St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) where I met Joseph Brodsky and heard Mandelstam’s poems recited by my friends. In my core, I share a deep affinity with Osip Mandelstam’s “yearning for a world culture”: it is that which essentially constitutes my relationship with Europe. Sappho, Ovid, Dante, Goethe, Hölderlin, Baudelaire, Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Kafka, Kosztolányi, József, Radnóti, Danilo Kiš and many others represent for me this European world culture, one that transcends narrow, national, parochial mindsets. This is the culture in which I try to place my own writing. As Péter Nádas once aptly put it: “My writing is indeed deeply enmeshed in a network of hidden connections and complicated interrelationships of European literature, but then these hidden connections are simply following their nature when they cross ethnic, religious and national boundaries. They will continue to cross them even when the continent falls upon the sword of its own ethnic, linguistic, religious and national differences and regresses into a prehistoric state.” **

My writing draws sustenance from several sources – one of them being Hungarian folk tales – it follows the traces of memories, criss-crossing Central and Eastern Europe. In the best case my writing defines its own continent, one that cannot be easily pigeonholed. I write in German but never about Germany and even less about Switzerland where I have lived for several decades. I do not feel like a Swiss woman writer which is how I am classified in reference works. In practical terms, I am a woman who writes in German with eastern Central European roots. So why not call me a European woman writer in the first place? This is the designation I would prefer most, for instead of constraining it opens up a wide horizon. This is a space in which my writing and imagination can unfold so that the reader can clearly understand where my coordinates are located and what network they define.

I became aware, by the way, of my European-ness which I represent (without wishing to fuel any form of Eurocentrism) during my sojourns in America. What I missed there was history, the kind of history that confronts one in Athens, Rome or Berlin, different but equally overwhelming. Worlds open up beneath each step, we find ourselves moving on a palimpsest as it were, its layers rich and at times disturbing, but which in each case form a narrative canvas against which history unfolds to reveal numerous underlying histories.  I also missed the close bond between nature and culture: a Romance church amidst an alpine landscape, Roman traces in otherwise inhospitable woods. There is something calling, wanting to stir memory awake.

Memory matters to me. The consumerist obsession with the moment is just as alien to me as every kind of futurist Utopia. No future can arrive without legacy and culture becomes valuable only if it is cared for. Lest we forget, Europe has seen devastating barbarism, especially in the 20th century, when continuities were brutally snapped. Only a conscious culture of remembering, which also reflects the horrors, can reshape Europe into a continent of culture. This is a notion of culture, which encompasses shame, contrition as well as the striving for transparency and tolerance as inalienable elements.

Europe is unquestionably a battered continent – and it has only itself to blame – and an old continent at that, but it may be expected to have learned a thing or two on the way. It befits the continent to be hesitant, circumspect. It befits the continent to refrain from becoming the world’s police. It befits the continent to recall traditional values without losing sight of changing circumstances. And it befits the continent to be generous towards migrants. I do not wish a Corporate Identity for Europe, for it is unthinkable. The various parts of Europe in all their diversity must remain flexible, without regressing into petty-state, separatist thinking, which sounds suspiciously like a an attempt to square a circle, except that Europe is aware of the pitfalls. This awareness should enable Europe to iron out its contradictions and forge a feasible path toward shared objectives.

Europe is not America, not China, it is not Africa nor the Middle East. Nowhere is so much translated as in Europe, which is proof of lively curiosity. Hopefully, that will not change anytime soon.

I love Europe with all its charms and horrors, wouldn’t want to miss it ever. And I hear the child’s voice in me say: there flows the Danube, there’s the Gulf of Trieste, Ljubljana smelt of brown coal and it always snowed in Zürich. Goulash tastes good, pancakes even better. So when do we board the next train? When?


 Translated from the German by V. Srinivasan
The text appeared in a special supplement to the weekly Élet és Irodalom as part of discussions on the Europe project held in Budapest.
* Mircea Cartarescu, “Europa hat die Form meines Gehirns”. In: Europa schreibt. Was ist das Europäische an den Literaturen Europas? Hrsg. von Ursula Keller und Ilma Rakusa. Edition Körber Stiftung, Hamburg 2003, S. 75.

[English quote from:

** Péter Nádas: “In der Körperwärme der Schriftlichkeit”. Ebd., S. 226 – 227. [Quote translated