Several times throughout my reading of Patrik Ourednik’s Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century, I caught myself giggling out loud in the park and sharing passages like this one, on page 95 with Cassie or friends over the phone:
“Bicycle riding was chiefly intended for American men, because the bicycle was somewhat unsuitable for women, and doctors said that for a woman a bicycle was above all a sexual partner and the rubbing of the saddle against the labia and clitoris aroused women and incited them to perverted sexual practices. In order to prevent perverted sexual practices in women a special saddle was once manufactured with a hole cut out in the middle, but it was rather uncomfortable.”
Then, in the right margin as if highlighting the most important thought of the paragraph–though the personality of it reminds me of the marginalia/citing in The Argonauts–Ourednik writes: “Women’s perverted practices,” in a faded, fine print that requires you to adjust your eyes in order to see it. This particular passage stood out to me more, I suppose, because I was thinking about a previous conversation involving the Atlantic article “How The Bicycle Paved The Way For Women’s Rights.” In it, Adrienne Lafrance breaks down some of the ludicrous male hysteria (by geographic region) over women being able to ride bicycles, which primarily boiled down to demeaning statements–in the form of bad jokes–about the dress and physicality of the women riding said bicycles. It was of course, a fear response to women having increased mobility that didn’t depend on men. All the obsession over calves and ankles and dresses and sexuality (most of which is so hyperbolic it can only be read as comedy now) reminds me of the not-so-crafty, yet sinister circuitousness of all broad sweeping sociopolitical discourse in the way humans tend to speak to every subject and verb associated with what they really want or mean, but never the thing itself. And the more nefarious the decree or subject, the more circuitous the rhetorical route to access it. Eruopeana is so completely aware of this, and itself, and the circadian rhythm of war, social consciousness and revolution that I can’t help but love it.
To be clear, it isn’t marketed as history, as true as it is, but I wouldn’t call it fiction either. There are no characters, and no narrative arc to speak of, just events, demographics, and statistics. Not in any particular chronological order either. The book flows like stream of consciousness and feels more akin to a conversation about history one might have with a group of other writers under duress, after the bar is closed and everyone is contemplating the next world war.
For a hundred and twenty two pages Ourednik traces the history of the previous century and drags it from the dark, sardonic cave it continues to dwell in by rounding all the contradictions back in on themselves. Racism in America, World War I, Nazi Germany, chemical warfare, World War II, The Atom Bomb, Women’s rights, Gay rights, communism, psychoanalysis, technological advancement, democracy, “progress,” and history itself, are wrung dry for meaning in a world where we continue to devalue life itself and repeat the same atrocities not one breath after basking in one glorious achievement or another, or better yet, claiming that said achievement or idea will “end all X.” Insert poverty, famine, war, injustice, social inequality, etc.
I think it’s appropriate that Ourednik uses the conjunction “and,” as opposed to “then” so much in long, winding sentences that can at once be hilarious, yet sad and tiring, because there’s always too much to say in the same breath and the order of events, once they’ve all been repeated and transmuted and so many times, becomes meaningless. And that’s what I feel every time I begin to consider human history, especially now, waiting for the next bomb of predictability to drop and contemplating how I, or we all, are supposed to feel about it.