Monday, 28 November 2016

Book Review | Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson


Union has come. The Community is now the largest nation in Europe; trains run there from as far afield as London and Prague. It is an era of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

So what is the reason for a huge terrorist outrage? Why do the Community and Europe meet in secret, exchanging hostages? And who are Les Coureurs des Bois?

Along with a motley crew of strays and mafiosi and sleeper agents, Rudi sets out to answer these questions – only to discover that the truth lies both closer to home and farther away than anyone could possibly imagine.

***

Both in Britain and abroad, so much has changed in the years since the release of Dave Hutchinson's Arthur C. Clarke Award nominated Europe in Autumn that the mind positively boggles. In 2014 I described its depiction of a Europe decimated by division "as plausible as it is novel," but I'll be damned if it isn't beginning to look visionary.

What shape the differences democracy has recently wrought will take is, as yet, anyone's guess. Everything's up for grabs, not least the ideals we hold nearest and dearest—just as they are in the world of the Fractured Europe sequence: a manic mosaic of "nations and polities and duchies and sanjaks and earldoms and principalities and communes." (p.12)
The situation was, if anything, even worse the further East you went. Beyond Rus—European Russia—and Sibir was a patchwork of republics and statelets and nations and kingdoms and khanates and 'stans which had been crushed out of existence by History, reconstituted, fragmented, reinvented, fragmented again, absorbed, reabsorbed and recreated." (p.43)
But that's not all—hell, that's not even the half of it—as readers of Europe at Midnight will recall. That "mad story about a family of wizards and a map" elaborated brilliantly on the existence of a place called the Community: an impossible plane of space modelled on idyllic little England. Next to no one knew about it till now, but having kept its distance for decades, the Community is finally making its presence felt by way of a revolutionary railway.

The Line is being laid all across the continent, connecting the Community to the real world in a real sense, and although most folks don't mind, there are, of course, those—now more than ever there are those—who want to keep the outsiders out, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make their isolationist case. To wit, Europe in Winter opens on an awful atrocity, as a train packed with passengers travelling along that mathemagical track is attacked.

You'd think the authorities would come a-running with such loss of life rife, but Europe is so splintered that no one of its gaggle of governments wants anything to do with it. Even the innumerable NGOs are steering out of fear, such that solving the problem, if it's going to be solved at all, falls, finally, to the Coureur and erstwhile cook Hutchinson introduced us to in Europe in Autumn.

Rudi is a little older than he was last time our paths crossed, and a little wiser—these days, he walks with a cane and has some grey in his hair—but it's the way the world's changed that's affected the greatest differences in him. His job as a glorified postman is nearly meaningless now that the Community has made international travel trifling, and to add insult to injury, even making good food isn't doing it for Rudi, such that he just about jumps at the chance to take actions that matter.

What he finds... well. That would be telling. Suffice it to say that the people behind the people who got this show on the road may not be activists after all:
"Governments, nations, borders, they're all surface, they always have been. [...] The real structure underlying it all is money, and the institutions which control it. Finance houses, banks, organised crime; if you drill down deep enough, it's all the same. Money has no nationality, no allegiance. While nations rise and fall, it remains the same. It's the most powerful polity of all." (p.265)
Rudi is assisted in his investigation of said Situation by a few familiar faces, including Rupert of Hentzau from book two. And in this fittingly fractured fashion the cracking characters of Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight come together, just as their narratives have, in this fittingly fractured finale. As Rudi asserts early on, "everything is interesting; the hard part is working out how it all fits together." (p.37)

And it is difficult. There's a lot going on—more, perhaps, than there needed to be—and however independently interesting the many and various threads of this last act are, at points, unable to see how, say, a dalliance in some disused subway tunnels could conceivably be adding to the overarching narrative, I almost lost patience with Europe in Winter. That I didn't, at the end of the day, is down to the knowledge that nothing in the Fractured Europe sequence so far has come easily, and Hutchinson has, in the past, squared everything away eventually; that, and the book's self-aware sense of humour:
The problem with some people who worked in Intelligence, [Rudi] had discovered down the years, was that they took it too fucking seriously, bought into the whole le Carre thing of dead drops and honeytraps and one-time pads, whereas in reality it was just a case of continually winging it. (p.101)
Winging it is one thing you couldn't accuse the author of Europe in Winter doing, because come the conclusion, Rudi "arranged everything in what appeared to be chronological order, as best he could," (p.260) and incredibly, the text's disparate threads do come together. Hutchinson doesn't offer up easy answers to our every question, but life, he reminds us, is like that:
It never tied things up nearly; no one ever got to see the whole story, and anyway the stories never ended, just branched off into infinity. You got used to that too, as a Coureur. You jumped a Package from Point A to Point B and you never knew what happened after that. Most of the time you never even knew what you were carrying. (p.294)
That's really been this series to a T. And that's perfectly fine with me. With its understated stakes and imperturbable pace, its deliberate density and intellectual intensity, it's easy to see why some readers have bounced off the Fractured Europe sequence, but the best things in literature are far from free, and this is one of those—those best things, that is. You have to work at it, but it's worth it, not least because what Hutchinson has to say about the world today is now more imperative that ever.

***

Europe in Winter
by Dave Hutchinson

UK & US Publication: November 2016, Solaris

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