3rd exchange

Dear Abdelkader,

Please understand me. I very much support differences, and I detest the idea of a uniform Europe – which is anyway just a concept produced by bureaucrats without imagination. The idea behind the formation of a European Union is both genius and dubious. Churchill, who you mentioned, and the other great leaders of the 20th century – De Gaulle, Adenhauer – proposed a common market as a way to break the cycle of destructive wars. With this they saved generations from much blood, sweat and tears. However their successors thought to make Europe a copy of the US, and it’s this misstep that we are dealing with today. America is much more of a unity than Europe. Sure there are differences in the US – between west, east, north, south and its expansive middle – but these differences are nothing compared to the 50 or 60 contrasts one encounters in Europe. Even in a tiny country like the Netherlands, Frisians and Limburgers have little in common – and it’s the same between the new Dutch of Amsterdam’s Diamant neighbourhood and the old Dutch of Staphorst! A Milanese lives, thinks and feels very differently than a Sicilian. If we want to save Europe, we must accentuate these differences. The principle of 1+1=2 may work for the world of finances, but you can’t force a man or woman from Andalusia to think and feel like someone from Estonia or Latvia.

I completely understand your regrets about disappearing borders, but there will always be borders, Abdelkader! Between communities, cultures, religions, languages and mentalities. And thank God for that! Nationalism is only despicable when it becomes a political tool feeding fears and hate and ending with war, death and decay. But on a cultural level, there’s nothing wrong with stressing one’s uniqueness. Last week I was standing in front of a Van Gogh landscape, a recent acquisition of the Van Gogh Museum, and mumbled to myself ‘Now that’s my country’. There was a willow, a road, a ditch, a polder and, in the distance, a factory’s smokestack. Almost nothing – yet I could smell it. For a Pole, Chopin is much more than just a composer of mazurkas, nocturnes and polonaises. He elicits a feeling that a Pole cannot describe in words – which likely comes from the way he fused purity with the lyrical. But I can also turn this around: I watched the European Song Festival. Soulless. All those little stars mimicking each other, is just another form of uniformity...

Besides the Europe of economists, another Europe must come of age: one of writers, poets, artists, composers and musicians. Right now they are in the margins – partially because that’s where they feel the safest. But it’s high time they showed more initiative. You said that you feel like an old-fashioned romantic when writing about the crisis in Greece and despairingly looking towards Homer and Kafavis. But no, Abdelkader, I rate you with the new avant-garde. The beauty of Europe is not her history. After my publisher Emile Brugman read the manuscript for Baltic Souls, he said ‘I’m slowly becoming ashamed of being European – what a beastly mess we’ve made of it.’ No, the most impressive thing about Europe is your Kafavis or my Pessoa. I do know that the power held by banks will not be tamed by a couple of majestic lines of poetry from a Portuguese misanthrope. But at least it provides counterbalance. So let’s get prepare for the worst and start our own crusade of the mind.

I was saddened to hear that your trip to Greece left you with the impression that Athens was worse off than Beirut. Is it really so bad? I find that shocking. Perhaps you should visit Warsaw, Tallinn or Riga where they still believe in the future. Or Prague. If you go to Prague, read Mendelssohn is on the Roof by Jiří Weil beforehand. I know you are a great admirer of Kafka, but – I’ll try to be diplomatic here – Weil surpasses him when it comes to absurdity. There’s also no other book that’s more Czech. We should be happy with all those regional differences. We should cherish and champion them with pride.

Hope all is well, Abdelkader. I’m leaving for a couple of months to finish my new book. But I am staying in Europe!

All the best,
Jan