Size / / /

Europe in Winter cover“Well, thank you, AJP Taylor” (p. 203) snorts a character in exasperation two-thirds of the way through Europe in Winter, having finally elicited, from the wide boy who is trying to inveigle him into a precarious criminal undertaking in Warsaw, the admission that Central Europe is a complicated region. Such exchanges are typical of Hutchinson’s sardonic style, which recalls the world-weary tone adopted by writers such as Len Deighton and John Le Carré in the 1960s and 1970s, when it became clear that an English outlook rooted in the experience of the Second World War was inadequate for comprehending both the changing global situation in general and the reality of the relationship of the United Kingdom with its continental neighbours in particular. Taylor, a populist and iconoclastic left-wing media don, illustrated some of the contradictions of the period. He played an influential role in convincing the public that the UK was no longer a global power, but he was also opposed to its entry into the European Economic Community in 1973. By describing Britain's accession to the EEC as the most decisive historical event for the country since the Norman Conquest, Taylor demonstrated how it could be seen from a nationalist perspective as a European invasion of England. Arguably, therefore, that decision in the mid-1970s represents a real-life example of a jonbar point, in which an England-dominated UK jumped tracks on to an alternate timeline. Before, it was orientated towards the exceptionalism of an imperial British past; afterwards, it had turned to face a future that its four constituent nations might share in common with other European countries.

Or, at least, that is how it seemed until a 2016 referendum on remaining in what had since become the European Union resulted in a narrow vote to leave and consequently plunged the UK into an ongoing state of political, social and constitutional crisis. In retrospect, it now becomes apparent that there have been two alternate UKs running in parallel all along; one that embraced a new identity as part of a European collective and one that first resented and then ultimately rejected that identity. Admittedly, these positions mean different things to different people, with the consequence that, rather than there being one central opposition between two clashing worldviews, there are now numerous faultlines dividing society. It is this kind of process—by which a fundamental incompatibility splinters apparent unity into a multiplicity of difference—that has been so comprehensively captured on a wider scale by Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, of which Winter is the third volume to date.

While Europe in Autumn (2014) may mostly be read as a clever and entertaining picaresque account of the journeys of its protagonist, Rudi, through a near-future Europe which has fragmented into a patchwork of autonomous regions and city states, Hutchinson eventually reveals that this geopolitical state of chaos is connected to the existence of a parallel universe. We discover that, from the late eighteenth century, generations of the maverick Whitton-Whyte family have gradually mapped out—starting from the vicinity of Colnbrook to the west of London—a new county, Ernshire, which has continued to spread inexorably across the continent: “The Community was a topological freak, a nation existing in the same place as Europe but only accessible through certain points on the map” (Autumn, p. 278). In Europe at Midnight (2015), there was a change of direction to focus on yet a different pocket universe, the Campus, and what happens when one of its inhabitants, Rupert, finds his way out and into the clutches of the intelligence services in London before finally penetrating the inner workings of the Community. The fact that so much of Midnight is either set in England—no longer politically connected to Wales or Scotland—or what we might call the alt-England that is the Community, gave it a distinctly more claustrophobic and constricted tone than the breezy openness which characterised Autumn.

The full satiric effect of this contrast only becomes apparent in Winter, following the Community’s adoption of an open border policy. An English courier, Gwen, cannot help finding the Community quite appealing despite the breathtaking sexism and racism: “The countryside around the capital was beautiful and everyone was polite” (p. 168). There are no helicopters, planes or even cars, only steam trains. More than one person tells her how much “the people” like things that way and don’t think recent changes, such as the opening of the Community’s borders to Europeans, are for the better. However, she is not happy about having to wear a tweed skirt and jacket over white blouse and thick stockings, with a little hat perched on top of her head, in order to fit in with local attitudes to women. The first thing she tells her controller, once she is safely back in Europe, is that he’ll have to wait to hear the details of the trip until she’s changed out of her awful clothes: “I look like an extra from Brief Encounter” (p. 171).

This reference to David Lean’s classic film is particularly apt because its black-and-white tale of unconsummated love set in a railway tearoom encapsulates the static, emotionally-stunted nature of England during the immediate postwar decades. Gwen’s experience recapitulates the tragi-comic horror of returning to that England from an extended trip abroad to continental Europe; the initial relief at no longer having to feel self-conscious because of cultural inadequacy quickly changes into a sobering awareness of the impossibility of simply slotting back into the two-dimensional existence which is the only one on offer. In contrast to an English/Community outlook conditioned by prolonged experience of the waiting rooms of life, most of the European characters and factions in Winter are “really interested in railways” (p. 35). This is appropriate because an argument can be made for the centrality of the history of railways to the history of Europe itself. On the one hand, steam technology and the transportation possibilities it enabled were at the heart of the industrial revolution that swept the continent in the nineteenth century and created the condition of modernity that is central to how Europeans like to think of themselves. On the other hand, the need to agree timetables and resolve compatibility issues with track size were key factors in bringing the separate European countries together and enabling rapid transit across national borders. But there was also a dark side to this connectivity exemplified by both the Nazis' use of the railways to organise genocide on an industrial scale in the Holocaust and the role of timetables in the outbreak of the First World War, as most famously explained by none other than Taylor.

Something of this complex history is evoked in the opening chapter of Winter, “Trans-Europe Express,” which shares its name with the highly influential 1977 Kraftwerk album, itself concerned with creating a sense of a new European identity in place of lingering stereotypes from the Second World War. The chapter begins with Kenneth and his apparently heavily pregnant wife, Amanda, being driven through the protest-stricken streets of Paris in a vehicle that appears to be a cross between an urban four-wheel drive and an armoured car, as they hurry to catch a train. This is not any train, however, but a train running on the “Line,” which is itself an autonomous polity with its own borders and the requirement that passengers take out temporary citizenship. The advantage of the Line over other railways is that, following the proliferation of borders across Europe, it still enables passengers to travel across the continent in all directions through its fractal routes which touch on almost all of the many disparate polities. We follow the couple though the elaborate security measures required by the train and into a luxurious compartment, in which Amanda immediately settles down to a virtual conference with her business associates. The overall effect is reminiscent of an old-fashioned business commercial, in which the sickly sweet endearments between the two connote a shiny but reassuringly heterosexual future. It is not really clear where the scene is going right up to the moment when they embrace, for what seems the umpteenth time, and Kenneth detonates the device implanted in Amanda’s belly and blows up not just the train and the tunnel but also a large chunk of the Urals overhead.

From the beginning of the novel, therefore, it is implied that railways and, more crucially, their capacity to transcend borders are at the heart of a secret war in Europe; but it is only at the end of Winter that we find out what the conflict is about and who it is between. We learn this through Rudi, whose lucrative pastime of smuggling dissidents out of the Community—established at the end of Autumn—has been destroyed overnight by its decision to open borders, leading him to ponder whether it is deliberately trying to put him out of business. Rudi’s apparent introduction into Winter is uncannily similar to the scene in which we first met him working as the cook in Max’s restaurant at the beginning of Autumn. In fact, apart from the omission of specific references to the local protection racket that Max pays into, the three-and-a-half-page passage is identical to that in the earlier novel. However, rather than this encounter with a group of Hungarian criminals leading indirectly to Rudi becoming a courier across the rapidly multiplying borders of a Europe dividing into ever smaller quasi-national entities, this time he simply gets up early the next morning and goes for a run. The reader, who has realised that the story is repeating, now attempts to insert this new material into what they already know and in the process experiences the kind of cognitive dissonance that only usually occurs when unexpected real-life events expose the flaws in otherwise unchallenged worldviews. A similar dissonance is experienced by Rudi when he comes face-to-face with himself in the restaurant and feels “as if a trapdoor had opened beneath his feet but he hadn’t yet quite fallen through it” (p. 30).

This other Rudi is not in fact identical to the one experiencing the dissonance; he is older and, more importantly, he is the Rudi from Autumn or, leastways, he is an autonomous piece of software benefiting from that Rudi’s knowledge. As he explains to the younger Rudi, they and the world they are in are very sophisticated computer programs being processed, on servers located in one of those small quasi-national entities, as part of a much larger undertaking by which millions of slightly different simulations of Europe’s history are being run in parallel at high speed. The ostensible purpose of the software agent taking the form of the older Rudi is to find out what is going on inside the different systems by scraping data. To this end, he quickly establishes that the EU still exists in the world of the younger Rudi and no one has heard of the Community. More amusingly, however, we also learn that the younger Rudi has heard of neither The Matrix nor Star Trek. Had he been familiar with the SF concepts from such works, he might have been less nonplussed by the elder Rudi’s parting warning that this particular simulation might now be terminated due to his intervention.

Aside from the joys of the sardonic dialogue, much of the considerable pleasure of reading Hutchison’s Europe novels derives from their episodic structure. We proceed through a series of set-piece scenes, such as the trip on the Line and the encounter between the two Rudis in the restaurant, which are then collapsed by a science-fictional twist. The idea of consensus reality turning out to be a house of cards which progressively folds in on its inhabitants is a recurrent feature of SF in the tradition of Philip K Dick. Such fiction frequently works by inviting us to identify with the protagonist who eventually learns to adapt and then to master the malleability of reality before remoulding it to their own ends. That readers enjoy this is hardly surprising because it is structurally similar to the therapeutic process of remembering, repeating and working-through, and thus feeling better. Moreover, the enabling catalyst for this process is not the trained psychoanalytic counsellor but the reader’s own knowledge of SF devices. The genius of Hutchinson’s fiction is to invite us to apply our SF understanding to the complexity of European history—past, present, and future. Without this understanding, we are trapped like the younger Rudi in a world which is simply not comprehensible from the perspective of common sense realism. However, if, like the older Rudi, we deploy our hard-acquired knowledge, then we create the possibility of understanding how the world works and therefore intervening in it.

This is what the older Rudi does in Winter—not the software construct finding out what is happening in the multiple simulations, but the one in the real world who never gives up in his efforts to get to the bottom of things. By following both his and others’ escapades, we learn not just more about the secret war in the Europe of the novels but also about what connects that Europe back to ours in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Not a huge amount of time has elapsed; one of the many shady officials with whom Rudi has semi-clandestine conversations is “old enough to remember a time when we thought there would be no borders in Europe” (p. 95). But later we learn that the Schengen era of free movement within the core European countries was just an historical blip. Elsewhere we are told that the hardening of their borders by the Hungarians against refugees fleeing the Middle East and North Africa—i.e. events that happened in 2016—preceded the flu epidemic and disintegration of the EU that form the backstory to the sequence. Similarly, a young London taxi driver is the grandson of a couple who had made the “journey from Syria to Turkey to Greece to Croatia to Austria to Germany to England” (p. 263). Even the organisation Rudi belongs to, Les Coureurs des Bois, apparently started out by running Syrians across the Mediterranean and other operations of that type which are currently considered to be criminal acts in our world.

What gradually emerges, however, is a sense that the fundamental incompatibility fracturing Hutchinson’s Europe is not that between the belief in free movement and the desire to close borders, but a deeper opposition between fixity and fluidity or identity and difference. The Community, after all, has no internal borders but nevertheless is a land of stasis and fixed identity. In contrast, the nations and borders of Europe come and go but, as yet another shady character explains to Rudi, “the real structure underlying it all is money, and the institutions which control it” (p. 265). In a more conventional thriller, exposing these processes—solving the crime—would be the conclusion of the plot but Hutchinson is concerned instead with an ontological analysis of how such processes can constitute an alternative sense of being in contrast to the contested versions of consensus reality that otherwise contend for our sense of belonging. Nations and institutions—some of which may turn out to be old friends or enemies depending on one’s point of view—are not as important as the players who act on their behalf. These multiply-double agents and free-wheeling border-crossers have effectively unhitched themselves from the limits of conventional causality because they have a different perception of material reality to the one officially conveyed by politicians and the media. Ultimately, Winter suggests that this inherently science-fictional perception might be expanded to offer a metaphysical form of practical resistance potentially open to all. We could all learn to act like Rudi, who, finding himself at the end of the novel transported from London into yet another parallel universe, simply turns round and walks back into his Europe.



Nick Hubble divides their time between Aberystwyth and Uxbridge.
No comments yet. Be the first!

 

%d bloggers like this: