For some near-future thrillers, an independent Scotland and its new embassy in Tallinn, where a harassed junior cultural attaché is suddenly offered what purports to be a relic of St Magnus Martyr’s head by two mysterious men, would be enough geopolitical inventiveness to drive a novel’s worth of high-speed double-crossing espionage. For Europe at Dawn, the fourth and last in Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence, this ripped-from-next-year’s-headlines Scotland—where writers and filmmakers are the top national export, China bankrolled the independence campaign, and diplomats can be as out and proud as they like (as long as they’re happy to get respectably married like everyone else)—is just one among scores of new, breakaway, disputed, shifting, or practically fictitious nation-states that the map of Europe has split into a few decades from now … to say nothing of the territories that can’t be found on ordinary maps at all.
Heists, conspiracies, dead drops, and inter-city chases that drag curious innocents out of their mundane lives into a dangerous international underground: events and moments like these stitch this story together just as they did its three predecessors, Europe in Autumn (2014), Europe at Midnight (2015), and Europe in Winter (2016). This latest novel’s plot propels the first three books’ main characters, alongside some new accomplices, towards their reckoning with the sequence’s secrets, along a trans-European express with hundreds more border checkpoints than there would even have been in Kraftwerk’s day: this volume’s itinerary takes in Kraków, Brno, Tallinn, Barcelona, Venice, Amsterdam, Novosibirsk, Baku, Bruges, Saaremaa, Lviv, a Dortmund that becomes the capital of the seceding North Rhine–Westphalia, and the tripoint border between Poland, the Czech Republic, and history’s smallest ever Greater Germany.
For the first time, Hutchinson also takes Fractured Europe’s readers to a Mediterranean island of uncertain sovereignty where several southern European states take turns providing for thousands of Middle Eastern and African refugees who still, one or two generations after his readers’ own time, have no more immediate hope of moving on than their counterparts on Lampedusa or Lesbos today. As fluctuating as this Europe’s ideas about the national identities of territory have been, notions of citizenship still haven’t changed enough for its governments to welcome in refugees fleeing armed conflict and climate disaster in the Global South. But this new site, which we catch in the act of breaking away from Greece as the “Independent Republic of Aegea,” just as a young North African called Benno is bargaining for passage to the mainland with a dead courier’s smartphone, is an exception to a centre of narrative gravity which largely lies in the former Soviet Union or within a three-hundred-mile radius of Berlin. This is very much the geographical grammar of the city-hopping Cold War spy novel—an allusion that wouldn’t be lost on the Siberian poacher/mayor/priest/militia commander who warns two hapless railway border guards recruited from the Greek and Polish precariat that professional spies are in town “like in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you never read that?” (p. 287). Europe at Dawn, just like its predecessors, is a Cold War thriller for a world which is adjusting to being post the “post-Cold-War.”
The novel’s mechanisms themselves will come as no surprise to readers seeing Fractured Europe to its conclusion: from the beginning of Europe in Autumn—in which Rudi the jobbing Estonian chef tangles with the Hungarian mafia at his Kraków restaurant and ends up recruited by a covert organisation dedicated to smuggling things, information, and people across Europe’s hundreds of hardening borders—this has been a story of shady superiors, half-deciphered future histories, and bizarrely everyday place-making details. By now Hutchinson’s readers have been trained to look in the ways of spies themselves (who’s to say that the large plush chimpanzee sitting in one Estonian security chief’s office near the start of the novel won’t be the clue on which the whole story turns, hundreds of pages later on?). Across the three volumes, they will also have got to know this Europe’s stranger polities, such as the Line, an inter-city railway stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals along a thread of sovereign territory only a few kilometres wide; the Campus, a university cut off from its world for generations on a parkland campus not unlike Nottingham’s, where each faculty has become its own armed fiefdom; and the Community, the strangest and most threatening of all, a nostalgic little-England fantasy even less like a certain other institution based in Brussels than readers might think from its name.
This is a Europe which, as Benno, the refugee-turned-courier, reflects, has been “continually shaking itself apart and reconfiguring itself like one of those old children’s toys that were a car or a robot, depending on what one wanted to play with at any particular time” (p. 122)—as if the immediately post-Cold-War extrapolation of an endlessly fragmenting Europe just around the corner were itself being reconstituted, with ingredients drawn from the Eurozone meltdown, the Ukraine/Russia crisis, and now Brexit in place of the collapse of state socialism, the outbreak of the Yugoslav wars, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
While Rudi and other major characters from the last three books all have parts to play as the plot moves towards its climax somewhere in the West Midlands canal system, Europe at Dawn’s protagonist for the first part of the story is junior Scottish diplomat Alice, broken out of her dissatisfying job and her relationship with her controlling boyfriend when the fallout from her handling of that opening relic leaves her running for her life. She is rescued by—or just possibly set up by—the border-crossing courier-spies who call themselves Les Coureurs des Bois (“The Forest Runners,” originally the name of early French fur traders in North America). The Schengen area’s temporary fragmentation in 2015–16, with border controls between even Sweden and Denmark interrupting travel across the iconic Oresund bridge, was probably the loudest present-day echo of the future Hutchinson was regretfully foreseeing—one in which the Coureurs are the last remaining “spirit of Schengen,” nostalgically having “refused to accept that that moment in European history had come to an end” (p. 205). Hutchinson, who describes himself as “a big fan of the EU ideal and of Schengen,” certainly has his sympathies on the Coureurs’ side.
Previous volumes, however, spent most of their time running almost exclusively through the northern European forest, or wintry cities built where it once stood; Hutchinson has said that one reason he decided to write a fourth book after finishing Europe in Winter was that “it occurred to me that the Europe books are very Northern; there’s almost no mention of the South and the refugee crisis and the hardened borders which are going up in response to that.” From its opening on Alice’s life-changing day, then, the novel slows down drastically, to weave around incidents from previous volumes, returning to characters we’re expected to recall: to that time Rudi spent a few days in Barcelona, or his associate Rupert visited Baku. Whether these episodes fill out or confound readers’ enjoyment may depend very much on how well they can remember these episodes, or infer amounts of passing time from the background future-historical references which serve as the only chronological anchor. This can be tricky, since where they are in time affects how much knowledge we can anticipate particular characters will have about the mystery they’re trying to solve.
In other words, Europe at Dawn aims unapologetically at readers who have been following the sequence’s puzzles along with Rudi from the beginning, and certainly not those taking their first steps into Fractured Europe. Even casual readers of the earlier volumes may feel a little like the younger Rudi, whose older self remembers him discovering what would turn out to become a significant map in a bank vault, yet finding it at the time “all but meaningless without the two other items in the box” (p. 254). One climactic revelation turns on the role played in the last three books by one Andrew Molson, first mentioned by that name almost three hundred pages in. The suspense of the fast-moving first part in Tallinn dissipates once the story takes its main characters back over the previous volumes’ tracks, while the number of times couriers on compromised missions have to escape cities by collecting dead drops of clothes at transport hubs starts to give the plot mechanics the familiarity of a railway-themed board game. Yet the mysteries that lured Rudi into this post-Schengen underground receive answers readers have awaited for five years, and, as the characters take their last waterborne journey, there is still some wonder in contemplating “the Rhine and the Danube and the Ruhr and where they might lead, if you only had the right charts” (p. 343).
The Rhine, the Danube, and the Ruhr, all arteries of Cold War spy fiction, no longer flow only to the certain places they used to before the Berlin Wall came down. Indeed, three decades later, the spy novel’s aesthetics no longer even serve to ask what geopolitical uncertainties might replace a world with two nuclear superpowers and an axiomatic ideological divide: in hands like Hutchinson’s, they are turned instead towards wondering whether, given that the “post-1989” moment is now a generation ago, what the next chapter in Europe’s recursive project of imagining itself will be.
The continent-conjuring of Fractured Europe is, for a sequence by a British author, somewhat distinctive for beginning in Kraków with a transient Estonian chef as its protagonist. This is a series that harnesses the narratives of eastward enlargement that were coursing through ideas of European identity when Hutchinson started to plan the first volume in the late 1990s—though all but the most well-travelled readers will have to trust in his extrapolations of locations’ context, detail, and culture, and the task of translating it into Estonian or Polish for readers who would know its major sites more intimately must have been an intriguing one.
The Anglicised Europe of the Community and its mysterious county of Ernshire, meanwhile, leaves the continent containing a nostalgic extra England, with “not a single curry house in the entire country,” “an unnerving place to be a member of an ethnic minority” to say the least (p. 230)—a projection of racist British conservatism that Hutchinson had started projecting into the future as an existential threat to European security some years before the Brexit referendum, in which one could readily imagine certain Leave supporters searching for a map of Ernshire in order to reach sunlit uplands of their own. In contrast to the first volumes, however, awareness that Britain might be about to throw European geopolitics into chaos couldn’t have been far from Hutchinson’s mind while he wrote Europe at Dawn—and the state of a Heathrow Airport blockaded by the Community for two years, in another narrative thread with which this volume checks in briefly to tie off near the end, did start to echo the privations of a protracted no-deal Brexit for which local authorities were busy planning when I first read this book.
The endemic Mediterranean refugee crisis that Hutchinson’s Europe is still undergoing, meanwhile, is a piece of retrospective worldbuilding that requires believably integrating a new character into many of Fractured Europe’s main puzzles. This process does call attention to its absence in the earlier books, conceived when refugees were already being forced into taking deadly voyages to cross the sea and find sanctuary in fortified Europe, but before they had become the subject of the media spectacle of 2015. Europe at Dawn’s translation of the refugee crisis into near-future narrative still differentiates itself from the alarmist dystopias of the European right-wing, by depicting their personal strategies of survival rather than white Europeans’ reactions to them. Indeed, the novel relegates racist discourses of “overcrowding” to the past, by positing that parts of this Europe have already been depopulated by a pandemic flu.
Even the invisibility of mass death and detention in the Mediterranean is, on the other hand, part of everyday experience for most white Europeans, lending a sobering verisimilitude to how little it registered in the first three volumes through the viewpoint-characters’ eyes. In this, as in many more trivial matters, Hutchinson’s Europe is one of the most imaginable near futures of its kind. Here, the Eurovision final has some three hundred entries and lasts for three whole days, countries can only bid to host the Olympics if they’ve existed for more than a decade (in case they’ve disappeared again by the time the Games come round), and yet Dundee is European Capital of Culture—just like it might have been preparing to be at this very moment, if the European Commission had not, in 2017, disqualified UK cities from bidding because of Brexit.
This mix of the mundane and the alternate, Hutchinson has said, owes much to Keith Robert’s Pavane (1968), set in an alternate England where the Spanish Armada was successful and characters work ordinary and unfulfilling jobs, much like Fractured Europe’s own cast of characters. This is a lens that reveals much about where Hutchinson conceives of the power of international relations as really being exercised, “not by diplomats and generals sitting around tables but by two squaddies in a windowless room knowing that if they fuck up many people are going to die” (p. 274). The novel’s climax begins when we meet Alice again, in her new life in an Estonian island resort, and understand how profoundly the events of these four books have changed her, and have done so in ways that suggest her narrative role may actually have been to show what a toll on the innocent such entanglement with espionage takes—a story that Rudi can witness but not embody, now readers have followed him becoming hardened to it for so long. Even though this series is about spies who are learning how to remake the map of Europe, the Belgian chateau where they hole up before their final mission is the nearest its action has ever got to ornate corridors of power. Not unlike the parallel geographies that the Coureurs have been uncovering since the sequence began, Europe at Dawn is a conclusion that wraps itself around earlier volumes to offer deeper answers, imagining the future of a Europe which, even as Hutchinson was writing the first three volumes, was already on shifting ground.