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Koen Peeters: Grote Europese roman [Great European Novel]

In his introduction to this novel, Peeters states that it is his intention in this book to write the Great American Novel under false colours. He plans to write the Great European Novel which he has found does not exist, after Googling the term. (I found several references to the Great European Novel, albeit most of which postdate this novel, including this article about Conrad and this quotation from Kundera as well as a few references to the novel under review.). His intention is to write thirty-six chapters focussed on thirty-six European capitals. He tells us – twice – that any resemblance to any real place is entirely coincidental. Indeed, a tongue-in-cheek approach is key to the whole novel.

We start with Bern, though you might not have known this if it weren’t for the fact that the chapter is titled Bern. Indeed, Bern is almost completely irrelevant. Theo Marchand, who has appeared in previous works by Peeters, is head of a Belgian company. What it actually does is not clear, though it seems to make gadgets. He drives three hours from Brussels and ends up at the Hotel des Roses in an unnamed resort, surrounded by mountains. Wherever it is – and we are not told – it is not Bern which, according to Google, would take six hours and nineteen minutes to reach by car from Brussels. He has having his annual meeting with like-minded entrepreneurs. This is normally a joyous occasion, as they get together, listen to a few talks, attend a few seminars and enjoy the good life. This year, however, there is an air of gloom. Theo, in particular, is worried about business, which seems to be falling off. They attribute this to the new digital age and companies like Google, Amazon and Ebay, who do not seem to need them. The world is moving from products to software. The solution is more advertising and moving on line. The day of the stapler has gone. And Bern? There is a room in the hotel called the Bern room though, as the narrator comments, God knows why it was called the Bern room. Other European capitals will get similar short shrift.

Though the next chapter is set in Brussels, it is called Lisbon. Robin, who will be our focus and narrator, works for Theo in the main Brussels office. He is aware that when the building was constructed, two Portuguese workers were killed in an accident. Robin wonders whether their souls are still in Brussels or have returned to Lisbon. Robin works in marketing. They prepare charts, plans and so on but Robin has doubts as to whether it makes any sense and achieves anything. Robin is around thirty, lives on his own, seems to have few interest, appears to be heterosexual but is not married nor does he seem to have a girlfriend and seemingly lacks ambition. However, he is well-liked, particularly by Theo. Not much happens in the office. They chat about this and that. They get a virus on their PCs. Rick, the lawyer, is fired because he always seem to be neglecting his duties.

Our next stop is Bucharest. Robin is outside in Brussels, when he sees a colourful group of people. They are Roma from Bucharest. Theo tells Robin he wants to send him on a European tour to see how other businesses are coping with the new reality, starting with an executive evaluation test in Paris. Why is he sending Robin? Because he knows Latin. At least that is one of the arguments Theo gives because knowing Latin is something his fellow executives all seem to share. Robin also sees the 9/11 attacks on TV. He compares the World Trade Center in New York with the one in Brussels.

He goes to Paris for the test, which he finds demanding, gets stuck in a lift with a woman who works in the building and visits the Eiffel Tower, as he gets a free ticket as compensation for being stuck in the lift. He meets and talks to Ylvi from Tallinn when back in Brussels then flies to Vienna for the start of his European tour. He does not like Vienna. He takes a taxi to Bratislava, where he talks to a group of executives from a firm called Škola (it means school in Slovak). This does not go well.

He is then off to Budapest, where he is told there are lots of baths. He cannot find one that is open. He has something of a competition with a Hungarian woman, comparing Belgium with Hungary. She wins.

The book continues in this way. We follow Theo’s early life. His mother died in Vilnius (another capital ticked off) and he collects stamps from various countries. Robin goes to some of these capitals, such as Stockholm and London, meets people from others, such as Dublin (he is propositioned by an Irish man) and Helsinki, and has a very tangential relationship with others, such as Valletta (a salesman thinks he might have met Robin before in a sauna in Valletta; Robin denies it) or Podgorica (because there seems to be a Montenegro Street in Brussels and Robin claims that, apart from the Montenegrins, he is the only person that knows that its capital is Podgorica). He does not much enjoy the places he visits. Usually, the first thing he does on entering his hotel room is to throw away all the travel brochures the hotel provides and he often just stays in the hotel, eating and drinking. What he does see of the cities is generally limited – the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the porn shops in Soho in London. He does collect a few foreign words (which he writes on his wrist or the back of his hand, to Theo’s disgust) and on two occasions, at Theo’s request, buys a book for Theo.

His business meetings are not any more successful. He seems unable to convince any of them to take an interests in his firm’s products or the changes going on in the world. They seem stuck in their ways and unwilling to change and not much interested in what is happening. Even his travel does not always work out well. On arrival at his hotel in Rome, he is told that they have no record of his booking, even though he has a print-out of the email exchange, and no room available. He ends up staying in a convent. In London the hotel is overbooked but they do find him a room in another hotel and get and pay for a taxi to take him there.

The one city exploration he does make is made unwillingly. In Luxembourg, Laurent takes him on an EU tour. Laurent knew Robert Schuman, one of the founders of the early EU institutions. Robin, of course, thinks he is talking about the composer and has not heard of this Robert Schuman. Robin is not an EU enthusiast. Laurent, however, plans to visit the tallest mountain in every European country. Robin does, however, have a Moleskine notebook, given to him by Theo, when he saw Robin writing things on the back of his hand. In it he writes his notes on the various capitals he visits and the people he meets. He calls it his Great European Notebook.

His love life barely progresses. He meets several women but, apart from Lisa, nothing much happens. He does actually sleep with Lisa but that is all they do – sleep but no sex. Lisa later tells him that she is not interested in continuing the relationship. He does not seem to care but then he does not seem to care about much of anything.

Communication is an issue in the new Europe. Robin, besides Flemish, claims to speak good English, passable French and a little bit of German. Inevitably, most conversations with foreigners are held in English. This works sometimes but not always. Some people just do not understand English. However, in a clearly mocking way, Peeters/Robin churn out the buzz words which are all in English: content manager, upsell, deepsell, cross sell, customer value, competitive intelligence, e-procurement, content management, data driven marketing and many, many more.

Robin seems to take a detached view of life. Despite his Moleskine notebook, he does not seem terribly interested in Europe, foreign countries or, indeed, much of anything, except noting down a few foreign words and talking to attractive foreign women (which invariably leads nowhere). Only towards the end of the book, when he has learned that Theo is Jewish and and his parents were killed in the Holocaust, does he take an interest in the Holocaust. At the same time, he seems to have a girlfriend, an American woman whom he met at Pompeii ten years previously, though even that relationship seems low key. He does end the book by giving the translations of the word robin (i.e. the bird) in various European languages.

That Robin and, perhaps, Peeters, have a cynical or, perhaps more accurately, a detached view of Europe and other countries is clear in this book. It is also clear that in the view of Robin and Peeters, most European firms do not have a clue about how to adapt to the modern, digital world. Theo, of course, is living in the past but the younger generation do not seem much more aware. A key character I have not mentioned before is Onslow, also known as Oslo (the only reference to the Norwegian capital) and Oscar, who is in charge of security, including computer security, at the firm and he seems to be the only tech savvy person in the book.

That this is not the Great European Novel is clear, any more than Philip Roth‘s The Great American Novel is The Great American Novel. Nevertheless, its somewhat cynical and detached approach makes interesting reading and gives a perspective on Europe that is not found in many novels. Sadly, it has not, at the time of writing, been translated into English (or, for that matter, into French or German).

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Meulenhoff/Manteau
No English translation
First published in Italian in 2010 as Grande romanzo europeo by due punti
Translated by Antonella Ippolito
Also published in Bulgarian, Hungarian and Slovenian