Europeana by Patrik Ourednik: How to Read Like a Writer
In a previous blog post I explained how creative nonfiction uses thorough research, facts, and real people and events as well as fictional techniques like scenes and narrative arcs. Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ourednik, translated into English by Gerald Turner, is experimental creative nonfiction. In order to show the horror and absurdity of the European twentieth century, Ourednik uses a unique way of organizing facts, a circular timeline, and shaded callouts in the margins to create an objective, rhythmic historical account.
Modules of Focus: No Chapters
Instead of dividing Europeana into chapters or parts, Ourednik separates the book by modular sections. He selects a topic and focuses on it for a page to a page and a half before transitioning to a related topic for the next section. These modules concentrate on subjects like war, sexuality, religion, memorials, and even when the twentieth century began. One section describes people’s confusion over when to celebrate the coming of the twenty-first century:
At the end of the twentieth century people were not certain whether they were to celebrate the beginning of the new millennium in 2000 or 2001. It was important for people who were waiting for the end of the world, but most people did not believe in the end of the world, so they did not care (11).
The section goes on to describe different groups’ feelings about the end of the world and the beginning of the twenty-first century. By focusing on a specific subject instead of a specific event, movement, or person, Ourednik avoids situations where he might be tempted to provide commentary or pass judgement on the historical facts. This preserves his objective narration. Other authors struggling to organize their information might find such modules useful.
Because the book doesn’t use chapters or other breaks in the text, the modules also provide much needed white space. There are no paragraphs or indentations within the modules. The only relief a reader’s eyes experience are in the line spacing and extra space between sections. Writers who tend toward large blocks of text should look at how Ourednik manipulates the book's spacing to avoid overwhelming his readers. Solid pages of text without line breaks and indentations can be intimidating and off-putting to readers and discourage them from exploring your writing. Writers who don’t use a lot of dialogue, short paragraphs, or chapter breaks need to find other ways to create white space and invite readers in like Europeana does.
Circular Time: Nonlinear
While each module only focuses on a single subject, Ourednik revisits these subjects multiple times from different angles and using different sets of facts. Europeana begins with:
The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too . . . (1)
Here Ourednik describes war’s death toll and soldiers through their measurements. A few pages later he returns to World War I, saying:
The First World War was also called a trench war because after a few months the front became static and the soldiers hid in muddy trenches and at night or at dawn they launched offensives . . . (5)
When Ourednik returns to the subject of World War I, he does not return to measurements; he focuses on the trench aspect of the war, revealing new information. Each time he returns to war, Nazis, communism, sexuality, and religion, he examines a different facet and in doing so keeps the subject fresh and interesting. If he only talked about war through measurements, Europeana would be a very different and, in my opinion, less interesting historical account. Writers looking at using a nonlinear structure to return to a specific event, moment, or fact can learn how to keep repetitive story elements fresh and new from Ourednik’s module repetition.
Like the modules themselves, Europeana’s circular time contributes to its objective tone. By cycling through events, years, and subjects multiple times, Ourednik avoids inserting his and other people’s and cultures’ personal opinions, biases, and thoughts. He sticks to the facts of a given aspect of the section’s subject, knowing he will return and explore another aspect later. As the author, the knowledge that you will and can return to an event, moment, or subject is a great way to avoid info dumps and too much exposition in one place. Weave description and necessary information throughout your story to maintain your reader’s interest. You can build your story and its history in layers like Ourednik.
Words in the Margins: Callouts
In addition to experimenting with organization through subject and nonlinear chronology, Europeana further plays with form through faint words in the margins. Each module has two to four callouts that are a phrase pulled out of context and placed in the margin. The section on celebrating the twenty-first century has the callouts “end of the world,” “yin and yang,” and “breakdown.” While some of the phrases in the margins seem to be the subject or main point (if there is a main point) of the module they appear next to, others feel random. I don’t know for certain what the purpose of the callouts is, but to me they are a comment on taking history out of context. When you pull one fact and act as if it is the only truth, you lose the big picture and the fact itself becomes twisted or meaningless like a word or phrase does when you pull it out of its sentence and paragraph.
Regardless of the purpose of the words in the margins, authors looking to experiment with form can use them as inspiration. Light grey words in the margins of a text could symbolize a fading memory, a shadowy undertone, or another perspective. When experimenting, the margins are not off-limits real-estate; just remember the purpose of white space.
Why an Editor Believes Europeana by Patrik Ourednik Is a Successful Experiment
The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University (where I earned my MFA) pushes experimenting with writing. They want to see their students create a new form, a new reading experience, a new way of writing. What they don’t emphasize is when an experiment worked. Europeana’s experiments with form worked. The modules, circular timeline, and faded marginal callouts create a rare accomplishment: an objective historical account. The saying “history is written by the winners” is too often true. Whole cultures have been erased from humanity’s collective memory. By focusing on facts and circulating back to subjects, Ourednik avoids eliminating information or commenting on whether something was right or wrong. His experimentation with form successfully creates an objective history.
By stating facts objectively, the horrors, absurdities, and even contradictions of the twentieth century and humanity come into focus. Ourednik doesn’t have to say the death toll of Normandy was awful. He shows it by telling a reader how far the bodies would stretch if they were laid head to feet. When the experimental aspect of a text adds to a reader’s experience, the experiment was successful. When it confuses, distracts, or serves no purpose, it was not. However, an unsuccessful experiment doesn’t mean the story or idea is also unsuccessful; it means the form or experiment was.
Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century by Patrik Ourednik, translated by Gerald Turner, successfully experimented with the form of a creative nonfiction text to make an objective historical account. Notice the phrase “a brief history.” Ourednik doesn’t claim to tell the full history of an entire century in 122 pages, and your story doesn’t have to cover a subject in its entirety either. Now it’s your turn. Try experimenting with form through modules, a circular timeline, callouts, or some other organizational technique to Ignite Your Ink.
What do you think the purpose of the words in the margins of Europeana is? Let me know in the comments, and if you haven’t read Ourednik’s book, click on its image to the left. To receive a chart comparing the different points of view, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink blog.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.