Advertised as “the love child of John le Carré and Franz Kafka”, this new novel of Dave Hutchinson takes place in Central-Eastern Europe – our stomping grounds. It probably means that I will be a tiny bit partial to it – but to be honest, this book doesn’t need my partiality, it can defend itself pretty well.
We meet the protagonist, a young Estonian guy named Rudi, in a Kraków restaurant. He’s a chef, and he’s good at what he does. He’s also a bird of passage – been there, done that, in a lot of places, especially across Eastern Europe. And this singular quality of Rudi is seized upon by representatives of a secret organization calling itself Les Coureurs des Bois. Granted, it seems a really fancy name for a bunch of smugglers specializing in small-time espionage and smuggling people across the borders, but don’t let it fool you. This name has a history. Original Les Coureurs des Bois were French-Canadian woodsmen, “runners of the woods”, traveling the interior of North America in the XVI and XVII century with consummate skill, imagination and no respect for borders. They were the pioneers of an unmapped world. World of wonders, where everything was possible if you just had enough dare – and luck. Keep this image with you till the end of the book, where it’s very neatly used as a form of closure.
And this is where Hutchinson leads us all along. Because in his slightly alternative future Europe there are borders everywhere. Due to a series of crises, from economic to political, topped with a terrible flu pandemic, Europe has become utterly divided, populated with ephemeral nation-states or city-states, or even district-states. This process of re-forming borders is in this book followed to its logical conclusion – namely, to the point of absurdity, which Hutchinson very cleverly exploits. In his future Europe there is even a place and a time for a village-state run by fans of Günther Grass – Grassheim.
Rudi was vaguely sorry that Grassheim had been reabsorbed by the Pomeranian Republic, itself a polity of only ten or fifteen years of standing. He really liked The Tin Drum.
The only thing connecting all the countries on the continent is The Line – a long, straight as an arrow railway line, going all the way from Portugal to Siberia. Which of course, upon completion, has become a separate nation in its own right – with manned borders, lots of razor wire, monitoring and guns. In this world a person moving freely across the borders is king.
The job of Coureur, however, has also some drawbacks. Most notable is a constant threat to one’s life, closely followed by betrayal, but tortures aren’t unheard of either. And it’s never good to lose one’s “package”, especially when it’s a live one and a Coureur sees it being killed even before it can be delivered. It’s not pleasant either when a Coureur finds his partner’s head in a luggage locker and is left not only with trauma, but also with many more increasingly important questions and not enough answers.
All those things happen to Rudi at one time or another, keeping him – and the reader – constantly on edge. But while this le Carré styled thriller is played on the surface, there’s a steady undercurrent of… something, something Kafkuesque, incomprehensible and threatening at the same time. What it is exactly, Rudi – and the readers – learn eventually, as one of the reviewers put it, “in the last 10 minutes of the book”. It is of course an exaggeration, but not by much. This book is clearly calling for sequel – which, accidentally, will be coming to the shelves this November, under the name of Europe at Midnight.
We may learn the shape and color of this unnamed phenomenon pretty late, but its presence, its shadow falls over the best part of the book. It’s always there, on the back of Rudi’s head, riding many plot turns, influencing many important decisions. And so learning its name brings quite a lot of deserved satisfaction to an attentive reader.
In reading this book attention is really called for. The pacing constantly shifts, from the slow unfolding and detailed worldbuilding of the first chapters, to the head-on, dizzying speed of the middle sequences, or Situations, and then back to a bit more contemplative pace in the final part, where a lot of space is dedicated to revealing the secret – and putting the sf, slightly Asimovian flavor on the novel. And this is really the only cause of discontent for me – after all this buildup the great unfurling of the secret felt slightly flat. I read it and thought “Is this really it?”. Because the secret itself is not a new concept, and it’s not a very original one. In a novel so innovatively merging thriller with comedy and s-f this felt a little disappointing. However, if you’re a sucker for maps and cartography, you may find it deeply satisfying.
Europe in Autumn is written in a remarkable style. Sympathetic and compassionate to the characters populating the pages, very observant and full of dry humor, added here and there to make things more spicy – and, slightly paradoxically (albeit not for Pratchett’s fans), more humane. Hutchinson has an eye for details, and a skill in making short but accurate observations, which stay with the reader for long. The protagonist, Rudi, is intelligent and self-aware to the point of becoming slyly sarcastic. He’s the first to point out the le Carré inspirations, to laugh at them and to think about them – and to force us to do the same. How it is possible that a real-life organization takes its language and strategies from a XXth century spy novelist?
And, at the end, a few sentences about the storytelling style. The plot is jumping rather than flowing, as for the most part of the book we accompany Rudi from one Situation to another, and holes between those can last hours, days or even months. I appreciated this strategy and felt it was very natural, mapping the scattering of events. But understanding this structure requires a lot of attention from the reader, and combined with the effort necessary for following the convoluted, multi-layered main plot, may seem like too much for some readers.
Let’s make an intellectual exercise and imagine a book written by an alternative Umberto Eco, who actually believes in conspiracy theories. I think it would look a lot like Europe in Autumn. I enjoyed this book very much and will be eagerly waiting for the sequel. And wondering whether I’ll get a chance to see Kraków one more time through Rudi’s eyes. Hopefully next time the smog will be gone 🙂