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A EU book tour

April 22, 2011 26 comments

 I realized lately that I had never read any Dutch book, although the Netherlands are a country really close to my own, France, and are one of the 27 members of the EU. To me, the EU means we try to live together with a bunch of common rules, well, except for the British who always ask for an exemption for everything, on principle. Thinking about it, we don’t know a lot about each other, though. So I imagined I would start by reading at least one book from another country member of the EU and thus do a little literary tour. As a reminder, the 27 countries are:

  • Austria
  • Belgium
  • Bulgaria
  • Cyprus
  • CzechRepublic
  • Denmark
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Hungary
  • Ireland
  • Italy
  • Latonia
  • Lithuania
  • Luxembourg
  • Malta
  • Netherlands
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • United Kingdom

That was a great decision, made on a whim, without thinking of any practical consequences. I have already read one or several books from the countries in blue in the list but I want to read more of them. Then my first thought was to write a list of books by country and then choose at least one of these books. For France, I’m tempted to read a writer from the Négritude Movement, like Aimé Césaire and for the UK, I’d be glad to pick one from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I’m already worried about how to find a book from Luxembourg, Malta and Cyprus translated into French. I decided not to try to find the best book of each country (who could point it out to me, btw?) but look for books a) translated into French b) available in paperback c) last but not least, appealing to me.

So here I am, with an Excel spreadsheet and Internet, ready to type that marvellous list. And then a doubt poured down on me. Where do I start? How do I identify the “nationality” of a book? Chewing over this, several possibilities came to my mind:

According to the nationality of the writer.

That sounds only fair, otherwise countries like Belgium or Ireland wouldn’t have any books since their language is French, Dutch or English. But then what happens if the country no longer exists or if the borders have changed?

Do you refer to where the writer comes from and see in which country the place is now? And where does a writer come from? The place he/she was born? Then Romain Gary, the one who changed his birth name Roman Kacew into a French one on his ID card (a nom de plume wasn’t enough) would be a Lithuanian writer because he was born in Vilnius? Or Kessel would be Argentinean because he was accidentally born in Buenos Aires? And of course, then you have to face all the writers who were born in the colonies (Camus in Algeria, Duras in Indochina…) So forget about the place of birth, I mused.

Then what?

Do you refer to the nationality written on their passport? What if they have several? And what about writers who emigrate? Is Milan Kundera still Czech after so many years in France? 

That left me with more questions than answers and moving on to the next possibility. 

According to the language of the book.

At least, you don’t have to care about the existence of the country or of changing borders or of emigrating writers. Objection 1: how do we deal with countries with several languages, official or not? (Belgium, Luxembourg, Finland, Spain…) Objection 2:  Where do I file Samuel Beckett who wrote in English and in French?

And in this case, Kafka is a German writer even if Prague is his city. When I think of Kafka, I think of Prague not of Hamburg or Dusseldorf. His cultural background, his environment seems Czech. Is that the other alternative?

According to the cultural background of the books and the residence of the writer.

Then Kafka is Czech.This leads some readers to wonder if Murakami is still a Japanese writer as in some of his books, if it wasn’t for the Japanese names of the characters, you could forget they take place in Japan. But another difficulty pops up now. How do you give an objective definition of the “cultural background”?

That’s when my brain threatened to blow up. The complexity of European history was exposed in front of me and each possibility seemed to bring more questions than answers.

So I don’t have a clear answer.

Bookstores don’t have a clear answer either. They seem to choose the language of the book as a criteria to select the appropriate shelf. Some do differently. For example, there’s a travel bookstore near my office. They have tourist guides and fiction books (mostly literary and crime fiction) on their shelves. I thought it was the best place to go to find books sorted by country, fiction books sitting beside the guide books. They have another method. They choose books according to the nationality of the writer and/or the setting of the books. For a given country, you can find books written by foreigners but that describe the life in the country you want to visit. Whoa, another idea… 

That leaves me with no rule at all to draw the list or choose the books. The idea was a whim, the choice will be a whim too, and that’s perfect for me. I’m now asking to all the readers of this post to free their minds and write all their recommendations, suggestions and “coup de coeur” (*) in the comments. Hopefully, there will be enough of them to make a list. I’ll publish it on the Reading Lists page, accessible to every one and you’ll have to follow the blog if you want to find out which books I’ll read for my EU tour because honestly, right now, I have no idea.

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(*) Un coup de coeur is a French expression which literally means “blow of the heart”. It is frequently applied to the books you love and want to recommend to other readers. In bookstores, you can see signs “coup de coeur du libraire” to point out the books the employees particularly liked.

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