Friday 10 April 2009

In Europe

I’m currently in the middle of reading Geert Mak’s In Europe, in which he gives us a fascinating insight into the Europe of the twentieth century. Mak had previously caught my eye with his ‘biography’ of Amsterdam, subtitled The Brief Life of a City, but since I’m not a big fan of the Dutch capital, it was never on my wish-list of reads. However, Mak’s In Europe, published in the original Dutch in 2004 and translated into English by Sam Garrett in 2007, captured my imagination. In 1999, on the brink of the millennium, Mak journeys across the continent in pursuit of the vestiges of the places and events that left their stamp on the course of Europe in the twentieth century: the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the rise of National Socialism, etc. For myself, who has more than a passing interest in geography and history, the book is real eye-opener because Mak is one of those people who not only has a terrific understanding of time and place, he is able to put it down in writing so persuasively. It must have been a mammoth project involving huge amounts of desk research and planning. His compelling interpretation of events is interspersed with anecdotal evidence of eyewitnesses, including, for example, some of the last surviving veterans of the Great War. Mak is an affable travelling companion and is thankfully not one of those Dutch authors who is quick to venture an uninvited opinion.

In the wake of the book's success, the VPRO recently broadcast the series
In Europa, each episode of which, covering the periods dealt with in the book, is narrated by Mak. These can be watched (in Dutch) on the In Europa website, itself is a mine of information on European issues past and present.

So, a good read, one which has been partly achieved (in English) as a result of Sam Garrett’s excellent translation. As a translator one can become overly critical about use of vocabulary, sentence construction and tone of voice, but so far I’m sold. Working in the business, I have good days and bad days, but in this instance – even allowing for editors - I can only marvel at the almost seamless consistency of the English. Well done Mr Garrett! Maybe, when I’m finished with In Europe, I will move on to Amsterdam.