Sunday, 16 March 2014

Dave Hutchinson: Europe in Autumn

After I’d read a few pages, I was asking myself how someone I’d never heard of could be writing as though he were Alan Furst writing science fiction in his spare time. Turns out, when I checked on line, that Dave Hutchinson’s older than I am, which explains the style and the sense of experience that informs it, but goes nowhere near explaining how it’s taken this long for a publisher to notice him.

Europe in Autumn would have interested me even it had been badly written, because I’m a sucker for books about Europe falling apart. Getting that and good writing made me check religiously to see what terrible thing was about to happen to keep my karma properly balanced. Then I went to see 300: Rise of an Empire to be on the safe side. Hutchinson’s a good raconteur, so much so that you hardly notice that the first half of the book doesn’t even seem to be about anything; it’s a collection of anecdotes connected only by the protagonist and the abiding sensibility of the book. Yes, nothing’s happening, but it’s happening in such a beguiling way that you’re content to sit there reading another chapter, not to see what happens next, but for the pleasure of the company.

Perhaps because the first half is so leisurely and directionless, it feels almost abrupt and rushed when the plot finally kicks in. Normally I’d be arguing for vicious editing and chopping back of the early stuff to give the plot itself some room to breathe, but the early stuff is just too well written to cut; for once in my life I find myself wishing that instead there’d been more room in the back half - I suppose it would have become the back two thirds - so that the plot development could match up to the pace of the buildup.

So what’s it all about? It’s about getting by in future Europe. At some indeterminate point in the future, economic reality, a flu epidemic and the global war on terror have collectively refractured Europe; not only has the EU fallen apart, but the constituent states have fragmented as well. Every split we could anticipate now has happened, but wonderfully Hutchinson realised that once a country started to fall apart and people saw some other group going it alone, there’d be no end to the impulse to act on the precedent, and you’d wind up with the Independent People’s Republic of Cork in no time.

Into this mess wanders Rudi, who just wants to be a chef, but speaks too many languages to be overlooked by the people making a living out of a world with so many borders - and so much of a need to get across them. He slowly gets drawn into the Coureurs du Bois, who are either organised crime or a resistance movement or something else again; explaining just what gives away too much of the plot.

The pleasure of the book rests in the writing; Hutchinson sketches in characters you want to spend time with, and has a knack for writing about ordinary things in an engaging way. Along the way, he chucks out wonderful ideas like they were no big deal; there’s a deadpan account of the creation of The Line, a transnational railway which declared itself to be its own country as soon as it finished construction, and an offhanded approach to plausible but cool technology, which is waved in when it’s convenient, but never allowed to overwhelm the plot or the people. 

As I ponder that, I realise that what Europe in Autumn is most like is some farfetched collaboration of Alan Furst and William Gibson, something which I would never have thought possible or even worth doing, but which turned out to be just perfect. The good news is that the book ends in a way which makes me think there might be a sequel; the bad news is that it took a long time for Hutchinson to get this far, and there’s no way to tell if he can produce something else this good any time soon.

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