Intended as an assault on rigid conceptions of identity, it is fitting that Philippe Mouche’s Bons baisers d’Europe is itself is a hybrid, blending the reflections of a Zeitroman with the plot-driven zest of an espionage novel. Major events of the recent past feature, including Brexit, the war in Ukraine, the refugee crisis, the gilets jaunes protests and the pandemic. More thematically, the book dwells on much-debated contemporary phenomena like disinformation and ‘fake news’, Russian meddling in Western European politics, populism and the European Union more broadly.
Such matters pepper an entertaining though conventional spy thriller. Protagonist Fayez Barawi comes to Europe as a refugee from Iraq and sets himself the extraordinary goal of learning all of the EU’s twenty-four official languages. He achieves this after two decades, in the meantime adopting the pseudonym Fergus Bond and acquiring exceptional renown within the Union’s institutions for his linguistic and rhetorical exploits. Eventually rewarded by Brussels with the position of ‘Ambassador for Multilingualism’, he later becomes the bête noire of the continent’s growing identitarian movement, embodying all its adherents despise: the foreigner, the cosmopolitan, the polyglot. Various plots are hatched to assassinate Bond, such is the threat his awesome powers of persuasion are understood to pose to nationalist projects everywhere in Europe. Much of the book is devoted to these schemes, whose twists and turns it charmingly relays.
True to its genre, Bons baisers d’Europe is a good romp. However, Mouche aspires to provide more than just entertainment. In fact, the book is informed by a distinct apprehension of Europe and what it represents. This vision derives much from the kind of cultural understandings of Europe that one associates with figures like Milan Kundera. In ‘A Kidnapped West: The Tragedy of Central Europe, his 1983 essay reissued by Faber last year, the late Czech writer canvasses an idealised version of his native Central Europe (essentially Poland, Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia) as a model which the wider continent might emulate. What takes shape over the course of the essay is, as Enda O’Doherty wrote in these pages (‘The Europeans’, April 2021), a ‘condensed image of Europe and its rich variety, a little super-European Europe, a miniature model of a Europe of nations conceived on the principle of the maximum of diversity in the minimum of space’ [my emphasis]. This was a vision of a Europe whose actual vanguard was made up of poets, writers and philosophers – enemies of sameness; champions of difference – not politicians, bureaucrats or clergymen.
Mouche’s own vision, in so far as we can identify one, resembles Kundera’s, though whereas for the late Franco-Czech writer Central Europe’s ‘small states’ heroically concretised a diversity that he saw as constituting Europe’s paradoxical foundation, for Mouche, this key principle is instead personified in a single extraordinary individual. By prioritising linguistic diversity specifically, Mouche invokes another exponent of a cultural view of Europe: Umberto Eco. Like Kundera, the great Italian medievalist, semiotician and polymath understood Europe as a product of difference, going so far as to write in his 1993 book, The Search for the Perfect Language (Making of Europe), that before the confusio linguarum, ‘there was no European culture, and, hence, no Europe’.
Early in his novel, Mouche actually has one of his narrators quote Eco’s well-known statement: ‘the language of Europe is translation.’ That declaration has since been adopted as an unofficial slogan of sorts for the EU’s Erasmus exchange programme, and no wonder: of all Brussels’ cultural schemes, Erasmus manages to actualise – if for a privileged minority only – an idealism which all too often ends up subordinated to the EU’s drab legalism. Utopian at heart, the programme seems to hold out, however insufficiently, at least the possibility of creating a European culture proper – one whose participants could actually understand one another. In Mouche’s novel, the preternatural Bond is something like a paragon of this model citizen – what the psychoanalyst and linguist Julia Kristeva referred to, in a recent lecture on European culture and identity, as a ‘kaleidoscopic’ individual, both polyphonic and polyglot – his go-to weapons dialogue and persuasion rather than force.
Appealing as such high-minded attitudes to hybridity and openness no doubt are, the fact that they jar somewhat with the tenor of contemporary politics on the ground is undeniable. My own reading of Mouche’s novel happened to coincide with the recent upsurge in far-right violence here in Ireland, a development which has shattered illusions about our perceived immunity to the kind of anti-immigrant sentiment common in both continental Europe and Britain. Naturally, I couldn’t help but recognise in the oafish ‘identitarians’ who picket Bond’s speeches the self-described ‘patriots’ decrying an ‘invasion’ of Ireland by ‘unvetted’ migrants. More interesting still though in the light of Mouche’s themes was something I noticed about the Irish far right’s online idiom. Eschewing for the most part the more typical rhetorical mainstays of Irish nationalism – gestures of international solidarity among them – Ireland’s far-right agitators instead parrot the lingua franca of transnational Anglophone fascism, harping on about ‘national security’, ‘open borders’ and ‘white genocide’, and calling their enemies ‘globalists’, ‘groomers’ and ‘cucks’. For lack of a better term, this strikes me as a monolingualism in the deepest sense; not only does one speak a single language, but one seems capable of deploying that language only in the narrowest and – ironically – most culturally indistinct way.
If Mouche’s identitarians are depressingly tangible, his messiah-like Bond, on the contrary, is as otherworldly as the extraordinary linguistic capabilities imputed to him. In this respect, he seems symptomatic of a wider crisis among liberals in Europe and elsewhere. Confronted by increasingly pervasive discontent, manifestations of which grow more and more deranged, partisans of the social and economic status quo continue to fantasise about some deus ex machina coming to the rescue. This could be in the form of an individual, à la Macron, or a marshalling of the legal system, as we see in the US. In neither case have the results been auspicious. Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National continues to snap at the heels of France’s wannabe homme providentiel, while attempts to bar Trump from November’s ballot are both unrealistic and potentially dangerous: as the legal scholar and commentator Samuel Moyn has convincingly argued, they are apt to further amplify the nativist roar by seeming to confirm theories of elite conspiracy.
What should be done about any of this is of course beyond the remit of both spy novels and this essay. But briefly, and staying with Mouche’s primary theme, we can say for sure that political elites would do well to relearn an idiom that emphasises collective action rather than technocratic management. To be clear, this isn’t to suggest that sound governance is unimportant or can be dispensed with, but rather that that approach can be so uninspiring that it risks leaving a vacuum that will inevitably be filled by opportunists and charlatans.
As Adam Tooze noted in a recent column analysing the rise of the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland, a combination of squeezed public services and large-scale inward migration is a recipe for xenophobia. As in Germany, so in Ireland. Tooze advocates ‘a concerted programme of public investment in housing and public services’ as an inoculant against the far right’s growth, and as unglamorous as it sounds, such a programme – which, based on polling, would enjoy widespread public support in Ireland – seems about the only plausible option available. For sure, more housing won’t eliminate racism, but it will help marginalise the racists. They will of course continue to kick and scream, but we won’t hear them.
Luke Warde is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Irish Times and the Sunday Independent. He holds a PhD in French from the University of Cambridge. Philippe Mouche’s Bons baisers d’Europe is published by Gaïa Éditions.