The traveler comes in many guises. There is the truth seeker, the radical, self-consciously finding on the road a liberation from conformism and a way to novel truths and philosophies. There is the pilgrim, looking for regeneration from the shrine and the devotion and commitment required to get there. In the eighteenth century, those who could afford it embarked on the Grand Tour to worship in their own way at the sites of Beauty and Curiosity. All of these motives still get people out of their homes, to be sure, but another, at first sight odder, impulse is perhaps the most characteristically modern of the spurs to travel–the search for the past or its remains embodied in ruins and monuments. Worshiping history rather than faith or art, we make our pilgrimages to Gettysburg and Deerfield, or cross the Atlantic to pay homage at the battlefields of World War I or the hecatombs of World War II. Technology seems to intensify this wanderlust; the more the image proliferates, the greater the hunger for authenticity. But few can have taken the search quite as far as the Dutch journalist Geert Mak does in In Europe. The author of a splendid history of Amsterdam–one of the liveliest accounts of a modern city I know–Mak spent the last year of the last millennium crisscrossing Europe in order to see what remained of its most recent and bloodiest century. “I would follow,” he tells us, “as far as possible, the course of history, in search of the traces it had left behind.”
A blend of travelogue and historical narrative, In Europe thus attempts to take the pulse of the continent by retreading the old ground and seeing what–if anything–still stirs beneath. The “course of history” is a convenient fiction, to be sure, but it serves to launch an entertaining series of reflections. As January opens, our Baedeker-toting Dutchman tours the once-glittering bastions of the pre-1914 ancien régime–Amsterdam, Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna. February–the chilly depth of winter–sees him tramp through the mud of Ypres, then on to Cassel, Verdun and Versailles. In the old chateau at Doorn, he looks for the ghost of the kaiser in exile, then catches the spirit of Lenin heading through Stockholm and Helsinki en route to Petrograd. By May, as the weather starts to warm up, he has made it over the Alps to the souvenir sellers in Predappio, Il Duce’s birthplace, and then on beyond the Pyrenees to Barcelona and Guernica and the memories of the Spanish Civil War. The result is a sprawling, melancholic ramble in which memoirs, conversations and old-fashioned historical storytelling spring from chance encounters in bars and train carriages and spur authorial comment on the Europe that has been left behind.
As pilgrims know, legendary places vary in their potency. The great cities are too well-known, too dense in their significations, too energetically devoted to the present to lend themselves to quick takes, and Mak’s are basically pegs for entertaining stories of the fin de siècle and its aftermath. One-line efforts to capture a city’s essence rarely come off. To be told that Barcelona is “like a slovenly woman with beautiful eyes” alerts us to the nature of Mak’s view of his targets–the urgency of his desire to be seduced by them–but tells us precious little about the city itself. Smaller sites work their more oblique charm–the provincial Austrian graveyard that contains the tomb of a stolid Habsburg customs officer called Alois Hitler, the future Führer’s father; the wintry battlefields of the Western Front, where Mak fancies he can “see what they saw.” But of course, no place really allows one that; and what Mak is really after is not so much empathy as the emotional charge of some kind–any kind–of connection.
This proves frustratingly difficult to find, for it is exactly what time, ignorance and indifference are making it harder and harder to sustain. Belgian fields still surrender munitions and bones from the Great War, and the authorities still detonate unexploded ordnance the farmers bring them. But the once-frequent tours by veterans and their children are dwindling, and Mak worries how long the emotion of the conflict itself can survive the passing of the generations. In the Russian village where Lenin hid out briefly during the Revolution, the Mercedes of the new rich block the narrow alleys, and nothing records the great man’s passage. Outside Barcelona, villages abandoned since the Spanish Civil War are now used by the Dutch army to shoot commercials advertising its peacekeeping prowess. Mak’s journey turns into a lonely mission as he roams the continent for those few who care as much about the past as he does.