He is blue-green, a railroad flatters his cover, carrying a promising appetizer and a smiling grey Dutchman on his back. He counts 1222 pages, is the proud owner of the signature of his creator: the author Geert Mak, and most of all he is laying on my kitchen table. I can barely hold it in one hand, but … I am going to read this giant from pro- to epilogue. My grandfather will think I’m gone mad, my mother will complain that I didn’t buy ‘the pocket’ for book rack’s sake, my mother in law will hesitatingly recognize I maybe do some ‘intellectual activities’ at the university. But my goal is much more ambitious: I want to feed myself with the European History of the 20th century. Geert Mak will nourish my young ignorant stomach with the historical background of my continent and this in exactly 1,468 kilogram! Viva ‘In Europe’!
I am not the only one. At least 400 000 people made the big decision to add this European Road story to their book collection. Yes, a collectors item. Even our former prime minister Yves Leterme (or is he still or prime minister, I lost track after 4 switches?) mentioned Geert Mak, even though he didn’t sound very convincing when the question was asked to him during a stay in the hospital. What does Yves Leterme do during his recovery:“ well, I read a little bit to relax”, the sick minister responded, “ you know, Geert Mak and that kind of things. “ Geert Mak became a brand, a must-read if you call yourself an intellectual, a way to the complete, pure wisdom, a staircase to a higher level. Mak himself is aware of his popularity. It is hard to ignore. The book became a popular tv-serie, now released on dvd. How long will it take before his smiling grey head will appear on coffee mugs?
A lot of people carried this brave ‘brick’ everywhere as ‘homework’ (and maybe as muscle challenge too). After the publication in 2005, a friend of Geert Mak went on a camping holiday in France (a Dutch tradition). That summer the normally quite noisy Dutchmen rediscovered ‘silence’. The French could hardly believe it when they didn’t need to curse Andre Hazes and other Dutch ambiance singers that summer for after midnight misery. In every single tent they could witness at least one Dutchie with his or her nose in a massive blue-green book…
But what makes ‘In Europe’ so special?,? According to Mak and his fans this one-year travel story through Europe, covering the entire 20th century history in personal stories, confrontations, interviews, etc., fills a need for history in contemporary Europe. Who are the European people and which problems are/were they and their parents and grandparents dealing with? During a panel discussion last Sunday at the literary Festival Passa Porta (www.passaporta.be) in Brussels, Mak complained that my and the younger generation lost the feeling with ‘Europe’. ‘History’ is a quite neglected course in secondary school. “ Their parents and grandparents will tell them the necessary things. Let’s focus on math and sciences within the school building!” I always feel some objection in my veins when my generation is again stigmatized, but actually I have to admit (even though my history teacher was the best teacher ever) we didn’t even have enough time to learn the basics about the Balkan conflict during my high school education.
Of course I know the famous dates for Europe: 1914, 1918, 1940, 1945, 1989, 1999,… I know some facts which I confuse from time to time. And I am fortunate enough to meet international students at congresses and festivals now and then, to talk to them about their life in Bosnia, Poland, Spain, Sweden, … Still, even I feel a complete idiot when it comes to European contemporary history. I am part of the lucky generation in West-Europe that never experienced war, that haven’t lived in poverty or without freedom. My grandfather always repeats the story of Liberation Day and I try to imagine the enthusiasm and hopeful spirit of the unification, the birth of what would become the EU. Where did it go wrong? When was the scepticism born? How come the EU is still a boat with 27 captains, all focusing on their own steering wheel? Will Mak enlighten the dark holes in my historical brain? Will Europe be less complex and more united than ever before when I reach page 1222? You could say Geert Mak teaches his people to read (or at least buy historical books), but I wonder if his book, tv-serie and DVD-box has enlightened 400 000 minds in the Netherlands, Belgium and abroad… Will Mak also teach his people to vote in June?