Life & Culture

This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now review - All of human life is here

Ben Judah broadens the scope of his epic feat of reportage on contemporary London to take in the relentless unpredictability of everyday life on the continent


This Is Europe: The Way We Live Now
By Ben Judah
Picador, £22

Ben Judah is becoming a faithful witness to those whose stories are rarely told.

Following his prize-nominated epic feat of reportage on the dizzyingly diverse multicultural and migrant underbelly of contemporary London, This is London (2016) — written in the spirit of George Orwell’s classic narratives of proletarian life in the 1930s — Judah has widened his angle of vision to take in Europe itself.

His latest book is a hallucinatory tour de force written with a discerning and compassionate eye, and an ear attuned to the pain, the drama, the sheer relentless unpredictability of everyday life for vast swathes of the continent’s 748 million people.

Among them are the Romanian transcontinental lorry drivers who park up and sleep over at English motorway service stations only to find their goods stolen by the morning; the Turkish students in Amsterdam whose love affairs embrace continents; the Italian mountain rescuers aiding West African migrants attempting to walk over the Alps in sub-zero temperatures; the refugees working for German Amazon; the Belarus families fleeing to Kyiv and Vilnius when police seek them out after an anti-government protest; the shepherd in the rural heart of Catholic Portugal with a Slovak partner whose home is destroyed by the fires breaking out across the continent; the young Latvian girl drawn into sex work; the Hungarian Lidl worker with a brain tumour; the gay Syrian drag artist in Berlin and the North African family whose asylum-seeking son becomes an imam in Avignon.

These are stories freighted with hardship, dislocation and loss, and yet the author’s capacity to listen with empathy, tact and fine-tuned attention renders them life-affirming.

His subjects are revealed to have rich and resilient inner lives however impoverished their backgrounds and circumstances, and whatever stresses press in on them in the present.

Moments of hope and joy — often in celebration of the continuity of life incarnated in children — keep breaking through.

With unostentatious skill Judah has constructed a book that lacks a discernible narrative arc, resisting turning lives into metaphors, although it begins at dawn with a harbour pilot guiding a vast container ship “filled with… crap” towards the orange glow of Rotterdam, and ends as the late summer sun sets on an Irish country garden where a woman with cancer, “terminal… but stable”, notices the petals fading and awaits what will unfold.

His narrative style is a form of bricolage: each chapter proceeds through a staccato-like building up of layers of detail based on transcribed recorded interviews written up from the subject’s perspective, retaining quotations, italicising their additional thoughts and memories, trying to retain on the page the living flow of life’s intensity.

This literary pointillism is interspersed with black-and-white photos that lack the enigmatic aura of WG Sebald’s haunted equivalents but heighten the sense of real lives and locations beyond Ben Judah’s narrative ventriloquism.

Heir to the great literary-journalistic travellers of the recent past — Ryszard Kapuściński, James Fenton, Bruce Chatwin, Jonathan Raban — but resisting their urge to fabricate for the sake of a good story, Judah is alert to the darker currents swirling through our beleaguered times — climate breakdown, the depredations of Covid, hostility to immigrants, the mass movement of millions towards sanctuary and a new life within self-protecting Western societies often ill-disposed or ill-equipped to offer a modicum of hospitality.

He never moralises, never judges those whose stories he records — yet the book is rooted in a deep moral vision, a Judaic vision: the sanctity of individual human life.

In this way it is a radical protest against the forces of dehumanisation that scar the political and social landscape of our times. This is the role of the faithful witness.

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