The European Union very well may be the most interesting social experiment ever attempted by mankind. Taking almost a billion people with differing culture, language and belief, not to mention centuries of unending feuds and wars, and unifying them under a single government is an act unprecedented in world history. In many Europeans’ eyes, however, it’s just that: an experiment, nothing certain about future coherence. A thought experiment which sees “Europe calving into icebergs”, Dave Hutchinson’s 2014 novel Europe in Autumn (2014) locates an atypical espionage thriller on the continent post-EU.
From Scottish independence to Silesia’s secession from Poland, Europe in Autumn is set in a Europe recognizable culturally yet fragmented politically. Rudi is an Estonian chef working in Cracow, who finds himself faced with an interesting and profitable proposition after his restaurant absorbs an evening’s destruction from a group of drunk Hungarian mafia. His Estonian passport giving him access to polities in Europe where Poles are not allowed, he completes a simple mission into Germany and returns safe and sound. That step his first into the world of cross-border information trafficking, it isn’t long before the information begins tracking him too, fully exposing just how intricate and complex the relationship between government and the individual truly is across the freshly shattered European continent.
Hutchinson’s narrative control in Europe in Autumn is superb. A logarithmic curve, the novel begins focused on the life of Rudi, and for the first few chapters may seem for the impatient reader, rather static. But slowly, almost imperceptibly, Hutchinson builds momentum until major chunks of the continent have been swept up in the storyline—terrorism in Prague, Estonian national park secession, illegal Scottish border crossings, etc.—culminating in a stealthily exciting conclusion. The prose just as paced and measured, Rudi’s life is given out in doses as his connections and the implications of his actions steadily extend outward, deeper and deeper into the splintered politics.
Some reviewers have critiqued the novel’s ending. (Adam Roberts calls it a “a knight's-move that points the reader rather sharply in the direction of the sequel.”) For me, the ending felt natural—that sharp vertical movement of a true logarithmic curve. Rather than tying the plot threads strung out to that point into a neat bow as traditional spy vs. spy novels do, it slingshots the reader past their expectations, forcing them to ruminate upon the situation and why, indeed, such a planned, deliberate narrative would end as it does.
It’s to this point the novel’s title would seem to become the main fall back point, and in effect transitioning Europe in Autumn from espionage thriller to (potential) political statement.
Cultural differences, resource availability, language, historical events, realpolitik—however you want to parse the sub-set of issues, it’s possible to view Europe in Autumn as an indication Europe can only temporarily form a political and commercial alliance. Working with the seasonal metaphor, the continent may be too fractious for such an alliance to permanently take hold, and that the current Union is just one point in the cycle—summer, by indication now, the novel’s autumn to come. Whether or not the it is indeed political is up to the individual reader, but Hutchinson at least creates the window of possibility.
I have heard other rumblings that Europe in Autumn is not a true novel, merely a fix up of three novellas. While there is some material to work with in favor of that argument, there remain building blocks implanted in the three sections that clearly work toward something greater—the aforementioned ‘ambiguous ending’ the capstone—to offset it. Thus, for as superficially episodic as the novel feels, there are character interests and sub-plots common enough to all three sections to dispel any doubt Hutchinson has foisted a collection on the reader.
In the end, Europe in Autumn, with its fragmented Europe and all the border crossings, bureaucracy, and red tape that accompany, is the perfect place to deploy a coureur story. While I couldn’t shake the feeling: this is a writer testing out his spy novel shoes, Hutchinson’s prose remains tight-tight, his sense of plot movement and structure pitch-perfect, and his handling of dialogue and character interaction spot-on. The comparisons to John LeCarre will be obvious, but there are just enough elements of genre (slight as they may be) to link the novel to other quality spy(-ish) speculative fiction works, including Ken MacLeod’s The Execution Channel and Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. The novel’s ending, as Roberts says, “may leave some readers blinking rather hard,” but everything else will have them relaxed in enjoyment.