This February, still with the chill of 2016’s political disasters on my back, I landed in Switzerland. It had been almost a year since the University of Berne invited me there, in March, before the Brexit, the failed Colombian referendum on the peace treaties and the victory of Donald Trump began the ultimate transformation to the world we once knew. During the second half of the year, I expended all my energy and a great deal of my mental health to defend the peace projects in my country: our right to end a war that had lasted half a century and claimed seven million lives. I wrote articles in three newspapers in different languages, took part in forums and congresses, spoke with the negotiators of the government and with the victims of the war. But when the referendum, which had been influenced by lies, disinformation and slander, rejected the peace agreements, I realised that my country had succumbed to the new wave of populism.
At the time, the invitation to Berne was a sort of refuge for me: a retreat to winter quarters. The four months of my professorship would provide me with an ideal opportunity to play through a series of ideas in front of an audience of good readers that later on — if the gods of literature allow — will become a book. It will be about something that I like to call the genome of the novel, in other words the totality of the components, which, at some point in seventeenth century Europe, gave birth to a new form through which human experience could be explored and understood. On my arrival in Switzerland, I had intended to think aloud about the conviction — one that has not yet left me — that the birth of the novel is inextricably tied to certain European values that have to do with our finest achievements, with the most admirable features of our civilisations. I never dreamed that all this would coincide with the most dire crisis these values have faced since the debacle of the Second World War, nor that my impressions from reading books that have rotated the planet for over four hundred years would be a single pessimistic comment on our present times: on what is at risk today, those who have put it at risk, and to what we can do to save it.
The populists want to ward off truths
Despite my emphatic tone, the above is not an exaggeration. In this new Europe that is emerging, marked by the victory of xenophobic populism in England and the United States, an image of humanity is threatened that we must defend with all our might, for it has taken many centuries to realise this image. Instead of striving for empathy, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, as well as Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic, want to ward off any interest in others and their truths, indeed, make them the cause of our dissatisfaction. The others, new European populism tells us, are the enemy. This rhetoric is not new. A national leader, as Hitler stressed, is successful when he ensures that the attentions of his people are not divided and manages to make them focus on a common enemy. Nigel Farage threatens us with swarms of millions and million of immigrants; Geert Wilders, in a speech, asks whether his followers want more or fewer Moroccans in the Netherlands; Marine Le Pen conjures up the Nazi occupation in considering Muslims praying on the street. In this sad landscape, the solidary clear-sightedness of Angela Merkel has transformed into a rare form of boldness and the defeat of Wilders in the Netherlands into an act of resistance. Perhaps I am not exaggerating if I add an adjective to these: a humanistic.
The Europe of the year in which we are living will often be exposed to unspeakable pressure coming both from its own viscera as well as from the outside world. Since January, Trump’s United States have abandoned all moral claims to leadership. Filling this vacuum will be one of the difficult tasks for Europe, while at the same time it struggles with those who want to break the Union from within. But the side effects of trumpism — which makes mendacity a way of life, xenophobia the raison d’état, ignorance a merit, the regulating power of the finest journalism a target of attacks — have already polluted European policy, and even more sensible people suddenly see themselves obliged to wave flags and to employ chauvinism so that they can remain in the game during elections. That is a mistake. If my distance facilitates one realisation, then it is that defense of European values will fail if it starts by making concessions to the enemies of these values. I not only mean populism, which aims to put a stop to the European project and build walls around its small provinces; I also mean the unconsidered return behind the attacked values of the Enlightenment, which can easily be recognised: they are everything that the religious fanatics try to destroy.
They are the secular, tolerant, liberal, open Europe, the Europe of empathy, the Europe that I call humanistic, by which I basically mean: on a human scale.
Abridged version first published in das goethe Edition 1/2017
Juan Gabriel Vásquez (born 1973 in Bogotá) is a Colombian novelist, best known for The Sound of Things Falling, which won the Impac award in 2014. He studied Law at the University of Rosario in Bogotá and literature at the Sorbonne University in Paris. During spring 2017 Juan Gabriel Vásquez was „Friedrich Dürrenmatt Guest Professor for World Literature“ at the University of Bern.