Literary Criticism and Significance
Europe Central is a far-reaching, ambitious novel that, in the author’s words, attempts to tell the horrific story of Nazism and Stalinism through “a series of parables” about major and minor characters who lived during this period of twentieth-century world history. Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction, and the judges’ citation states that it is
scrupulously researched, rigorously designed, scarifingly voiced....the writer’s courageous immersion in totalitarian ugliness to retrieve forgotten moral heroes. Full of terror and pity...beyond tragedy to the historical mastery of epic.
The novel is rich in irony, symbolism, metaphors, and motifs. The characters are both human and symbolic, resurrected from the pages of history by fast-paced, realistic narrative and dramatic monologues. Multiple aspects of the characters’ psychologies are explored through the viewpoint of various narrators, all of whom have their own personal agendas whether they are fanatical Nazis or loyal Communists.
In spite of these strengths, Europe Central can be a daunting work to read, not only because of its length (752 pages) but because of its overwhelming historical content and complicated ideological themes. The novel’s richness cannot be fully appreciated without a good grasp of the history behind the stories, despite the compelling narrative. Likewise, much of the symbolism cannot be grasped without an understanding of such ideologies as Nazism, fascism, Communism, totalitarianism, internationalism, cosmopolitanism, utopianism, and pacifism. For example, the novel is structured in pairs of what the author calls “pincer movements,” but unless one is familiar with this military term, one does not understand that it is a maneuver meant to surround and crush the enemy, just like Nazism and Communism surround and crush the individual.
Further, without exposure to some fairly sophisticated musicology, one cannot understand the musical motifs and metaphors surrounding Richard Wagner’s operas and their effect on Adolf Hitler or Dmitri Shostakovich’s attempt to compose music true to his soul and not in accordance with Stalinist demands. It may be difficult to fully experience the richness of this novel without doing a little research along the way, but for lovers of literature and history, Europe Central is well worth the effort.
At present, there is little scholarship available on Europe Central. Literary critics are mostly complimentary, applauding Vollmann’s scope, narrative techniques, character development, and profound themes. As in Vollmann’s other works, there are a number of very graphic sexual scenes and instances of rough language in Europe Central that might be problematic for some readers. Most critics agree, however, that in spite of its difficulties, Europe Central is one of Vollmann’s best works.