Book Review - Europa?

An evocative collaboration between the British writer Chris Burkham and the Spanish photographer Ignacio Evangelista, Europa? explores the modern-day experiences of ordinary Europeans who move across shadowy borders. The photographs, from Evangelista’s series After Schengen, depict the abandoned and derelict checkpoints of various countries. These range from imposing buildings to small prefabricated edifices and rudimentary obstructions embedded in the ground. Signatories to the 1985 agreement agreed to abolish internal border checks and embrace free movement for people and goods. Gradually, crossing points have been repurposed, have fallen apart or are disappearing altogether. However, as Evangelista observes, they remain “freighted with historical economic and political resonance”.

The short stories, by Burkham, are peopled by protagonists who remain on the margins or are keen to exploit the unchecked borders for their own ends. Charlie Don’t Surf is about a Londoner who attempts to pay off a drug debt by transporting a Vietnamese family from Spain to England concealed in a motorhome. In The AK-47 of Pick-Up Trucks, two Serbian smugglers wait for their next job in a forest on the border of the Czech Republic and Poland. One is “like Europe itself: he was without boundaries; he recognised no borders. He was on what sailors would have called a permanent shore leave.”

Several of Burkham’s stories and Evangelista’s images demonstrate how effortlessly fashion and football cross borders. In Where is Gosha Rubchinskiy? shortlisted for the White Review’s 2017 short story prize, various characters pass on, sell or find themselves in possession of the Russian designer’s logo T-shirts. Elsewhere, Burkham references the ubiquitous garment factories that inevitably spring up when brands outsource production: a young woman describes the “family business” in Turkey where she worked: “If, that is, your definition of a family encompasses a mean and sorry collection of women between 16 and 60 who happen to share a predisposition to spend 12 hours a day labouring in what used to be an automotive shed, joined, more recently by the cheaper and more expendable Syrians fleeing their civil war, with their sad eyes and sadder stories.”

In Things Sound Better in Black and White Selim, a police community support officer, is called to a mansion flat on Talgarth Road, London, where an 80-year-old woman has been found dead in her hallway. A parallel narrative explores the journey, decades earlier, of a seven-year-old girl and her family, and their flight across Europe: “From destruction; from pinched, bruised, and scared faces; from the rifle butt and the jackboot; from oppression, privation, and brutality.” In direct, understated prose, Burkham reveals how the trauma of war and displacement endure. Selim’s bewilderment underlines that we can never truly know someone’s past, the reasons they leave home and travel across a continent, the curtailment of their hopes and aspiration. Why they die alone.

The last of the six stories is equally poignant. ConfĂ©dĂ©ration Africaine de Football focuses on those people denied free movement. Innocent, an Eritrean, dreams of playing football in Europe but is exploited by his uncle and ends up in Britain, shunted between dead-end jobs with the risk of deportation forever hanging over him. Innocent reminds us of “the accident of birth”, the borders that determine our opportunities in life and likely future.

Originally published by The Observer