Europe Crosswise: A Litany by Blixa Bargeld (trans. Mark Kanak) — Tobias Ryan

In 2011, having finished my studies and with little idea what to do next, I left for South America with my sister and her thirteen-month-old son. Following a brief, unsuccessful attempt at getting established in Buenos Aires, I ended up living in Santiago de Chile for the better part of a year, teaching English at multinational corporations. There are many wonderful things about Chile, but it would be difficult to convince me that its capital is one of them. For whatever reason, I never quite found my feet and spent my entire time there desperately homesick, or, more precisely, missing Europe.

It’s a difficult concept to explain, and one that, admittedly, I was mostly unaware of – or unable to identify – until I came back, but is relevant to the current review as it was during my months in Santiago, in the midst of my European nostalgia, that I developed my deep and abiding love for the music of Blixa Bargeld.

I had been aware of him for some time, having been a fan of the Bad Seeds, but it wasn’t until late that I plunged into the, frankly intimidating, Einstürzende Neubauten catalogue. Their albums, particularly those from the mid-90s on, carried me through my months in Chile. Whether it was listening to ‘Stella Maris’ as I crossed the Andes on visa renewal runs to Mendoza, ‘Die Interimsliebendem’ while belligerently lurching home from nightclubs in Bellavista, or ‘Nagorny Karabach’ as I sat on a bench by Avenida Presidente Kennedy watching sunlight scale the Cordillera, having arrived too early for a breakfast class in the home of some executive from Mattel (and feeling absolutely wretched), Neubauten provided the soundtrack. It was only later I understood that, aside from the music, in their language (I don’t speak or understand German), references and sound they had also offered a link to the cultural, historical and, for want of a better word perhaps, spiritual idea of Europe that I had missed so much.

This notion of Europe, and love for Europe, is the animating spirit behind Bargeld’s 2009 book, Europe Crosswise: A Litany, now available in English from Contra Mundum Press in a translation by Mark Kanak. A brief and (all the better for it) choppy read, Bargeld offers a semi-fictional account of his and Neubauten’s travels throughout the continent as they tour the 2007 album Alles weider offen. The book is structured around the band’s setlist, recurring with minor variations at every stop on the tour. This not only serves to anchor the otherwise scattered recollections that comprise the text but also functions thematically, providing the liturgical element – the litany of the subtitle – emphasising voiced worship, repetition and endlessness. (In his essential ‘Afterword’, Kanak delves into the origins of the project and the significance of “litany” in precise and illuminating detail.) 

Around this framework, the reader is presented with a collage of texts, vignettes and recollections. In addition to Bargeld’s own writing, there are excerpts from exhibition pamphlets, hotel brochures, boarding passes, train schedules, (many, many) menus, as well as brief sections written by friends and companions, at Bargeld’s request, in which they assume his perspective: “He’s wearing mirrored glasses. What’s the point of that? Never mind, I can look at myself. The way he looks at me – is he still in love?” Of all the parts in the assemblage, only their inclusion seems somewhat incidental, a curious rather than vital addition, and I couldn’t help but want more of/from them. Being a quasi-journal, in which the reader is inescapably situated in Bargeld’s consciousness, these brief openings offered tantalising glimpses of how the performer is perceived, an element which, in the absence of any reflections on the tour itself, had potential to add further depths of irony and absurdity to a text already awash in them.

Bargeld has stated that he was not interested in discussing his music or the concerts themselves; anyone approaching the book looking for insights into his creative process, his relationships with his bandmates or a traditional rock n’ roll memoir might be disappointed. However, this also means that Europe Crosswise offers plenty to the reader with no great knowledge of (or appreciation for) Neubauten’s music.

An unfalteringly dry, witty, and attentive observer, Bargeld is great company. Occasionally irascible but never precious, we learn about his passion for gastronomy, his appreciation of fine art and his penchant for Italian leather shoes. He is erudite and worldly, yet steadfastly unpretentious, unafraid of exposing the banality of life on the road and quick to celebrate a good night, good company or a good feed. In addition to the pure pleasure Bargeld takes in words themselves (of which the included menus are an example), he writes with fantastic poetic economy. He is able to conjure scenes, spaces and people in unfussy, laconic style, whether describing his brief stay in an out-of-way hotel in Luxembourg (“Dark wood. There’s a snowstorm during the night.”), the clientele of one of the many Michelin-starred restaurants he frequents (“Cleptocrats, international industrialists, etc. And me: With only a little time & a darkening mood.”), or the odd encounters that are part and parcel of the rockstar life (“Out of the bus Arrow Right with solid fill onto the stage. A cosmic blackness before me. A dark void. The void applauds.”).

In addition to wanting to avoid writing a tour diary, Bargeld has also been clear that the account in Europe Crosswise is literature, a semi-fictional “put[ting] together” rather than anything approaching reportage. Though some parts are provably false (Bargeld has never won an Oscar), whether any of the episodes actually took place, or took place as they are narrated, is left for the reader to contemplate. As such, what these vignettes evoke is mood, attitude and characteristics, more so than fact, memoir or travelogue (though one could eat exceptionally well taking Bargeld’s restaurant recommendations).

Though he avoids stereotypes, there is a familiarity to the scenes and characters Bargeld presents that gestures towards a common European experience, even heritage. This is, categorically, not monolithic or exclusionary (anyone who defers to the phrase “western civilization” can go fuck themselves), but is rather, perhaps, a will towards unity across difference

It is in this respect that the notion or feeling of “Europe” that the writer so loves is felt. In Bargeld’s pleasure at taking a night train, his recollection of dealings with the German peace movement in the 80s, or, say, the band’s frustration with French legislation limiting the noise they can make, the reader can feel archetypes at work. Though he avoids stereotypes, there is a familiarity to the scenes and characters Bargeld presents that gestures towards a common European experience, even heritage. This is, categorically, not monolithic or exclusionary (anyone who defers to the phrase “western civilization” can go fuck themselves), but is rather, perhaps, a will towards unity across difference; it is the sometimes eye-rolling, sometimes frustrated, occasionally fractious, complicit affection that one might feel within a family.

Of course, much has changed in the years since Bargeld first wrote Europe Crosswise. It is impossible not to wince, given the current situation, reading “We’re in the West again,” as the band leave Russia, or to find it quaint that the only comment about playing Le Bataclan relates to how loud Neubuaten are allowed to be; the brief mention of migrant camps at Calais (“the starting point for countless attempts to reach the British Isles through the tunnel (!)”) seems almost naïve. 

The book is bittersweet now in ways Bargeld could never have imagined. It mentions, for example, that Neubauten have only ever had to cancel three gigs in their career, but in the last two years their entire 40th anniversary tour was called off (twice!) due to the pandemic. What elements of nostalgia it already contained (“we recorded records here; they were called records back then.”) have only deepened. And perhaps that is why, as I read it, I went back to those memories of homesickness I had felt in Santiago, and the thrumming, resonant melancholy of Neubauten’s more reflective songs in which I had taken such comfort. 

It would be facile to say that it is now more important than ever to celebrate a shared notion of European identity; it is, in many respects, too late for that, were it not a questionable ideal to begin with. If there is, however, some hope in the notion of the litany around which Bargeld’s book is constructed, it is that with each repetition, each return, each vocalised testimony, it is possible to embrace change, subtle or otherwise, and reify a commitment to art, culture (whether musical, literary or gastronomic) and, ultimately, a unity which functions beyond borders and geography.

In the final passage of the book, Bargeld lists the places that Neubauten’s tour didn’t get to. They are places he has visited hundreds of times, places he, and his readers, know or have known someone from. As much as it is a list of what is missing, it is also a promise, an acknowledgement that some future tour will take these places in, leaving others out, as will some tour after that, and on and on for as long as the litany is uttered. He concludes “I Heart with solid fill Europe” and, though he has never set out to argue why he does or why one should, in the gathering of characters, incident and recollection, so much of what is most laudatory about the continent and its ideals is persuasively and wistfully felt. 

Europe Crosswise: A Litany is available now from Contra Mundum Press.

Blixa Bargeld was born in 1959 in Berlin (West). In 1980 he formed the group Einstürzende Neubauten as lead vocalist. From 1984 to 2003 he was co-founder sideman and guitarist of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. He has performed numerous concert tours throughout Europe, North and South America, Australia and Japan. He works as composer, singer, musician, performer, author, actor, director and lecturer in almost any field of interpretative art.

Mark Kanak is an author, translator and radio artist living in Berlin.  His recent books include Otto Dix. Letters, Vol. 1 (2016, Contra Mundum), Tractatus illogico-insanus (2018, Ritter Verlag), translation of Walter Serner’s Dada masterpiece Letzte Lockerung into English (2020, Twisted Spoon). ‘Tollhaus’, performed by Blixa Bargeld (released as a CD by Belleville Verlag, Munich) is being released this summer.

Tobias Ryan is an English teacher and translator. He lives in France. Twitter: @tobiasvryan