Epic Continent brings out the many ironies of literary and political history – the great Serb ballad collector Vuk Karadžić sharing a surname with the war criminal Radovan Karadžić, Saxon-slaughtering Charlemagne as the poster boy of European unity – and is full of affection for the hobbyists and folklorists who hang on to their past and try to re-create it. National pride is dangerous stuff, however, and sub-national pride, in Europe’s many disputed areas, even more so. We hear a lot these days about ‘the idea of Europe’ and ‘European heritage’, but what we don’t have is an epic of unity rather than ones of ancient conflict. Nevertheless, Nicholas Jubber has done his best to weave together scattered threads and show that the past is still with us all.
Nicholas Jubber’s new work is at once a travel journal, a meditation on the idea — and ideal — of Europe, and an exploration of a pivotal moment in the author’s own past... The prose is colourful and vigorous; landscape is frequently described through dynamic verbs and unusual similes... Interwoven with the usual adventures of travel — late-night drinking in smoke-filled bars, quirky conversations, semi-comic mishaps and often terrible weather — is a more profound meditation — indeed much direct reportage — on contemporary and historical ideas of European identity, the notion of homeland and that shining promise of a better life that our continent seems to extend to its neighbours... Jubber’s journeying has indeed been epic, in scale and in ambition. In this thoughtful travelogue he has woven together colourful ancient and modern threads into a European tapestry that combines the sombre and the sparkling.
Jubber is always eager to make links between the epics and the present day, though these can seem laboured. Is there really much connection between Beowulf and Brexit Britain? On a trip to a museum in the Potteries to see an Anglo-Saxon hoard, he tries hard to find one but fails to convince. At other times he is more persuasive. “Njal’s Saga is still alive,” an Icelandic writer tells him in a Reykjavik cafe. This well-written if flawed book proves that the same can be said of most of these stories.