SPECIAL REPORT / Economic crises might not be ideal for funding newspapers, but they’ve always inspired great fiction.
Europe’s ongoing economic crisis, AKA the Great Recession, has produced few works of parallel significance, at least ones that we know about so far, outside of their immediate national contexts. Thanks to the 2015 European Union Prize for Literature, we now know of one such work: Portuguese novelist David Machado’s appropriately titled 2013 novel, Average Happiness Index.
Though it is hard to imagine a contemporary work of fiction achieving the kind of cultural significance of the aformentioned American giants, for the first time since the late Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1998, Machado’s novel has all the ingredients to put his country’s fiction writers back on the map, albeit on a more whimsical note.
The story of Daniel, an aspiring writer, who loses everything during the economic crisis – his home, his job, and his family – Average Happiness Index reads like a secular retelling of the Book of Job, where everything that could go wrong does, for no moral reason at all. For Machado’s characters, fate is particularly unkind. No one is left untouched by the crisis, which turns Portugal upside down, leaving everyone bereft and devastated.
For those member states that have recovered from the crisis, like Portugal, the travails of Daniel and his friends still sound all too contemporary. Though Portugal exited its bailout program in May 2014, it still carried 214 billion euros in debt at the time of its ending, and throughout that same year, suffered from an unemployment rate that oscillated between 15.1 and 13.9 percent.
For readers of Average Happiness Index, the novel feels as much like a newspaper article about the present, as much as it does a framing of the horrors of the recent past, albeit something a lot deeper. And that’s precisely where Machado’s book begins to take on a life of its own, as a form of social criticism of the crisis, and how Europe arrived at it. Take the fates suffered by his friends Xavier, and Almodovar, as examples.
Xavier has been locked inside his house for over a dozen years, suffering from a severe case of depression, brought on by the failure of a mutual aid (a philosophy of voluntary assistance rooted in Anarchism) website he created, to take off. Almodovar, conversely, is arrested for trying to improve his life. Their situations are exaggerated, obviously but extremely poignant. One cannot get over the limits of their own utopianism, and the other is prohibited from taking the initiative to get on with their life.
The limitations these characters are forced to live with communicates the profound immobility Europeans have felt over the last seven years, and which, for many who live in the south, remains a constant. There are so few opportunities for personal advancement that they fear punishment for trying to anything about it, whatsoever. No wonder so many Greeks, for example find it reasonable to support parties like Syriza, on the left, and French, the National Front, on the right. Average Happiness Index unlocks the psychology behind this attraction, even though it doesn’t tackle it directly.
One of the novel’s most endearing qualities is its satirization of our obsession with statistics, and how they’re used by economists, and politicians, to determine happiness. It’s a decidedly anti-technocratic reproach, one which seems especially suited to the sorts of criticisms leveled at the EU, when both conservatives and leftists, speak of its excessive bureaucracy. It’s not that numbers don’t matter. They do. But, quite often, as Machado insinuates, we forget the human stories that lie beneath them.