Homo Erasmus: or, Pointless Exchanges

Article published on Nov. 20, 2013
Article published on Nov. 20, 2013

The Eras­mus pro­gramme has raised many ques­tions over the last three decades. However, for the first time, its legitimacy is being questioned. In his satir­i­cal novel, the 23-year-old French stu­dent Leos Van Mel­cke­beke paints a grotesque and ap­palling pic­ture of "Homo er­asmus." We in­ter­viewed the con­tro­ver­sial au­thor, who is not afraid to speak his mind.

cafébabel: How did the idea for this novel come about?​

Leos Van Mel­cke­beke (LVM): I was 21. I was around Eras­mus stu­dents when I started an Ital­ian lan­guage course in Venice in prepa­ra­tion for the fol­low­ing year, which I would spend in Bologna. Dur­ing that month, very few students made an ef­fort to meet the lo­cals or to speak the lan­guage, which, after all, was the whole point of being there. So I've seen how the Eras­mus ex­change can, in re­al­ity, be noth­ing like the pos­i­tive picture painted by the flowery rhetoric. The book's role is there­fore to shine a light on the less well known elements of the Eras­mus pro­gramme.

cafébabel: What did you think of the Eras­mus pro­gramme prior to that month?

LVM: I thought it was great, and I still do. It's a bril­liant idea; I was just sur­prised by how it turned out for me and by how point­less some of the Eras­mus ex­changes were. Just

be­cause you stick 20 Eu­ro­peans in a room, it doesn't mean any­thing in­ter­est­ing will come of it. They'll usu­ally end up talk­ing dri­vel. Each stu­dent will be quick to push their coun­try's stereo­type and won't have made any mean­ing­ful con­ver­sa­tion. I've never heard, for 

ex­am­ple, a dis­cus­sion on what di­rec­tion Eu­rope should take, or the prob­lems our gen­er­a­tion have.

cafébabel: But there were some stu­dents who didn't share your views on this mat­ter, is that cor­rect? 

LVM: Right. In Bologna, I had a real dis­cus­sion with some other stu­dents I met, there. There were peo­ple - Swiss, Ger­man or whatever - who had made the de­ci­sion to cut

them­selves off from other Eras­mus stu­dents and to meet the lo­cals. That was my rea­son for not tak­ing part in any of the un­en­rich­ing events put on by the in­fa­mous Eras­mus so­ci­eties. It's also why the book is, over­all, a com­i­cal ex­ager­a­tion of an ab­surd sit­u­a­tion.

cafébabel: So you're not just protesting against the Eras­mus pro­gramme, then?

LVM: No. It's just a re­al­is­tic ac­count to con­trast all the uni­form rhetoric pushed out there which is, in­evitably, full of praise but quite frankly is not en­tirely true. Have you spoke to other for­mer Eras­mus stu­dents? They'll all have the same sto­ries to tell.

cafébabel: The book seems al­most au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal, de­spite not being writ­ten in the first per­son. Who is Homo Er­a­smus?

LVM: I cre­ated a char­ac­ter who would embody three types of Erasmus student. Homo Eras­mus is, first and fore­most, de­vised from some of the stu­dents I was ob­serv­ing.

Sec­ondly, he's me. And then, thirdly, he isn't any­body, by which I mean he's just a somewhat ex­ag­ger­ated con­ception of an Eras­mus stu­dent.

cafébabel: Do you think Homo Eras­mus is sec­tar­ian?

LVM: Sure. In the sense that he's dis­in­ter­ested in the cul­ture of the coun­try that he's liv­ing in. They're cliquey. It's ab­surd, re­ally, because when you leave for your year abroad, you go out there hoping to dis­cover new things but you end up find­ing a dom­i­nant mono­cul­ture. You can eas­ily spend your Eras­mus year in Bologna with­out even get­ting to know the city, its his­tory, the peo­ple, it's unique­ness... So it makes you won­der what the point of the trip is.

cafébabel: The point of the trip is the start­ing point for your book and you seem to have a very in­tel­lec­tual angle...

LVM: [interrupts] I go from the premise that if you travel, it's be­cause you're cu­ri­ous. But nowa­days, peo­ple seem to travel to im­pose their own val­ues. For me, my love of trav­el­ling stems from the de­sire to di­scover new things. I'm not say­ing every­one is like that, it just sur­prises me that there are stu­dents that go trav­el­ling but aren't even cu­ri­ous enough to find out about the place they're stay­ing.

cafébabel: One pas­sage sees Homo Eras­mus com­pletely dumb­struck at a Gay Pride pa­rade, as if he didn't know what was going on. Is your book not also a caus­tic crit­i­cism of your own gen­er­a­tion?

LVM: That pas­sage just il­lus­trates the comic po­ten­tial of our gen­er­a­tion. When I see it, it makes me laugh. Our gen­er­a­tion's a joke; I have no re­spect for them. I try to dis­tort the re­al­ity and the se­ri­ous at­ti­tudes of our gen­er­a­tion to­wards cer­tain things. If you think of Ionesco, or Molière, they made fun of their gen­er­a­tion and man­aged to ex­tract comic po­ten­tial from it.

cafébabel: Right, but what's your view on our gen­er­a­tion?

LVM: We're bored stiff. I get the im­pres­sion that peo­ple, on the whole, are bored and are try­ing to make up for it by par­ty­ing all the time for no rea­son. I have quite a scep­tical view of mod­ernism, of our gen­er­a­tion, and of my con­tem­po­raries.

cafébabel: We can say cat­e­gor­i­cally that that comes ac­ross. Are you not a bit con­cerned that you'll come ac­ross as a grumpy old man in this book?

LVM: I'm fully aware of this but, once again, this nar­ra­tive is ex­ag­ger­ated for satir­i­cal

ef­fect. I'm not that guy who never gets in­vited to par­ties, but I find that par­ties, nowa­days, are quite sad and pa­thetic. What I hope to have done is to make peo­ple laugh. The book doesn't make any big claims; it's not some po­lit­i­cal cam­paign. It's just a lit­tle some­thing.

Cafébabel: What ad­vice would you give to a stu­dent going on their Eras­mus year?

LVM: Don't get drawn in by the Eras­mus as­so­ci­a­tions, and try to meet the lo­cals. But that takes a lot of ef­fort. The prob­lem is that, nowa­days, we're not ex­pected to make much of an ef­fort at all. It's very tempt­ing to follow the con­ven­tional as­so­ci­a­tions and to remain among Eras­mus students. But by al­ways look­ing for the easy op­tion you're only fol­low­ing the herd.