Martin Chalmers: We would like to begin with Europe, Europe.footnote Although there are any number of paths which lead out of this work, we were interested first of all in how the book came about.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger: I have a friend in Sweden who is chief editor of the biggest daily there, and since I have an old Scandinavian connection—I lived in Norway for many years—he asked me whether I’d like to write about the elections in Sweden. That was in 1981. So the project started by accident. I’m not a professional journalist and never have been. I discovered that I wasn’t really very interested in the Swedish elections; instead I wrote this rather lengthy piece on Sweden, which the paper carried in instalments. Masquerading as a journalist turned out to be an interesting experience. If you go up to people and claim to represent the media, they will immediately take the situation for granted and accept whatever questions you ask. I was surprised to find out that people didn’t really mind the intrusion, the questions.

I very quickly developed two basic attitudes or stances, which turned out to be rather liberating. For one thing, I adopted a position of great ignorance, just as if I were a visitor to Tibet. The less you know, the more people have to tell you. That was one aspect. The other was the change of perspective resulting from having to take the point of view of the people you talk to. Experimentally, you put yourself in their shoes. It’s what anthropologists call ‘participant observation’. That’s why I left out the powerful people. I never asked for an interview with a prime minister. I also decided early on in the project to leave out the big countries. They represent the perspective of power, the perspective of centrality. Instead, I deliberately chose a number of peripheral perspectives.

Robert Lumley: Every project is a combination of calculation and chance. You started with an invitation out of the blue. How did one piece of writing become a project?

hme: The element of chance is wonderful because each person you meet will put you onto someone else. It’s like a daisy chain. You have to give yourself a lot of leeway. If you stick to that method, you land up in places you’d never have seen otherwise. But then, after the fieldwork is done, you start to think about it. And that’s when your conceptual baggage catches up with you. The ignorance you’ve affected has to be informed by a lot of background knowledge. That means, first of all, delving into the history of the place you are investigating. This dialectic of ignorance and knowledge is part of the fun. In the end it turned out, of course, that my subject wasn’t just Sweden. So I decided to go on.

mc: Part of that intellectual baggage, in a positive sense, was presumably the ideas in the essays brought together in Political Crumbs.footnote1

hme: Yes, that was a first step without which I would not have been ready to undertake the project. Thirty years of opinionated writing condition you. It was quite a painful process to let go.