Best European Fiction 2010, Aleksandar Hemon, ed. (Dalkey Archive Press, 2010)
With: Inga Abele, Naja Aidt, David Albahari, Andrej Blatnik, Steinar Bragi, Juhani Brander, Stephan Enter, Antonio Fian, Josep Fonalleras, Jon Fosse, Georgi Gospodinov, Julian Gough, Alasdair Gray, George Konrád, Peter Kristúfek, Deborah Levy, Valter Mãe, Cosmin Manolache, Christine Montalbetti, Giulio Mozzi, Orna Ní Choileáin, Mathias Ospelt, Victor Pelevin, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė, Julián Ríos, Penny Simpson, Goce Smilevski, Peter Stamm, Igor Stiks, Peter Terrin, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Neven Ušumović, Elo Viiding, Ornela Vorpsi, Michał Witkowski.
"In one of the biographical statements in Best European Fiction 2010, the debut of an annual series, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė says, “there aren’t any geographically specific literatures,” only good or bad writing. In this collection, locales often appear like artifacts or facades, ephemeral and illusory. Landscape is something one travels through unseeing, conflicted or dangerously lost. So what do these stories share if geographical specificity is not salient? They are irrepressibly various. In “Friedmann Space,” Victor Pelevin conjures a “proven method of seeing into the world of the megarich.” The assassination of your fellow citizen is a right doled out by the state in Peter Terrin’s “The Murderer.” A phantasmal headbutt provides an opportunity for Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s exquisite, existential meditation in “Zidane’s Melancholy,” while threatening vegetation encroaches upon breakfast with an imaginary Haruki Murakami in Christine Montalbetti’s “Hotel Komaba Eminence.” These stories address the absurdities of power, the frail surliness of family, the brutalities of class, the prophetic valences of language, the comedies of unwitting transgression, and the unreliability of perception.
In “Foreign Women” by Elo Viiding, one of the gems of the collection, local mothers’ mute complicity in their own subservience is vividly contrasted with the self-determined verve of the “foreign women” their poet husbands sleep with. The story exposes the ways in which ideas of cultural authenticity (as projected upon the visages of cowed women) can both mask and underwrite male privilege, an interpretation that springs from Viiding’s devastatingly precise description and which speaks to the power of killer fiction to argue by inference.
Despite the wide range of these stories, there are persistent stylistic recursions here, notably parody, gallows humor, and digression. The dead don’t stay dead, fame inexorably entails a bargain with the devil, virginity is ideology, and dolphins are killed at cocktail parties. Perhaps we can agree that what a writer is given to imagine and how they are disposed to set it down is not entirely unrelated to where (and when) they are coming from (if we are from a place, we are also from a time, as well as a language), albeit such contingencies are arbitrary. Under censorship, for example, writers resort to coding with geographically specific (i.e., politically and historically specific) meanings and effects. Or, to take another example, in the US, new fiction is produced largely under the auspices of MFA programs and is thereby pressurized by the relatively (insert adjective here) standards of workshop. Europe invented modern imperialism, capitalism, and ideology, reaped the criminal spoils of global empire, and suffered two world wars. The antic exorcisms, formally restless and liberating disenchantments enacted here could be said to result, in some part, from such a complex legacy. Or to put it another way, these writers know and care about the difference between fiction and propaganda.
But perhaps this is reductive when a signal attribute of the “best” writing is its immunity to any one interpretation and its potential to produce numberless readings. If that’s so, then this collection is aptly named. Editor Aleksander Hemon declares in his preface that at the heart of this compilation is the “non-negotiable need for communication with the world, wherever it may be,” and asserts that ongoing translation is crucial to this process. The English-language reading world, “wherever it may be,” is grateful." - Miranda F. Mellis
"Remarkably, this has never been done before.
Taking inspiration from the Houghton Mifflin “Best” series, Dalkey Archive Press launches a new, unbelievably ambitious series of its own, “Best European Fiction,” and its inaugural edition for 2010 is edited by Chicago’s own Aleksandar Hemon. Attempting to solve the well-known literary problem of Americans not reading—nor being exposed to—literature from other countries, this anthology includes thirty-five short stories and novel excerpts from thirty different European countries, aiming to destroy the invisible shield that prevents such material from being translated into English and released in this country.
Dalkey Archive Press has been fighting the good fight for years in trying to get European authors delivered to American readers, so it comes as no surprise that this anthology is bulky, geographically expansive and features a selection of authors who, to put it bluntly, no one has ever heard of. Alasdair Gray, from Scotland, and Julian Rios, from Spain, have probably the largest audience among Americans—but even among bookworms, their audience is still tragically small. In that way, “Best European Fiction” is not only an introduction to the work of other countries, it’s also a view through the eyes of literary strangers, which makes it all the more compelling. To say the collection “transcends boundaries” would be insufferably predictable and downright cheesy, but perhaps there isn’t a better, or more important, way to praise it.
Anthologies such as this are most often edited by famous authors—in this case Hemon—and feature more than one introductory piece. In his, Hemon discusses the obvious importance of American audiences maintaining an open door to European literature, unveiling in his first sentence the embarrassing but not shocking statistic that only three-to-five percent of the works of literature published in the U.S. are translations. America’s isolation from the rest of the world in literature, its “disengagement” with the work of other countries, is not only ignorant, but dangerous. The phenomenon of American detachment seems to spread all around the arts—in foreign film, music, theater and more, we only scratch the surface. “White Teeth” author Zadie Smith provides a preface praising the collection that follows.
Like any anthology of this kind, there are hits and misses; there hasn’t been a perfect “Best” edition published yet. But Dalkey and Hemon succeed in providing more accomplished stories herein than not. With no apparent arcing theme, the stories are sorted alphabetically by country, a mechanical method that serves no obvious purpose and that one would hope would be abandoned in future editions. Hemon’s written some beautiful, deeply emotional novels, but he’s certainly not a humorless man, and his inclusion of Julian Gough’s “The Orphan and the Mob” is inspired. Gough, from Ireland, balances his humor and slapstick-like absurdity with a curious heart. Albania’s Ornela Vorpsi begins the collection with an excerpt from her novel, “The Country Where No One Ever Dies,” and her ability to evoke sadness in pride makes the reader want to get a copy of the novel, fast.
Because I’m an incurable sucker for nostalgia and bittersweetness, my favorite story in the collection is by the Netherlands’ Stephan Alter, titled “Resistance,” about a chess instructor and the meetings between he and his students. The story begins with his death, and what follows is a recollection, a retread of a lovely past. “Resistance” is a memory. Take that to mean whatever you want.
Another highlight is “The Sky Over Thingvellir,” penned by Iceland’s Steinar Bragi, about the failing relationship between two young lovers. (Leave it to Iceland to inject the anthology with some emo. One can almost hear Sigur Ros’ inevitable soundtrack.) Bragi achieves a stark reality with his two bitter characters, one that’s as oft-putting as it is familiar. A fine work.
There are duds here as well. Christine Montalbetti’s “Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami)” rings false, a sort-of love letter to the famous author, with clunky, grown-inducing lines like “We’re all disc jockeys for our own internal radio stations.” Come to think of it, that sounds like something Murakami would write. (I’ve always found the writer pedestrian.)
Nothing upset me more than the horror-overkill of Michal Witkowski’s “Didi,” a never-ending devastation tale filled to the brim with shit, stench and horrific sex. Enough already.
But, in the end, like most of the anthologies like these, the curators have enough good taste to choose more solid stories than not, making this flagship edition of the new series a worthy launching pad. If Dalkey can keep it up, this could easily become the most important annual literary anthology in America. Which is ironic." - Tom Lynch
“The great pest of speech is frequency of translation,” Samuel Johnson once wrote, in the preface to his iconic Dictionary of the English Language:
No book was ever turned from one language into another without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabric of the tongue continue the same, but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns.
If one wants to maintain the purity of a language, Johnson argues, “let them . . . stop the license of translators.”
The governing conceit behind the Dalkey Archive Press’s new anthology, Best European Fiction 2010 (the inaugural volume in what they hope will become a yearly publication), is to do just the opposite. The editor of this first volume, the Bosnian-born and Chicago-based Aleksandar Hemon, has rounded up 35 stories from Europe. From Albania to Wales, the anthology pays close attention to coverage in terms of language rather than of region, giving us two stories from Belgium (one translated from French and one from Dutch), two from Ireland (English and Irish) and nothing from Germany (the German language is represented by Austria).
Indeed, some of the stories Hemon has selected seem to be valued more for their cross-cultural subject matter rather than their literary merit, and decenteredness seems to be the watchword: the French story takes place in Tokyo, the Spanish and Serbian stories take place in France, the Croatian contribution is set in a Chinese restaurant in Budapest, and the Polish story is about a transgendered Slovakian hooker out on the cruel streets of Vienna. In other words, this vision of Europe looks more like a melting pot of disparate cultures than the “salad bowl” of staid Old Europe. In this way, Hemon avoids turning the anthology into the literary equivalent of “It’s a Small World.”
In his introduction, Hemon offers some brief preliminary thoughts on translation and Europe. He argues that the short story is remarkably vital there, judging at least from the “sheer diversity of narrative modes and strategies evidenced in the selections in this volume.” This diversity, according to Hemon, is a result of the specific constellation of European identity, “stretched” as it is between the “demands of national culture” and “the transformative possibilities of transnational culture that can exist only in the situation of constant flow of identity and exchange of meaning in the situation of ceaseless translation.” This is why, he suggests, the present volume contains stories which “inescapably question and probe and sabotage various national myths, often featuring migrants and vagrants, unabashedly questioning the propriety of the old forms in the new set of historical and political circumstances. These stories not only cross and trespass all kinds of borders, they are, quite literally generating translation in doing so.”
Blending and diversity are inherently related to the art of translation; when you take something from one culture and transform it into another, both the source and the target cultures remain distinct and yet transformed. But for all this crossing and trespassing, this project has an air of an “us and them” mentality to it: “[T]ranslation has to be a ceaseless process,” Hemon writes. “Not only do we have to provide a continuous flow of literary texts from other languages into English, we also have to be able to monitor in real time, as it were, the rapid developments in European literatures.” Eventually, one assumes, this increased correspondence will break down the differences between European and non-European literature. Already the influences and tendencies that come through in this volume go beyond a strictly European literary heritage, making that organization of literature by geographical area—especially one as vast as Europe—seem more and more arbitrary. The choice, therefore, to privilege these hybridized stories seems to indicate that the breakdown has already begun, to such a point that it seems as odd a construct to talk about “European fiction” as it is to talk about “North American fiction,” or “Asian fiction.” The exchanges between these literary spaces don’t stop with the landmass of a continent. Especially not one as arbitrarily located as Europe: where does Europe stop and Eurasia begin? What of the tantalizing closeness of North Africa?
The idea of Europe, however, seems very clear—at least to those citizens of member states of the European Union, who more and more describe themselves as feeling just as “European” as they are French, or German, or what have you. There are, however, a group of writers in this collection who conceive of themselves as somehow marginal to the idea of Europe. Goce Smilevski, of Macedonia, writes in the appendix that
The question of belonging and the attempt to situate oneself in a literary context have a rather numbing effect on Macedonian writer. A decade or so ago, we were part of Eastern Europe, and so we were considered a part of the European context. Now, however, the concept of a Europe divided into East and West has disappeared: after the creation of the European Union, one either lives in the EU, or they’re thrown into “the other” Europe—beyond the borders of the Union.
[T]he authors of the “Other Europe” rarely have a chance to talk about their literature—questions directed at us almost always concern our current politics. As writers, we are neither far away enough (so we can’t be “exotic”) nor close enough (to be “real” Europeans): we’re somewhere in between, in a place where we can barely be noticed and thus are easily and so often forgotten. Our place on the margin evokes two different feelings at the same time: one of inferiority, and then one of freedom. Our inferiority complex makes us feel that we are nothing but intruders in the European context, but the freedom that our ‘marginal lives’ allows us gives us the stability to choose only the best of the European tradition to help us move forward.
This “other Europe” is well represented in the anthology, not only in Smilevski’s terms of “marginal” Europe and “real” Europe, but precisely in terms of the cultural blending to which Hemon gives such priority. When the Croatian story is set in a Chinese restaurant in Budapest, we are quite far from the Europe of the Grand Tour.
As for the stories themselves—well, judging from the bulk of them, things are pretty bleak in Europe: dirty and dark, as in the Finnish flash fictions, shot through with an overwhelming nihilistic violence, as in the stories by Peter Terrin (Belgian/Dutch) or Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark). (These I found frankly repellant, which some might suggest is an indication they’re doing something right.) Many have a kind of pseduo-surreal quality to them; some succeed better than others at making this work. All, at least, have commanding voices, which dare you to look away or to turn the page. (That’s the great thing about anthologies: you can always turn the page.) These stories possess a certain kind of dark knowingness that seems to pass for “European” here, but it is unmitigated by the kind of absurd levity you find in more successful “dark” European fiction (I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky, or Kafka, or Beckett).
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are stories in here that make beautiful use of time, and space, and landscape. The contribution of Igor Stiks (Bosnia) shows him to be a worthy inheritor to Walter Benjamin; “At the Sarajevo Market” is about the remnants and loose objects that turn up over time, “the things that had until recently filled the apartments and houses of all Sarajevans,” where “you could appreciate the true soul of Sarajevo.” He has a sense of European history that accounts for the jagged violence of the 20th century without giving up the lyricism and care that marks some of the best European writing of the past. His story is an important counterpart to all the blending and diversifying happening elsewhere in the volume, concentrating instead on way a culture evolves (a form of translation) over time, investigating the places where memory is contained:
Cities inscribe their history on walls and in objects, not in the unreliable and corrupt memories of their citizens. That’s the only way. Don’t we ourselves write our lives into those objects, diaries, jewelry, the painstakingly dried flowers that illustrate best of all the fragility of our memories and sensations and in this way link our existence to the existence of the city and to other similar attempts to preserve some records of our passage over this earth?
In his story, the narrator and his girlfriend find a pocket watch inscribed “Dear Rudi, with every second the war comes closer to its end, and we to each other. Your Teresa, Prague, 1914.” There’s a bitter irony in the finding of the object that at first seems sullied when Stiks lingers over it (“Teresa’s prediction about when the war would end certainly turned out to be overoptimistic,” he writes), instead of just letting it stand, letting the reader supply the significance. But then the narrator and Alma imagine various outcomes for Rudi and Teresa’s affair, giving the found object a significance it would not have had were it left to stand on its own. And the narrator’s lens pulls out—we learn that it is 1992 in Sarajevo, and the whole story sorts out differently.
I flipped for Julian Gough’s absurd, hysterical “The Orphan and the Mob” (Ireland: English), and loved Penny Simpson’s wistful “Indigo’s Mermaid” (Wales). I want to read more of Goce Smilevski, whose “Fourteen Little Gustavs” (Macedonia) is excerpted from his novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister. There is also the hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian “And All Turned Moon,” by Georgi Gospodinov, and a wonderful excerpt from Lovetown by Michal Witkowski (Poland).
On a deeper level, what unites these stories is not only the accident of geography, or a mixed drink representing some new idea of European-ness, but a similar response to a shared literary heritage. As Zadie Smith points out in her preface, these writers seem each to protest “Well, yes, I am European, Slovakian, actually, but I am also an individual, and what really matters to me is Nabokov, Diderot and J.G. Ballard.” Only a fool, she comments, could confuse this writing with anything coming out of America. Smith highlights some of the formal and stylistic commonalities of the stories in the anthology: “an epigraphic, disjointed structure”; a preference for the “violent distortions” of Kafka and Dostoevsky over the “cool ironies” of Tolstoy, and “a strong tendency towards the metafictional.” (She’s not kidding—they could very well have named this volume the Best of Euro PoMo 2010.)
In some of the stories in the collection, this kind of metafictionality appears as a self-consciousness about the artificiality of narrative. David Albahari’s “The Basilica in Lyon” (Serbia) is a key example. It begins like this:
The story begins in Lyon, but it could end anywhere. There are four men in the story, two policemen, five women, a couple of cameras, a bicycle (not visible) and an old soccer ball. The story has ten parts of differing lengths. The longest stretch of the story, covering more than one part, takes place in front of a basilica; the shortest part passes in almost total silence; all the parts are figments of the imagination. At one moment, even before it began, the story was out on the edge of town. It stood there for awhile, until rain began to fall. It brushed away the drops that were coursing down its face and stuck out its thumb.
And then under your eyes the story has become a girl who’s hitchhiking her way from (and back to) Lyon. It’s not a bad story—in fact it’s quite a good piece of writing—but it is so hyper-aware of itself as a potential story that the story is stuck circling dreamlike around itself. Giulio Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” is, similarly, so fearful that reading has become a rote exercise that we are told that the main character, Carlo, does not to know to “read.” What he knows how to do is this sensual, synesthetic activity that is so far from what his friends are doing that it can’t even be called reading. Mozzi is clearly calling out for a more physical kind of reading practice, but when the author has already made the leap from work to text, the reader is left feeling, at the very least, like her own work has been done for her.
Steiner Bragi’s story “The Sky Over Thingvellir” (Iceland) cuts to the heart of and transcends the problem. It takes on that same element of fiction-creating that has proved so tricky for writers—the fact that it’s all a sham, verisimilitude is sleight of hand, there’s a man behind the curtain—producing prose that is crippled with self-consciousness, the kind of writing that turns to the metafictional as a crutch. But Bragi’s story finds a frame in which to express these concerns: a boy and a girl, neither of whom are particularly important as fully drawn characters, out for a picnic by a river. The girl is trying to find a way to break up with the boy; the boy is realizing he is in love with the girl. The boy gives the girl a gift, a photograph taken from a security camera of the exact moment they met. “Something about the photograph made her think that this was a scam,” Bragi writes. Both are struggling to express what they each know to be true, all the while skeptical of any and all truth-claims. The girl wary of anything and everything that tries to be accepted under the banner of sincerity; the boy argues that you can’t avoid cliché (note that “cliché” in French also means “photograph”): “‘To be born is a cliché: we’re all born at the same level and die at the same level! Life’s challenge is to learn about clichés—which also happens to be a cliché—and to figure out how to handle them on our own terms.”
Bragi’s genius move, however, is not to side with either of his characters, nor to appear to use them as contrasting views in a dialectic interrogation of the meaning of it all. Rather, his camera pans out, getting more and more distant from his rejected hero, left alone by the river’s edge: “But we won’t examine his thoughts and feelings any more closely than we already have. Perhaps these will end up some other book, someday . . . for now, they don’t much matter. (Or else: they’ll never matter).” I quote at length:
Back in the grass, where they’d been sitting, in among some torn blades of grass, there was a red thread from the blanket and some breadcrumbs that the flies immediately dissolved with their saliva and ate. In the air, the faint odor of the boy’s shaving cream and the girl’s body odor were carried off into the afternoon breeze. Then the clouds arrived, the rainbows disappeared from the waterfall mist, the flies quieted down and it began to rain . . . this is how the two of them spent their lives—they lived, died, and all traces of their existence vanished from the earth...
[I]t seems that on one certain beautiful spring day in a small hollow by a little waterfall, one tiny human being was able to see all this in the palm of his hand, and realized how important it is to express oneself decisively, to try and break free from the chains of the slow, inevitable death that concludes human life. For one fleeting second in the eternity of the cosmos, a girl by the name of Ella demanded truth—and received it. Her efforts exposed her to our scrutiny—but perhaps, in that moment, she understood that this report might one day be written about her.
For Bragi, story “is another kind of confrontation. Also doomed to failure, in all likelihood. As such, we will withhold any further explanations, withdraw, and head straight back up into the sky—not just over Thingvellir, but over the entire globe. We’ll let that suffice. There’s nothing left to say—except, let us all remember that as has often been said during one or another of the pathetic, pretentious errors that we call a human life, even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
We may as well be as self-conscious about our fiction as we are about our lives, Bragi suggests, but just as we accept the ruse and carry on anyway, to forge relationships, realize goals, and live our lives, so must we do in fiction. To remind ourselves that it’s all a “scam” seems important from time to time, if only to sort out the scam from the craft—but mainly, we carry on anyway." - Lauren Elkin
"It is impossible to write about such a book as Best European Fiction 2010 without also writing about America's disinterest in such a book. Neither Zadie Smith nor Aleksandar Hemon could do it — and they're the author of the introduction and the editor of the anthology. It's a well worn angle by now: the fact that only three percent of literature published in the U.S. is work of translation, the fact that most of that work is being published by small independent presses and university presses. How else to explain how this anthology came to being in Champaign, Illinois from a small press named Dalkey Archive, its very name being an obscure Irish literature reference. Rather than from, say, Harcourt Houghton Mifflin, which produces almost identical anthologies of every other subject in the world: travel writing, sports writing, short stories, essays, whatever the hell that McSweeneys one is. Nonrequired Reading? Comic books, sure, they're all over that. But literature written in another language? God. We're not running a charity here.
We should also probably talk about the Nobel. It's our annual dose of international literature, the one time of year there's a rush on a writer from Romania or France or Hungary. Ever since the head of the Nobel literature committee, Horace Engdahl, said that American culture is too "insular," Americans have had issues with the Nobel. Who am I kidding — we have had issues way before then. Mr. Nobel made a true statement, but not a profound one. It presupposes that other cultures are not insular. Are the Nigerians really that interested in the literature coming out of Denmark? The Latvians in Filipino poetry? No. Each culture is primarily interested in its own subject, plus whatever is coming out of America. With that arithmetic, we are even with everyone else. We just don't have a market larger than our own to aspire to. We'll occasionally look to Britain, mostly as something to simultaneously aspire to and rebel against, sort of like our father — but for the most part, we honestly believe we are making the great contributions to culture.
Before the announcement of every Nobel Prize, some guy on some blog will make a statement identical to the one I read this year: "Until Philip Roth wins that prize, it’s a sham." You would think Philip Roth is this obscure genius, his mastery of the written word unheralded. Man, do people ever want Philip Roth to win the Nobel. (John Updike's death put a sudden end to similar whining on his behalf.) Does Roth speak across all cultures, get at the heart of what it is to be human, and not just white, upper-middle-class, East Coast, Jewish, and male? Either the Nobel Committee has already decided no, or they think he does and they just enjoy watching Americans jump up and down every year. There are probably literary blogs in Bulgaria, grumbling every year, "Until XXX wins that prize, it's a sham." I am not even going to pretend to know a Bulgarian writer to put in that blank spot, although maybe it's Georgi Gospodinov, whose entry in Best European Fiction, "And All Turned Moon," was a damn fine story.
Reading Best European Fiction, I began to wonder if when people think about European literature and decide they probably wouldn't be interested in it, they're thinking of something like Jean-Philippe Toussaint's short story "Zidane's Melancholy." It reads like a stereotype. Toussaint, a Belgian writer, uses Zidane's headbutting of an Italian player in the 2006 World Cup game as the basis for a philosophical discourse on immigration, existentialist grief, and the decline of one's powers. There are multiple references to other famous moments in other famous matches. So, basically, soccer + French language + Sartre = the American not knowing what the fuck to do with the story.
Except for me. I got the story. I understood Zidane's position on the French football team because I watched that game as it was being played and recognized the references. Never mind the fact that that particular match was the only soccer game I have ever watched from start to finish, or that I was watching it with a person obsessed with Zidane and he explained everything to me, and that never again have I ever given a shit about soccer. Despite all of that, there was a satisfaction, a smugness, to reading the story. Yay me, I am smart and cultured. I could be European. Had I been at a public reading of the story, I would have been in danger of turning into that asshole who nods and hmms loudly to alert those around him: "Attention everyone! I get the author's obscure reference to Ovid's Tristia and I understand what makes it both funny and profound. Please find me either impressive or sexy."
In a recent interview about Jane Austen, Fran Lebowitz said that great art is "not a mirror, it's a door." Mediocre art is a mirror, and either you get it or you don't, either you relate to it or you don't. Jean-Philippe Toussaint? His story is a mirror for a small segment of Europeans and Americans who are obsessed with the World Cup. And, embarrassingly, me. But your own country's mediocre, mirror-like writing is going to hold more appeal than, say, France's. (The Greats, the doors, the Tolstoys and Kafkas and Flauberts don't even enter the conversation of translated literature.) The signs are the same, you know how to decode the jokes and the metaphors, and you probably don't have to Google Image Search plant names to picture the scene in your head. Of course, it's not just your own country that can provide the mirror, if that's what you want. France's entry in the book — Christine Montalbetti's "Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami)" — is a little too self-conscious, a little too interested in the nuances of its own reflection. But those obsessed with Murakami's writing might be on familiar territory with Montalbetti.
One should be able to just enjoy the stories of Best European Fiction 2010 without taking any of this into consideration, but the way it's set up — its foreignness and the uniqueness — prevent that. But if one wanted to remove, say, Iceland's Steinar Bragi's "The Sky Over Thingvellir" from its place in this book and publish it in a place where it can stand on its own, you could. The story of a couple's conversation, one in love and the other trying to figure out how to break things off, would survive nicely. It's funny and touching and true without actually being factual. As in, no one has ever had this conversation. No one has ever had the presence of mind to defend the philosophical viewpoint that they have built their lives around but is making you repulsive to the other person in quite this way:
Cliches — both yours and the ones even the guys like you find trite: guys who actually enjoy sitting around and spouting off about this shit — don't change anything. People need to understand that. If the possibilities really were endless, we wouldn't all sit around feeling impotent all the time — people could change, learn to cope with their problems, go to a monastery, do asanas, reflect on life, whatever. I know for a fact that we can't do a thing to reality — all we can hope to do is carve out a small plot of land for ourselves in the formless, gigantic universe around us, pretend that we deserve it, and call it truth or knowledge or good or a 'real experience.' That's obvious! But at least I see things as existing within some kind of framework, while you just want to blow everything apart, as usual — you just go on making everything meaningless over and over again, and that's all you'll do as long as you live.
Conflicting worldviews really do break couples up, just maybe not in this specific way. Bragi, however, found a fresh way of conveying that. There are other marvels, too. And there are stories that will make you wonder what the hell is going on in that country, that this is the "best" it could find.
Horace Engdahl was at least right with one thing: The word "insular" should be taken as an insult. None of the images it conjures up — hermetically sealed jars, a hall of mirrors, sterility and inbreeding — could be mistaken for a compliment. Without the insertion of foreign DNA, evolution is not possible. That's true with life, and that's true with art. American literature could probably use some new genes to mingle with our Philip Roths and Updikes, Hemingways and Fitzgeralds. There are other traditions, ways of being, landscapes that might suit you better than those with which you have been provided, and how will you know that unless you go wandering?" - Jessa Crispin
"It has been said before, and often, that anthologies are difficult and prone to error, and even if they do their job right they can still leave their readers dissatisfied, yearning for more. Anthologising Europe, in any shape or form, is always a formidable challenge. Dalkey Archive Press have initiated a timely and ambitious effort to try and collect the continent’s best fiction, edited by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, translate it and present it to an international, mainly American readership.
One way anthologies can succeed is providing a collection of work that is useful and practical, filling a void with a well-chosen condensation of content. The ostensible starting point of this collection is the permanent secretary to the Nobel Prize for Literature Horace Engdahl’s declaration in 2008 that ‘The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature [and] that ignorance is restraining.’ Only around 3% of books published in the US are translations and further only 0.7% of these are literary fiction and poetry – a pretty small figure. This book, the first in an annual series, is the commendable effort to alleviate this deficit. The whole project has been very thorough: from a series of fascinating author interviews on Dalkey’s Facebook page for the book itself, complete with 35 writers, translations from 25 different languages. The author’s bios for the most part come with a ‘statement’ in which they give forth their views on everything from Thomas Mann’s bowels (Iceland’s Steinar Bragi), to the West’s lopsided preference for tragedy over comedy (Ireland’s Julian Gough), their place in world literature and their influences. There is also a useful list of internet resources for each country included.
What needs to be remembered about Engdahl’s comment is the overlooked premise of his argument: ‘the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.’ And indeed this book is as important for Europeans as it is for American readers: it offers to this most diverse of continents, where we are so adept in misunderstanding each other and overlooking our neighbours, a vade-mecum of successful contemporaries, each as different and exciting as the next.
The problems of translation are legion, not counting the pitiful number of novels translated: for example, we can interrogate why certain works of fiction are lucky enough to get translated. Dalkey Archive have never been afraid to take on some of the most challenging novels extant in the world today, and English readers the world over can be thankful to them for giving us the likes of Jean-Philippe Toussaint (here represented with his masterful 2006 Zidane’s Melancholy), Jacques Roubaud or a Gert Jonke. But otherwise, as ever, commercial concerns dominate who gets translated where and when, as does, I would argue, who conforms to the target audience’s own environment. For example, the world is familiar with Norway’s Per Petterson, namely because he writes boring little books that are comforting in form and content, and not other towering figures within Norway itself such as Dag Solstad, Jon Fosse (included here with a dense, Beckettian piece) and more recently Karl Ove Knausgård. This unfair focus is common across the board, and that is why the choice of Hemon as editor here was an inspired move, his stature as a Bosnian writer doing very well for himself in the US literary world allows him the opportunity to give a balanced, untiring view of Europe, in all its pluralistic detail. This need for a searching overview of an inexhaustible field is also why we should be thankful this anthology is going to be an annual outing.
Zadie Smith in her preface makes the germane comment that it would be a fool who could believe for a minute that this anthology could be ‘an anthology of the American short story’. The work found in BEF2010 is formally diverse, in fact there are very few ‘classic’ short stories – something for which we should be thankful. This is an anthology of short fiction – as opposed to short stories – and this has liberated Hemon to choose work that is often, choosing the word carefully, avant-garde: concerned with language, pushing it, reformulating it (for example Norway’s Jon Fosse, Austria’s Antonio Fian, Portugal’s Valter Hugo Mãe); twisting form in ways that don’t read to be self-conscious (Alasdair Gray’s [UK: Scotland] ballad, David Albahari [Serbia] writes his story in time with his character creation, Josep M. Fonalleras [Spain: Catalan] writes a work of noir through condensation, ellipsis); and in two of my own favourite works, images are included to compliment the text, in Julián Ríos (Spain: Castinian) the image is the starting point and inspiration. With Cosmin Manolache’s (Romania) ‘Three Hundred Cups’, the image is a humorous demonstration of the narrator’s attention; the reader is also treated to a wonderful Perecqian list in outer space, a concatenation more enjoyable, informative and human than many an over-stylised epiphany of the classic short story.
Naja Marie Aidt’s (Denmark) comment in her interview on the Dalkey Archive Facebook site could be applied to this anthology as a whole:
an unadorned, strongly linguistic mode of expression emphasizing the use of language, where writers take on their subject matter with absolutely no fears, no holding back. No taboos…. Literature of high artistic quality, whether it be underground poetry or a novel of broad scope.
It is a very exciting time for European fiction with a lot of voices emerging, from the Balkans to Scandanavia to the Baltic countries, and this emergence is evident in the courageous creative risks taken by the stories in BEF2010. This collection arrives at the same time as the continent organises itself on a post-national political level, allowing, one hopes, future muscle in terms of cultural promotion and protection of social rights. To continue the quote from Aidt’s interview:
…it all ties in with the financial support given to writers, allowing them to spend their time writing instead of using all their energy teaching, or mopping stairways. It also permits a great freedom – we Danish writers don’t necessarily need to appeal to a certain target group, a certain market, we can survive without writing bestsellers.
Because what Europe does have is readers – readers hungry for the challenging, the difficult, the formally new, probably because of the sheer scale of diversity and contiguity of so many traditions (translated works of fiction make up 40% of Germany’s published output, for example). And judging from the authors’ statements and interviews, it also has readers writing for themselves and their art; they have learned their art through a distillation of tradition (national, European, North American and a nod to Murakami) and, thanks to a social democratic belief in art in society, many of the writers here have been free of the need for commercial interest. The fiction here that transgresses the boundaries of polite realist dictates could never survive an MFA workshop: Creative Writing is not actively pursued in universities in Continental Europe (yet), and long may it not be. The Anglo-Saxon literary world is in danger of smothering itself under a blanket of homogeneity, ‘hyphenating’ any abstractions its youthful writers come across in a complicated real world – the power and ubiquity of the English language should not be allowed to become a poisoned chalice.
As for Europeans, they need to remember their freedoms, the liberty of reading each other, diversity and pluralism, the defense of markets not hell bent on autobiography and bestsellers. Freedoms borne out of a non-commercial drive for art – hard of course, and against the grain – but in the present situation, and with BEF2010, these freedoms can now deliver the benefits of avant-garde artistic cross pollination, warm humour and formal innovation." - John Holten
"To complain that Americans don't read enough European fiction is to commit the mortal sin of extreme obviousness. The studied ignorance of literary fiction from anywhere besides the United States (and 99% of literary fiction from within the United States) has to be annoying to non-American authors, but they shouldn't feel alone -- Americans ignore pretty much everything that comes out of Europe, with the possible exceptions of supermodels and sports cars. It's true that a few European authors have broken through in the States -- Roddy Doyle, Stieg Larsson, Ian McEwan -- but it's also true that as hard as it is for deserving American fiction writers to succeed here, it's much more difficult when you get your advance in euros, pounds, or krónur.
The major publishing houses here have largely given up trying to push European fiction, especially if it's translated, on American readers (though there are some notable exceptions), but luckily, some smaller and independent presses have taken up the fight. Open Letter Books has brought writers like Jan Kjærstad and the great Bragi Ólafsson to American bookstores, and Archipelago Books is responsible for bringing attention to Miljenko Jergovic, Magdalena Tulli and others. Dalkey Archive Press, though, is probably the first among equals of these indie publishers - their roster (not limited to Europeans) includes some of the best authors in the world. For the first time in its history, Dalkey has published an anthology of short fiction by European writers, and the result, Best European Fiction 2010, is one of the most remarkable collections I've read - vital, fascinating, and even more comprehensive than I would have thought possible.
In this book are 35 pieces of fiction, representing 30 countries -- countries like France, Italy, and the United Kingdom are represented, of course, but so are smaller nations like Iceland, Slovakia, and Liechtenstein. Most of the fiction in this volume is translated (and the translators are given proper credit, a nice change from the major publishing trend of essentially ignoring them); a few were written in English. Editor Aleksandar Hemon does an admirable job selecting not the most famous writers -- Alasdair Gray of Scotland and Julián Ríos of Spain are probably the most well-known authors in the book; neither, obviously, is even close to being a household name in the States -- but some of the most amazing ones, whether they've been alive for thirty years or for seventy. The stories and excerpts here aren't thematically linked; the only common thread is that they are, for the most part, extremely accomplished.
The anthology starts off with an excerpt from Albanian writer Ornela Vorpsi's novel The Country Where No One Ever Dies (translated by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck), and it's a perfect way to kick off the collection (even if it is just an accident of toponymy; the stories are presented in alphabetical order by the author's home country). The excerpt is bitter, sad, and unexpectedly funny. ("It's no mean feat," writes Vorpsi, "to gain an Albanian's respect: it only rallies when you're on your deathbed -- and when you breathe your last, you've finally won it.") It's also imbued with a strong sense of place -- most, if not all, of the pieces in this book are as well. Vorpsi's poetic realism stands in contrast to the haunting, but just as beautiful, "dona malva and senhor josé ferreiro," by Angolan-born Portuguese poet and novelist Valter Hugo Mãe (the story is translated by Kerri A. Pierce). Mãe's account of a possible haunting is sober and disturbing; the story's dreamlike language stays with the reader as long as the heartbroken characters and unsettling plot.
There are almost too many standouts to mention. Irish author Julian Gough's absurd and hilarious "The Orphan and the Mob" made me laugh out loud; the story seems to owe as much to Monty Python as it does to P. G. Wodehouse. Naja Marie Aidt of Denmark is represented by "Bulbjerg," a harrowing and stark story of loss and infidelity, translated beautifully by Anne Mette Lundtofte. Latvian writer Inga Ābele's "Ants and Bumblebees" (translated by Lauris Vanags) is a short, sad, and perfect account of a family fractured by time, resentments, and feelings nobody seems quite sure of. And Stephan Enter of the Netherlands contributes "Resistance" (translated by Imogen Cohen), a bittersweet and perfectly executed childhood reminiscence of a group of young students' encounters with a chess teacher. I made notes to read as much as I can find by Deborah Levy (England), Goce Smilevski (Macedonia), Neven Ušumović (Croatia), and Igor Štiks (Bosnia) after reading their remarkable pieces.
It's difficult to choose a favorite story here, but the two that I think will stay with me the longest are Icelandic writer Steinar Bragi's "The Sky over Thingvellir" (translated by Christopher Burawa) and Polish author Michał Witkowski's stunning "Didi" (translated by W. Martin). Bragi's simple tale of a young couple's failed romance is heartbreaking, understated, and at times funny (at one point, the woman mocks her partner's dream of growing and selling bonsai trees: "What a practical dream... And you can employ little elves to do the trimming, little Sigur Rós androgynes with iPods"). Bragi's characters are at once charming and unlikeable, overly certain and confused. The story ends where it has to, in a minor tragedy; the reader roots for these characters, but ends up not really certain if he or she would ever actually want to meet them. The couple is imperfect, like all of us; the story, and Burawa's translation, are flawless.
Witkowski's "Didi," about a rent boy trying to work in Austria ("(I)nside that boy next door, an old, smutty harlot was hiding. A bit of a sloth, too.") addresses some of the themes present in the work of Dennis Cooper and filmmaker Gus Van Sant, but the writing and translation are utterly original. Every scene, every line, is devastating, and wrought perfectly. The scene in which the protagonist picks up an Arab man and has sex with him in a parking lot restroom is unforgettable:
They shut the door, and Ahmed sat down on the toilet. It was enough to make you throw up. He had breasts like a woman's, except they were covered in hair, and he reeked of sour sweat. Every few minutes he would break into idiotic laughter and order Didi to lick his corrupted body from head to toe. Or else he would fart and laugh as if it were the funniest joke he'd ever heard. Didi did lick him, but all the while she fantasized about those cigarettes and cutlets, which allowed her to forget what she was doing.
It's hard to imagine a story more stark, more brutal. It's painful to read and it's completely unforgettable.
Not every story here is an unmitigated success -- I was left a little cold by Christine Montalbetti's fan-letter-ish "Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami)" (translated by Ursula Meany Scott), and by the tedious philosophizing of Giulio Mozzi's "Carlo Doesn't Know How to Read" (translated by Elizabeth Harris). But the strong pieces outweigh the weaker ones by far, and the breadth of styles pretty much guarantee that everyone will find something to love here, something to take with them forever.
The only frustrating thing about the anthology is the fact that not all of the authors have full-length books available in English (yet) -- several, though, have been published in English by Dalkey Archive and others. My own list of authors to explore grew by at least a dozen after reading this, and I'm already drafting emails to publishers begging them to translate and publish some of these authors in the States. I'm more than a little sad that I haven't been paying enough attention to European writers (I don't keep up with their sports cars or supermodels, either, though I'm pretty well-versed in their beers and drug laws); it's great to have Hemon help me find who to look out for. Like Dalkey Archive Press itself, this anthology is fascinating, accomplished, and absolutely crucial. America and Europe don't always agree on much; I hope readers in both places can agree that we needed this book." - Michael Schaub
"Judging by a handful of short stories from Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2010, it would seem Europeans have mostly forgotten how to write them. Or have simply lost interest. Instead, they’ve taken up animated essays in which the characters, if there are any, tend to be mere ciphers, and there’s not so much a short story as a lengthy observation. The editor of the collection, Aleksandar Hemon, asserts that, as a genre, the short story “has the flavor of a report from the front lines of history and existence.” Well, maybe, but there should be more to it than reportage.
“All Turned Moon,” a Bulgarian import, is a somewhat weak attempt at science fiction that is so lacking in atmosphere it wouldn’t be surprising if it were in fact happening on the Moon.
France and Christine Montalbetti give us “Hotel Komaba Eminence,” which features an appearance by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Described in almost excruciating detail, the piece seems to adhere to French experimental writer George Perec’s concept of the infraordinary; Montalbetti spends entire paragraphs, for example, on the “olfactory struggle” between chlorine and the “subtle fragrance of a mild soap” Murakami used to wash off the smell of the swimming pool. Some of the writing is elegant, but a good deal of it is simply overwrought:
It also happened that through some gesture the collar of his shirt would suddenly come away from his skin before pressing back against it again, allowing a more powerful whiff—a condensed cloud of these conflicting fragrances—to escape from the fleeting gap.
What we get after pages of impasto-ed prose applied to mundane minutiae is a chortle—a punchline finishing off a long, complicated joke.
“At the Sarajevo Market,” a story from Bosnia, had the perfect opportunity to give us something still smoking from the front line, and in a sense I suppose it did, but the execution is so heavy-handed, the story comes off as pretentious. The two characters—again, never described and utterly historyless—are names on a page. Dialogue is nonexistent although you’d think two people walking through a besieged city would say a few things worth quotation marks.
“Waves of Stone” by Norway’s Jon Fosse, is an odd paean to the weirdness of existence that has the feel of a creative writing exercise. There is no story to speak of, which isn’t a problem in itself, but there’s not all that much to make up for it. Physical laws are broken at will, or perhaps simply don’t exist. Although there is dialogue, it’s hardly the sort you would see outside the printed page. Fosse might have done better had he compressed this into a poem.
Flaws cited, I must admit that for every story that ended flatly or never seemed to actually get started, there was a piece that I found haunting, beautifully accomplished, or simply transcendent (making me wonder if Sir Isaac Newton didn’t have a hand in this collection).
Falling into the latter two categories is “The Allure of the Text” by Lithuanian Giedra Radvilavičiūtė —all by itself worth the modest price of this book. Like so many of the European offerings, Radvilavičiūtė gives us metafiction, that is, a story either self-consciously about writing, like hers, or, like Fosse’s, one that creates a reality so bizarre it gets its own meta-classification.
Radvilavičiūtė not only lays out five exceptionally sound criteria for a worthy text (Fosse violates her second by being too far removed from experience), she gracefully illustrates them in the story she tells. The fifth and arguably most important also showcases Radvilaviciute’s quiet lyricism:
A good text is obliged to draw you back to it many times. Just like old parks—in which you can always lose your way—beckon you to go for a stroll in them. But notwithstanding the tangle of trails and the mystical sound of barking dogs echoing in the distance, and despite the pollen mist rising from the flowers, the overgrown ponds, [and] the sky … closing in like a lavender suitcase hiding dangerous things… you forge ahead., sensing that at some precise place, something like a denouement is awaiting you.
Conceptually as elegant as a physics equation, containing stories within stories, highlighting the interplay between text and reality as well as offering flesh-and-blood characters caught up in a layered narrative, “The Allure of the Text” is superbly realized.
Julian Rios’s “Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime” is something of a throwback, employing a couple of well-worn tropes (the deal with the Devil, the traveling stranger with a story to tell) but instead of leaning on them like an old man with his cane, the Spanish author flaunts them like a flaneur with a spiffy walking stick. Filled with Borgeseque echoes, with allusions to photography, images, duplication, and duplicity, Rios’s story remains after the reading like mist after rain.
Although Neven Usomovic is Croatian, he sets “Veres” primarily in Hungary. Detailing the desperation and sufferings of the modern refugee, Usomovic, a writer with a fine eye for observation and a gift for striking description, gives us a chilling tale with the sort of slippery ending that makes you wonder if the chills were real.
While something of a mixed bag, the collection exhibits an astonishing diversity—including a rhyming ballad from Scotland—such as simply could never be seen in American anthologies, which, as a rule, tend to be obsessed with O. Henry build-ups and endings, straightforward plots, and an almost generic, naturalistic style. I can’t help but think the homogeneity has something to do with our McCulture.
European artists, on the other hand, have often been accused by their counterparts across the Atlantic of producing work that’s overly refined, absurdly rarefied, so disconnected from ordinary experience few can relate to it. That is sometimes the case here, but more often we have stories with a distinctly European flavor. Overall, this anthology is a strong debut in what promises to be a very interesting and worthwhile series." - Vincent Czyz
"Doing justice, in a review, to an anthology of 35 stories by 35 different authors writing in 30-odd languages is obviously impossible. If the readers of literary fiction were a truly international community, they'd all queue up to buy this book, and be thrilled that it promises to be an annual publication. But there must be a reason why a shamefully small percentage of "foreign" literature gets translated into English, and Dalkey Archive, the heavily subsidised publishers of this brave new project, know very well how stacked the commercial odds are.
In his introduction, the acclaimed Bosnian author Aleksandar Hemon alludes to the recession and the resultant "panic mode" spreading through the American book trade. Moreover, he wryly notes that the pundits are once again pronouncing short fiction defunct, "dying in the literary hospice room adjacent to the one in which the perpetually moribund novel is also expiring". Hemon argues that European fiction is in rude health, although he now lives in Chicago, and many other contributors have emigrated too.
Quite a few of the tales are set in a valueless mega-capitalist landscape in which all vestiges of socialist frameworks and national insularity have long vanished. In Peter Stamm's "Ice Moon", the gatekeeper of an industrial complex rendered obsolete by cheap outsourced labour poignantly fails to achieve his dream of a new life in a new country. An excerpt from Michał Witkowski's bestseller Lovetown – the gripping story of a Slovak prostitute hustling in the "electric amusement park" of Vienna – takes a jaundiced view of borderless travel. Georgi Gospodinov imagines a future in which life can be artificially extended but the planet is so despoiled that most citizens opt for assisted suicide while "VIPs and wealthy space bankers were buying themselves up three hundred years or more." This sense of unravelled social fabric and a bleak future suffuses much of the fiction from Belgium to Bulgaria.
The "usual suspects" are refreshingly absent, making way for newcomers as well as for major figures largely ignored in the English-speaking world, such as the visionary Norwegian minimalist Jon Fosse and, from Serbia, the unexpectedly readable postmodernist David Albahari. Deeply sincere, emotionally brave stories are – it must be said – not in plentiful supply, but there's room for an extended metaphysical lark about the footballer Zinedine Zidane and a fantasised breakfast with Haruki Murakami in which the author and Murakami are "in the same place, but not governed by the same temporality" because, after all, "the act of narration itself is nothing if not a process constantly beset by bifurcations". (Both these pieces are French.) One of my favourite stories is Elo Viiding's "Foreign Women", which reads at first like a bittersweet reminiscence of the exotic freedoms that Estonians glimpsed in the western women who visited them during the Soviet era. As the story sinks in, however, it reveals itself as a lethal brew of corrosive frustration, disgust for Estonians and foreigners alike, pent up over decades and released too late to do anyone any good. While some of the more ambitious conceits in this anthology don't quite ignite, there is lingering power in Viiding's evocation of envy as the foreign women rush off to the airport "in their pre-hired, dirty-yellow taxis through our city full of posters of balding, senile-looking politicians".
Antonio Fian contributes "Some Short Stories After Dreams", darkly hilarious nightmares narrated in a droll, deadpan tone. They range from pure fun – a doomed meeting with the songwriter Loudon Wainwright III "to translate some of his lyrics into the Viennese dialect" – to disturbing evidence that the Austrians' Nazi past continues to haunt them 70 years on: "My mother and I were sentenced to death by crucifixion without even being given a reason and were led immediately by a former school friend who'd joined up with these Nazis and whose duty it was to guard us to the place of execution in Prater Park, not far from the children's choo-choo."
Twenty-eight translators worked on these stories and their efforts, inevitably, vary in quality. Doug Robinson does a particularly good job on Juhani Brander's prose, revealing her to be what many of the contributors are not: a distinctive stylist. Brander's wild mini-tales of Finnish misbehaviour feature a psychopathic biker called Saigon, a doomed business student called Aki ("cute as a bug") and the wannabe metrosexual Markku, who "squandered his advance inheritance on designer drugs and private coaches at the gym" before being savaged by a bear. Multilingual translator Kerri Pierce tackles a supernaturally vivacious Portuguese story by Valter Hugo Mãe and the cryptically spare Norwegian of Jon Fosse with equal aplomb.
For all his enthusiasm about the current scene, Hemon adds a disclaimer that Best European Fiction 2010 is "more interested in providing a detailed snapshot of contemporary European literatures than establishing a fresh canon of instant classics". Is this a tacit acknowledgement that none of the pieces here is mind-blowingly great? Maybe. In the author biographies and interviews appended to the anthology, as well as in Zadie Smith's preface, such names as Kafka and Dostoevsky recur, but the stories themselves, even the finest, lack the aura of ageless genius. Perhaps Europe itself is currently too confused about its identity – or not confused enough – to give birth to the sort of fiction that makes you dizzy with awe. Perhaps such stories will appear in Best European Fiction 2011. In the meantime, this is a precious opportunity to understand more deeply the obsessions, hopes and fears of each nation's literary psyche – a sort of international show-and-tell of the soul." - Michel Faber
"Compiling the best European fiction for any given year, translated into English, is an impossible and absurd task. The cost for the work and the translation, the time involved, the inevitably meager sales, and the scope of writing that must be covered is daunting and in most cases insurmountable. Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian American writer and editor of Best European Fiction 2010, acknowledges as much in his introduction and then gleefully ignores the odds. “This anthology…is indeed declaring a victory. As far as we are concerned, translation and the short story…have been restored to their rightful place.”
His enthusiasm is heartening to kick off a series that has been long in coming and highly anticipated (at least by me). Though as rocky and subject to reader bias as any wide-ranging anthology, much of the work in this first title is startling in its ingenuity and will hopefully be successful enough for publisher Dalkey Archive to produce more editions. Damn the torpedoes.
The numbers testify to the work involved. Covering a continent made up of roughly 50 countries speaking umpteen dialects and tongues, Hemon and his coworkers have selected 35 short stories and novel excerpts, representing 26 languages and 30 countries. (The Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, and Sweden are notably missing.) Twenty-nine translators worked on the stories. According to the acknowledgements, the book was put together and financed with the assistance of 20 different arts councils. Forty pages are devoted to statements and biographies on the authors and the translators and an additional (much appreciated) 14 pages lists websites as resources for more European literature and translations.
In attempting to cover as much as possible, Hemon has left us with a bewildering hodgepodge of voices and styles – from a Scottish ballad by Alasdair Gray to the surrealistic farce of Julian Gough, the poetic abstractions of Elo Viiding and the essayist analysis of Jean-Philippe Toussaint. It can be difficult to move between such radically varied and distinct voices from story to story, not all of which could possibly be to everyone’s liking. However, the book’s extreme unevenness is part of its huge strength, rendering a progressive literary landscape as vibrant and varied and thrilling as the many cultures and peoples crowded within Europe’s borders.
Michał Witkowski’s “Didi” plays like a lost Werner Fassbinder film, tracking a dim male prostitute in a cruel and cold Vienna. Julián Ríos’ “Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime”, about a man who appears in the first photograph, is a masterwork of Borgian fantasy. In “The Sky Over Thingvellir”, about the break-up of a young couple, Icelandic author Steinar Bragi uses dark wit and pathos and the main characters’ half-formed thoughts to explore ideas of perspective. (Bragi also contributes an essay about influences, “Thomas Mann’s Bowels”, in his biography.) Perhaps, given Hemon’s birthplace, the stories from the Balkans and the former Soviet states are particularly strong: Croatian Neven Ušumović’s “Vereš” and Romania Cosmin Manolache’s “Three Hundred Cups” deal with national identity and post-Soviet drift without overly resorting to the irony and absurdist dry humor that is a hallmark of recent Eastern European fiction.
I hesitate to simplify the writing by drawing too many parallels. There is some teeth gnashing within this book about what is meant by “European” fiction. In her author bio Lithuanian writer Giedra Radvilavičiūtė writes, “I believe that European literature – insofar as being a category with unique identifying traits (and I don’t mean such superficial indicators as place names, surnames, historical events, social realities, etc.) – doesn’t exist.” But Zadie Smith, in her preface, rightly asks, “if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a food would be confused as to which was truly which?”
The fiction in the Best American anthologies that come out every year tend to emphasize and are stronger on narrative and voice over experiments in structure and theory. Mainstream European literary writers, in general, have pursued the postmodern offshoots of the 20th century – here primarily metafiction and surrealism—more stringently than their American counterparts over the past 20 years or so.
Most of the stories in Best European Fiction 2010 read as highly idiosyncratic and are working strongly within combined narrative and experimental frameworks while avoiding the formality that can mar experimentalism and bridging what Hemon calls “the false gap between the avant-garde and the mainstream.” The ones that I didn’t like tended to lean too far in either direction: the sappy sci-fi of Georgi Gospodinov’s “And All Turned Moon” and the too precious conceit of David Albahari’s “The Basilica in Lyon”, whose main character is “the story”. (Unfortunately many of the weaker stories, since the book is arranged in alphabetical order by country of author origin, appear in the first half.)
The influences that can be seen stem from Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf and their predecessors. American writers, though cited by many of the writers in their biography statements, seem to factor for little. Albahari writes, “at least for me, current American literature does not have story writers as exciting and innovative as their predecessors.” I don’t think this is a deliberate snobbishness, but rather a reflection of the adequate staidness and sentimentality of too much American mainstream literary fiction being published today. As Smith writes, “I was educated in a largely Anglo-American library, and it is sometimes dull to stare at the same four walls all day.”
There seems to be a growing hunger and market for international literature in the United States: the launch of Open Letters in 2008, online and print literary magazines like Absinthe, bookstores like McNally-Jackson and Idlewild in New York that organize their fiction by country and region. Hopefully this book will become a vibrant part of this momentum, and that this will inspire and stimulate American writers to take better chances.
One of Hemon’s goals is to create “a continuous flow of literary texts from other languages into English” – to promote an enhanced and up-to-date literary dialogue between international languages and cultures. Here’s hoping to many more years of impossibly ambitious Best European Fiction anthologies. And here’s hoping for anthologies covering the other continents, as well." - Michael Buening
"A few years ago, the Mexican literary magazine Letras Libres asked me to write an essay about major trends in the last decade of American literature. The more I thought about what such trends might be, the less convinced I became that there even was such a thing as “American literature” anymore. The books that had interested me most in the late 1990s and early 2000s were by writers who were emigrants or members of minority ethnic groups: Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, Nathan Englander. Other than the language in which they write, is there anything that unites this group of global souls—all of whom have spent long periods of their lives living in places other than the United States—as definably American? And they might well have more in common with other international writers of their generation—Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Haruki Murakami—than with earlier-generation “American” writers such as Roth or Updike.
So I was surprised to find Smith (a British writer of Caribbean descent who lives partly in the United States) pronouncing a strangely antiquated definition of American writing in her introduction to Best European Fiction 2010, a new anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon and published by Dalkey Archive Press. “It seems old-fashioned to speak of a ‘Continental’ or specifically ‘European’ style,” Smith (correctly) begins, but she continues: “If the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?” The differences, she argues, go beyond the “obvious matter of foreign names and places.” European fiction shows “a strong tendency towards the metafictional”; an interest in magic realism (one writer enjoys a fantasy breakfast with Murakami; another imagines that Gustav Klimt has 14 illegitimate sons all named Gustav); and an “epigraphic, disjointed structure” featuring abrupt endings. These stories, she concludes, “seem to come from a different family than those long anecdotes ending in epiphany, popularized by O. Henry.” And these writers’ models are not O. Henry or Hemingway, but Barth, Barthelme, Beckett, Kafka, Sebald.
O. Henry! When was the last time you saw a reference to him in a contemporary American short story—or anywhere else? What struck me about Smith’s description of this supposedly European style was how well it applies to new American writing. Today, the greatest remaining practitioners of the traditional, linear short story Smith seems to be invoking are Alice Munro and William Trevor—neither of whom is American. (She’s Canadian, he’s Irish.) Meanwhile, in American fiction, the kind of fragmentary, fantastic writing that was once experimental has now become common, thanks to the influence of literary journals such as McSweeney’s (as I once argued in Slate). Barth and Barthelme—both of whom are American—are most definitely among the progenitors of this work, but Murakami and Houellebecq are its current patron saints. Kafka’s influence, of course, is a given everywhere, but Sebald was far more popular in England and the United States than among his compatriots on the Continent.
Reading my way through Hemon’s book—a handsome collection of 35 stories, one from nearly every major European country or language group (Ireland, for instance, is represented twice, with one story originally in English and another in Irish), mostly by writers born in the 1960s and 1970s—I was surprised by how familiar the work felt. In his own introduction, Hemon complains that the “American reader seems to be largely disengaged from literatures in other languages, which many see as yet another symptom of culturally catastrophic American isolationism.” There’s no doubt that there is very little market in America for works in translation. Yet this has hardly isolated the American reader, or the American writer: the currents of influence flow freely in both directions—as this anthology demonstrates. Julian Gough’s “The Orphan and the Mob” takes place in a distinctly Irish setting, but the broad, bawdy lines of its satire come from a tradition that goes back to Tristram Shandy (Irish/English) and continues in the work of Philip Roth. The romantic drama of Steinar Bragi’s “The Sky Over Thingvellir” (Iceland) reads like Updike crossed with Umberto Eco. Naja Marie Aidt’s “Bulbjerg” (Denmark) has an uncanny masculine anger and violence that we also see in Raymond Carver or Wells Tower.
There’s something a little bit ridiculous about continuing to use nationality as a primary label for writers now that literary culture has gone truly global. The writers in Hemon’s book work in dozens of different languages, but they share a similar sensibility—a sensibility that might once have been called “Continental” or “European” but is now simply literary, melding international influences in a kind of cultural fusion. And this sensibility, which does indeed include elements of magic realism (not a European invention) and metafiction (ditto), will be easily recognizable to anyone who has recently picked up The New Yorker. As Smith also writes, again correctly: “Good writing cannot permit itself to be contained within checkpoints and borders.” - Ruth Franklin
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