[29 March 2011]
The second edition of Best European Fiction is a more relaxed affair and overall I thought the selections were stronger than in the 2010 edition.
In his introduction, editor Aleksandar Hemon allows himself a little victory lap over the success of the first edition and the positive response received from critics and readers. Hemon and Dalkey Archive Press took on a daunting, expensive task and proved that they successfully identified an audience and assuaged their hunger for short stories by European writers.
The integral questions posed by the series, How do you define the “best” and how do you define “European”?, don’t seem as oppressive when you have two editions with the active prospect of more on the way. Colum McCann raises these issues in his preface, but it’s understood that the series is meant to serve as an ongoing conversation on European fiction from year to year, not a definitive statement. Furthermore, whatever complicated mechanics needed to be put in place to gather the stories, translate them, and decide which to include, had already been done with the first edition, and there is a feeling that in this round the process was more enjoyable for the producers.
There have been a few technical updates to the format. The stories are published in reverse alphabetical order of their country of origin, for whatever reason. The author biographies in the back are kept short and sweet, without additional comments from the authors as in the 2010 edition, which sometimes gave interesting insights into their work, sometimes were irritating indulgences, and either way took up way too many pages for what they offered.
In his preface McCann writes that Europe might possibly be “even more ‘American’ than the U.S. itself” in that it is become more pluralistic and less nationalistic due to the rise in immigration, the sociological effects of the EU, and the wide availability of different books and writings through the Internet, etc. Whether or not this is true, the voices on display here are far more diverse than in any of the Best American Short Stories put out by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt each year (which could be due to the publisher and editors as much as any lack of diversity in American writing).
In this 2011 edition there are fewer abstractly experimental stories. There are a couple references to Raymond Carver. Roberto Bolaño’s influence is palpable and Kafka still hovers over a great deal of the work. I could point out other potential influences from Mercè Rodoreda to Clarice Lispector and be totally wrong. But overall the writers resist easy identification with their precedents. They seem more interested in absorbing their many available influences into an idiosyncratic and personal voice than fitting into an established framework.
Though the writers don’t seem obsessed with defining a national voice, the concerns of their nationalities, ethnicities, and regional histories and politics are often of primary importance.
The Eastern European stories are particularly overt in addressing social issues, primarily the lingering effects of the Soviets and the mix of democracy and authoritarianism that has followed. Victor Martinovich’s dystopian “Taboo” (Belarus) takes place in a country where breaking a law as simple as against picking flowers in a park can target a person for instant death. “The Wire Book” (Czech Republic), by Michal Ajvaz, takes place in another parallel world, addressing issues of regime change and artistic activism. László Krasznahorkai’s “The Bill” (Hungary) is written from the collective point of view of a brothel that supplies models for an artist. These stories succeed in using universal or abstracted points of view to address societal ills. (Whereas one of the weakest stories, Verena Stefan’s “Doe a Deer” (Switzerland), directly references current events like the Iraq War and Sudan with an affect that is emotionally forced in its stridency.)
Many of the stories from Eastern European writers are also notable for updating or referencing older folk traditions and “peasant” styles associated with a specific region, as in Andrei Gelasimov’s “The Evil Eye” (Russia) and Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s “Goose Chase” (Romania). Also prevalent is an absurdist sense of humor, used to good effect in Goran Samardžić’s “Varneesh” (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Zurab Lezhava’s “Sex for Fridge” (Georgia).
As in the previous edition, my favorite stories pushed the boundaries of narrative fiction in ways that were challenging and invigorating without being impenetrable.
In general this series eschews internationally established writers. But the two most well-known authors that are included; Enrique Vila-Matas and Hilary Mantel, provide masterful examples of technically and thematically advanced storytelling. Mantel, the more traditional narrative writer, uses gothic mood and unusual character portraits to propel “The Heart Fails Without Warning” (United Kingdom: England), about a girl’s seeming indifference to her sister’s slow wasting away due to an eating disorder. Vila-Matas, the fashionable meta-fiction writer, adopts the apparent guise of a traditional 19th century Russian story in “Far From Here” (Spain: Castilian), which spins out into a meditation on how a story interacts within place and time.
Some of my other favorite new (to me) writers and stories were Frode Grytten’s “Hotel by a Railroad” (Norway), about an older man on a holiday who spots two pretty girls at a swimming pool and follows them relentlessly, leaving his wife at the hotel. Ersan Üldes’s “Professional Behavior” (Turkey) manages to make literary theory funny in telling the story of a translator altering the plots to the books by a successful German novelist when translating into Turkish.
Once again this edition of Best European Fiction resists easy categorization and is a refreshing compendium of the wide possibilities that still exist for the short story regardless of their geographic origins.