A Literary Continental Congress
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.