January 2010

Michael Schaub


Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon

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.

Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press
ISBN: 1564785432
448 Pages