Best European Fiction 2010
 Ed. Aleksandar Hemon

Dalkey Archive Press 2010
Paperback
First Anthology







"Ahead, dust and smoke gushed down through the ragged hole in the ceiling through which the lead-encased body of Brother Madrigal had earlier plunged. I gazed upon him, standing proudly erect on his thick metal base, holding his axe aloft, the whole of him shining like a freshly washed baked bean tin in the light of the setting sun that shone along the corridor, through the open front door."


Reviewed by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

It is difficult to review an anthology but this one is not as difficult as most. The reason for that is that it is packed with riches – not just the stories but all the extras that Dalkey Archive Press and the editor Aleksandar Hemon have gifted to the reader. There are comprehensive biographical details on each author as well as personal statements on writing and influences, and/or extracts from relevant interviews. Each story is subtitled with its country and language of origin, which is helpful and welcome to the reader. There is also a forward by Zadie Smith, who always has interesting things to say about writing: "Books-wise, I was educated in a largely Anglo-American library, and it is sometimes dull to stare at the same four walls all day".

Hemon himself gives a spirited introduction about the short story and its exaggerated waning: "...all that death and demise stuff is nothing but a crock of crap", he notes. He also highlights the importance of translation. This book, one supposes, is aimed at the American market but it is a relief for me as a European writer to read what my brethren in Lithuania, Spain, Iceland etc. are writing now (or last year, at least). And that is the real beauty of anthologies: their absolute finger-on-the-pulse-ness of current writing.

Translation is the key issue here, of course. In his introduction Hemon says:
...if you are curious about the state of contemporary Polish literature or the lively writing scene in, say, Zurich, Switzerland, or Lima, Peru, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any stories or novels that would allow you to enter that particular field of knowledge. The American reader seems to be largely disengaged from literatures in other languages...
I’m afraid the average English-speaking European writer is too. But in Best European Fiction 2010 we have a small redress to that balance. I say "small" but, of course it is not small: at 420 pages this is a big anthology, but it also large in its scope and impressive as a collection. Thirty countries are represented across a range of regions and languages – Ireland and Belgium, for example, feature work in translation from people writing in Irish, French and Dutch, as well as in English. It should be noted that Best European Fiction 2011 is already available and that this will be an annual publication.

In his author statement, the Swiss writer Peter Stamm says,
German and Swiss literatures are not particularly difficult, but they see their assignment not so much in the reassurance as in the unsettling of a reader, in the firm belief that beauty and truth are not consumable but instead must be – in the sense of a catharsis – cultivated and experienced.
This holds true for his story in this anthology, Ice Moon, a sad, unsettling story about a retiring security guard called Erwin Biefer who confides his secret plan to emigrate to Canada to the narrator. This is a downbeat story, ripe with atmosphere, mystery and stark images: "Outside, Biefer shuffled past, looking straight ahead. He was only wearing his blue uniform, and his face was white from the cold."

Other stories, like Waves of Stone by Jon Fosse of Norway, are harder to get a foothold in. The author dispenses with most punctuation and the piece is, essentially, two dialogues with unnamed characters who see people conjured out of the wind and air. I found it odd and unengaging as fiction.

Camino, translated from the Irish of Orna Ní Choileáin, delivers a surprise mid-way, which is welcome. The story concerns the Bolivian Ramón and his aunt Espie, who has visions. She is given a present of Belgian chocolates by the parents of a girl who has gone missing in Ireland; Espie is able to tell them where their daughter’s body lies. Espie’s visions continue and they deliver a twist. I felt the ending of this story could have been handled with more care but all in all it is a satisfying read.

Steinar Bragi (Iceland) contributes a lively, modern story about a couple who have very different ideas about where their relationship is going in The Sky over Thingvellir. Much of the story is in the form of meditations on bonsai trees, the nature of life particles, and the meaning of existence. If that sounds turgid, Bragi gets away with it because his writing is beautiful, laced with humour, and the Icelandic landscape sparkles through it all.

Naturally it is impossible to summarise every story here, but another enjoyable piece is Julian Gough’s Myles na Gopaleen-like The Orphan and the Mob which won the UK’s National Short Story Prize in 2007. Born in London, Gough was raised in Ireland and lives in Berlin, so he is European in many senses of the word. And that, too. is what is wonderful about this anthology: it is broad ranging, inclusive and it feels fresh in a uniquely European way. Hats off to Dalkey Archive Press and Aleksandar Hemon for starting this enterprise and long may it continue.

Read a story by Aleksandar Hemon in The New Yorker


Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s début novel You (New Island, 2010) was called ‘a heart-warmer’ by The Irish Times. Her third short story collection Nude (Salt, 2009)) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize; her third poetry collection The Juno Charm is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. Her second short story collection To the World of Men, Welcome has just been re-issued by Arlen House in an expanded paperback edition. 
Nuala's other Short Reviews: Sarah Salway "Leading the Dance"   

Patrick Chapman "The Wow Signal"

Kuzhali Manickavel "Insects are Just Like You and Me Except Some of Them Have Wings"

Moira Crone "What Gets Into Us"

Michael J. Farrell "Life in the Universe"

Simon van Booy "Love Begins in Winter"

Teresa Svoboda "Trailer Girl"

Edna O'Brien "Saints and Sinners"
                     
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Authors: 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

Editor: Aleksandar Hemon is a novelist and story writer, with three collections of stories: The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, and Love and Obstacles. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay a few months. While there, Sarajevo came under siege and he was unable to return home. He wrote his first story in English in 1995, and awards include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation.