Best European Fiction 2012
  edited by Aleksander Hemon

Dalkey Archive Press
Third Anthology

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"Traditional mapmaking is pretty screwed up, ain’t it? It pretends to be scientific, though you know that’s not true, that it’s just a bad convention, and a dangerous one at that, seeing as how it drips ideology right into your brain without you ever noticing."

Reviewed by Steve Wasserman

It’s hard when weighing up such an expansive collection as The Best European Fiction 2012, henceforth BEF2012, not to reach for a comparative paradigm with which to give oneself some sort of critical foothold in the almost too-muchness of the endeavor. Thirty-four stories from 28 countries: phew! Nicole Krauss, who writes the preface to the anthology, does something similar, comparing the meager supply of translated literary fiction and poetry published in the US (only 0.7%, and probably not much higher in the UK) to the availability of Mississipi Delta Blues music for the young Keith Richards in 1950s Dartford.

Aleksander Hemon (the picker of these tales) backs this up by extolling on the worthiness of the venture in his punchy and up-to-date introduction. He alludes to the recent riots in London, and financial bailouts across Europe, suggesting that if the actuality of Europe 2012 "baffles you or scares you", then BEF might be the antidote, in terms of providing "a sense of kinship" with our Euro-neighbours, and maybe even getting us a little closer to understanding the geopolitical pickle we now find ourselves in. I’m not sure this volume delivers on these promises, if anything I felt myself even more baffled and scared after reading it. But maybe in a good way.

A number of analogies came to mind in the process of working through BEF2012. Firstly (apologies) the Eurovision Song Contest; albeit an extremely highbrow version of the Eurovision song contest, where the UK entry might be the literary equivalent of Four Tet (Lee Rourke) and France weighing in with Charlotte Gainsbourg (Marie Darrieussecq). Iceland would of course give us Bjork (Gerđur Kristný) and Ireland, Damien Rice (Donal McLaughlin). Perhaps it also felt Eurovision-y because in order to keep track of my thumbs-upping, wavering and downing across the 34 stories I started giving marks out of 12 (my average was a 7, with nothing more damning than a 3.5).

If I’m totally honest, I was really hoping "Team GB" (Rosenstock, Hogan, McLaughlin, Rourke) would stand out as a Sandie Shaw, or even a collective Bucks Fizz in this wholly chimerical competition I’d set up in my head, but I’m not sure "we" delivered to the same extent we did last year (BEF2011) with Hilary Mantel’s stunning The Heart Fails Without Warning. My favourites this time round (De Martalaere, Kratochvil, Kőomägi, Darrieussecq, Lintunen, Stauffer, and Pajares) were all from the other side of the channel.

The fact that I needed to resort to this somewhat bathetic ploy in order to get my head around the collection perhaps highlights some of the difficulties I had in getting my head around BEF2012. Some of these difficulties were constitutional, stemming from my own predisposition to a broadly-speaking "New Yorker-type story": those linguistically playful and interesting, emotionally charged portions of snazzy Americana. The fare on offer here is much more mannered, as if it’s had to pass through Heston-Blumenthal’s rotary evaporators, vacuum chambers and refractometers before hitting your eyeballs. The perils of translation - or does this come more from the source material itself?

There are a lot of photographers and artists in these pages, processing their lives through a variety of lenses. Metaphorical lenses too: a romantic relationship seen from the perspective of a dog (This Strange Lucidity by Agustín Fernández Paz), the Battle of Stalingrad viewed through the eyes of a philosophy-loving Arabian thoroughbred named Orlando (Jiří Kratochvil’s story I, Lošaď); and in the final story of the volume by Bernard Quiriny, Rara Avis, a women gives birth to a giant egg.

Doom and foreboding frequently prevail: a middle-aged schoolteacher gets drawn into Felliniesque degradation in Janusz Rudnicki’s The Sorrows of Idiot Augustus, characters kill themselves or are driven by suicidal impulses, children vanish, or are abandoned. But it’s often not clear who the enemy is anymore: who’s getting waterboarded, who’s doing the waterboarding. Pretty much like post 9/11 foreign policy, then.

On the page, this is often exciting, but also occasionally frustrating, when homage starts to feel like box-ticking nods to Kafka, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Borges. For an anthology which we hope might give us a fly-on-the-wall peek into what our Euro-cousins get up to in their Euro-lives, hardly anyone actually seems to stay in their own country anymore. A Polish schoolteacher travels to Sicily; an Irish translator visits Slovenia; a Hungarian photographer makes a trip to Antartica; another tourist (a suicidal Portuguese journalist) throws himself into an unnamed war zone. Easyjet and Ryan Air fiction has truly come of age.

This is all very well (and good), but after four hundred page of hopping through time and space, through multiple cultural, translated dimensions, I felt a bit like the over-sated diner who’d been given a Freedom Pass to El Bulli or Noma. After a week of stuffing myself with the fictional equivalent of Nitro Poached Aperitifes and Razor-shell Clam Sushi With Ginger Spray, I started hungering for plain old eggs on toast, or a Thai green curry. Many of my favourite stories were built around relatively simple premises, with characters tending to stay at home, or close to it. Even if against their will, as in Maritta Lintunen’s Passiontide, a masterful story which reminds us that perhaps the most baffling and scary events occuring in the world, still happen in the realm of our own fallible minds and bodies.

For future volumes, I urge the editors to not be afraid of pedagogically "placing" the production of these writers in the tradition of their national literature and also their own oeuvres – offering perhaps an intro to each piece, along the lines of Robert Chandler’s concise and illuminating single-pagers for his Penguin Russian Short Stories collection.

Given just a little bit more help with tuning us into the riches on offer, I’m sure we could more pleasurably and profitably situate ourselves on this ever-shifting, still largely unknown map of European fiction. The fact that we read so little of our Euro kith and kin is an interesting question that perhaps a future Literary Festival panel made up of MEPs and critics, or even you dear reader, might be able to shed some light on.

Win a copy of this book! See the Competitions page for details.

Steve Wasserman is a psychotherapist and mindfulness trainer living in London. He also runs the only (as far he knows) Short Story Bookclub in the UK, perhaps The Universe.
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Authors: Lydia Mischkulnig, Patricia de Martelaere, Bernard Quiriny, Muharem Bazdulj, Rumen Balabanov, Maja Hrgović, Jiři Kratochvil,Armin Köomägi, Maritta Lintunen, Marie Darrieussecq, David Dephy, Clemens Meyer, Zsófia Bán, Gerđur Kristný, Desmond Hogan, Gabriel Rosenstock, Gundega Repše, Patrick Boltshauser, Ieva Toleikytė, Žarko Kujundžiski, Vitalie Ciobanu, Andrej Nikolaidis, Sanneke van Hassel, Bjarte Breiteg, Janusz Rudnicki, Rui Zink, Dan Lungu, Danila Davydov, Marija Knežević,  Róbert Gál, Branko Gradišnik, Santiago Pajares, Pep Puig, Agustín Fernández Paz, Noëlle Revaz, Michael Stauffer, Arno Camenisch, Serhiy Zhadan, Lee Rourke,  Donal McLaughlin, Duncan Bush

Editor: Aleksander Hemon is the author of The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man, and The Lazarus Project, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2008. Born in Sarajevo, Hemon visited Chicago in 1992, intending to stay for several months. While there, Sarajevo came under siege, and he was unable to return home. Hemon wrote his first story in English in 1995. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2003 and a “Genius Grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 2004. He lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter.