Book review: Best European Fiction 2012
Best European Fiction 2012 Edited by Aleksandar Hemon, with a preface by Nicole Krauss Dalkey Archive Press, 459pp. €11.50
TRANSLATED BOOKS ARE a hard sell for publishers. In the same way that subtitled films rarely achieve mainstream success, it’s a challenge to overcome a general wariness towards translated novels. There is the obvious fear that cultural and linguistic differences might work against readers and conspire to keep them locked out of the heart of a book. A good translator, though, will open most doors, and if sometimes a little linguistic or cultural mystery remains, what harm is there in not knowing everything?
This fine collection of short stories by European writers goes a long way to introducing the wider literary world to English-language readers. In his introduction, Aleksandar Hemon briefly lists the riots and conflicts in the UK, Israel and Syria that were shaking their capitals at the time of writing. The daily news channels keep us updated on the world’s turmoil; this collection, its editor reasons, can offer a snapshot of what is happening in people’s everyday lives. These are the kind of stories that are imperfect fodder for television cameras but are no less desperate, affecting or powerful for it. They might be fiction, but they are every bit as indicative of global currents of thought and action.
The book is organised under loose themes, such as love, desire, elsewhere, war, music, evil or family, with 34 stories from 28 countries. The reader can play guessing games and try to name the country or language of origin based purely on the prose, although the cliches rarely click into place. That said, the two Irish stories in this book, by Gabriel Rosenstock and Desmond Hogan, share a clipped, brusque pace and a certain measured brutality.
In a way, the biggest problem facing the book is the scope of what it is trying to achieve. Any comprehensive review of European literature would need to run to thousands of pages, and no reader or publisher would reasonably invest in that. This book, at about 460 pages, has so much going on between its covers that it can be difficult to keep your head above water, and this, rather than any translation issues, is what makes it a challenging read.
A few similarities emerge. If you took this book as a yardstick, there would seem to be a preference among European writers for first-person narration, with a weary tone cast on particularly ominous backdrops, and characters that find it hard to stay in one country for any length of time. These aspects, though, are probably more an indication of Hemon’s editorial preferences than any emerging European literary themes.
This collection’s challenges are well worth tackling. These slivers of stories, perhaps the beginning of a shelfload of novels, are vying for attention in something that is more than a book. It is a guide, a road map of European fiction, a collection of calling cards of bright literary lights, burning with intent.
Given that they are short stories, there is little time for luring readers in or building up expectations. This is a rapid, brilliant business, and here the literary slaps come thick and fast. Add to this the wildly careering styles and approaches, plots and subplots flaring and dying like wildfire, and it makes for a breathless collection.
There is the seductiveness of Amja Hrgovic’s Zlatka from Croatia. There is the heart-rending loyalty of Agustin Fernandez Paz’s mutt in This Strange Lucidity, who doggedly prepares for oblivion with the kind of dignity usually reserved for old soldiers. In I, Loshad, by Jiri Kratochvil, a second World War combatant debates Kant with a captured German woman – even in these few short pages you could almost forget the narrator is a horse. From Switzerland, that most urbane and reserved of countries, we get a story by Arno Camenisch that is, surprisingly, ruggedly rural and vulgar enough to be utterly authentic, and a story by Noelle Revaz about an orphanage abandoned by its adult owners that is starkly unsettling. Rui Zink, from Portugal, sets his desperately intriguing story in a no-man’s-land that has been blasted to pieces in a barely described conflagration, where the only things left standing are heavily securitised five-star hotels where foreigners squabble over the resources that, one assumes, are at the heart of the conflict.
This book glitters with diversity and crackles with restless activity, which might wear out a casual reader. So take a deep breath first, but this dive into unknown waters is well worth the risk.