Shards of brilliance

Sat, Mar 2, 2013, 00:00

FICTIONBest European Fiction 2013, Edited by Aleksandar Hemon, Dalkey Archive Press, 502pp, £11.99

In his introduction to Best European Fiction 2013, Aleksandar Hemon, who has edited the anthology each year since its inception, in 2010, describes himself as a kind of literary evangelist, who spends his time trying to convince people to read difficult and/or translated works of literature. Now he says he has given up the sermonising, and writes apologetically that this collection is “proudly difficult and imperfectly translated”. Essentially, Hemon says, it’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be worth it.

For the first quarter of the book or so, it really isn’t easy, and it is not until Kirill Kobrin’s Last Summer in Marienbad, a wonderful slice of historical drama with Franz Kafka at its core – the man rather than his writing style – that this collection starts to hit its stride.

Those looking for a guide to the grand themes in current European literature will be disappointed, as it’s hard to cut any clear paths through the chaos of such a lively literary continent. The book is loosely corralled under headings, such as space, women, body and Americans, but this is little more than an optimistic attempt at drawing a few boundaries. The 35 stories and their subject matter are too diverse in their heritage and execution to allow any effective categorisation.

There is the gleeful anarchy of Tania Malyarchuk’s Me and My Sacred Cow; it seems like a documentary treatment of a misremembered fairy tale. Or there is the cold-water shock of the last line in Gundega Repse’s How Important Is It to Be Ernest?, a terrific piece from Latvia.

As with most short-story collections, not all are gems but most have a shard of brilliance. Vitalie Ciobanu’s story of everyday oppression in a Soviet state is a taut piece of writing, but it is a long passage about a prison from which no sound emanates that strikes a chilling chord.

Daniel Batliner’s contribution is not the best in the collection, but his description of a laughing boy lingers long. “It is not the giggling of ridicule,” he writes, “but the innocent giggling of a child pleased by a prank that had been successful beyond his expectations.”

In Dulce Maria Cardoso’s Angels on the Inside, a country walk home shifts into a moment of searing drama, with everyday details transformed into curios of geometry and science by its young narrator. There’s a similar sense of lost, dark wonder in Ieva Toleikyte’s The Eye of the Maples, a childhood story that resists explanation and leaves its thumbprints on the protaganist’s life and the reader’s mind.

This being Europe, there’s also a strong, surreal stable of stories among the herd. Rumen Balabanov’s The Ragiad is a terrific tale of a man voluntarily transformed into a rag by the devil. Who would do such a thing? As his wife admits, the devil can be very convincing – and after the transformation “things went well for my husband. Quick promotion, I mean. We hardly saw one another, he was fantastically busy . . . ”

Similarly, Kristiina Ehin’s story is thrillingly chaotic from the get-go: a man attempts to woo a surrealist’s enigmatic daughter, and she promptly turns into a stork. Amid the well-executed confusion, there is some terrific prose. The daughter works in a cabaret, where her job is “frying the hearts and other body parts of her male audience over a low flame”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, AS Byatt’s short story is one of the finest in the collection. It twists and turns, with quietly violent betrayal, in a setup distilled through bland domesticity. These are paragraphs pared to the bone without distending their intent; it’s a masterful turn amid impressive company. What makes Byatt’s story stand out is the simple human heartbreak that drives it.

Similarly, Mirana Likar Bajzelj’s story, Nada’s Tablecloth, about a bride heading up the aisle with stone-cold feet and a heart empty of love, is elegantly cut. Ray French’s story of of an ageing father and his upset son is moving and neat.

John Banville offers an interesting preface that concentrates on the technical demands of translation. The Irish representatives here are Tomás Mac Síomóin and Mike McCormack. Mac Síomóin’s story is a deft piece about a man who hears an unearthly orchestra at inopportune moments. Mike McCormack’s story is more down to earth, featuring a Calvin and Hobbes-style eight-year-old boy who is convinced he is on the road to psychosis.

Ireland gets another brief look-in in Borivoje Adasevic’s searing condemnation of Serbia in For a Foreign Master: “Our whole multicoloured country was becoming for me a kind of Ireland in the eyes of an Irishman leaving it forever,” writes his protagonist, raging against the cruelties of his country. “It was becoming the old sow that eats her farrow and which had opened its hideous jaws, determined no doubt to finish us off.”

If all of this sounds uneven, it is – but it’s a thrilling kind of turbulence that tosses you about and forces you to keep your wits about you. Few readers will like everything in this collection, but none will go away empty-handed.

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