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Review: Best European Fiction 2011, edited by Aleksandar Hemon

January 17, 2011

Time Magazine called last year’s debut Best European Fiction anthology “an exhilarating read” and looked forward to more editions in the series, citing editor Aleksandar Hemon’s assertion that “readership of foreign fiction needs to be cultivated over time.” The 2011 anthology is now in bookstores, and Brandon Wicks returns to Art & Literature with a look at what’s new and noteworthy in this follow-up collection. (For full disclosure: Another contributor to this site, K.E. Semmel, translated the Danish entries to the new anthology.) — Art Taylor

Best European Fiction 2011

Edited by Aleksandar Hemon

Reviewed by Brandon Wicks

Literatures of place can be very slippery. With the American South, for example, little consensus is made over where the South is (Is northwest Louisiana the South? Is Texas? Miami?) let alone what it is—and this from a region which supposedly has a common identity. What kind of challenge must it be then to represent the entire European continent, with its ever-shifting borders, languages and attitudes?

Enter the Best of European Fiction 2011, the second volume in an ambitious anthology edited by Aleksandar Hemon. The series debuted in 2010 with stories selected from thirty different countries. With this second outing, the territory expands: thirty-eight countries are now represented, including most of the UK and continental nations, much of Eastern Europe, and even subdivisions of certain regional identities (Spain, for example, has stories in both Catalan and Castilian). One of the surprising pleasures of this volume is how its writers cross borders with character and setting. Sarajevan characters find themselves in Barcelona; Bulgarian authors write about Germans—neither writers nor characters stay put. The stories themselves could be seen as a dialogue across national lines.

Though the fiction within 2011 varies, the volume is heavily characterized by stories of idea, works concerned with language and experimentation of form (perhaps most noticeable because of its absence in contemporary American fiction). The best of these resist traditional boundaries to offer new entries into storytelling, while developing empathic characters. A graceful example of this is Stefan Springer’s “Dust” which employs three separate narratives to explore the emotional life of dust—yes, dust. It explores excessive meaning within the smallest details that manages to be both comical and heart-sad. Most of these works, however, depend on lyricism or the intellectual interest of its idea. Of the former, Danuté Kalinauskaité’s “Just Things” is a meditation on death and the life of material objects whose descriptive beauty compels the reader on:

Sometimes, if you’re home alone, a metaphysical wind blows out of some dark corner. It brings with it—through what tunnels?—the smell of the other side, the smell of grayness, and the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. In the “soft” homes, all the voices, footfalls, and dust need to settle somewhere—so they creep into the drapery and shades.

Eric Laurrent’s “American Diary” provides a tourist’s eye view of U.S. expansionism, peppered with a little Jean Boudrillard for good measure. Others concern themselves more with form. Dieter Sperl’s “Random Walker” features nine shorts inspired by nine films, in what could be seen as a translation across languages of media, while Vladimir Arsenijević’s “One Minute: Dumbo’s Death” covers the last 60 seconds, tick by tick, of a downtrodden Sarajevo refugee in Barcelona. With a hint of Borges, Enrique Vila-Matas’ “Far from Here” teeters on meta-narrative: the main character wishes he was a character in a story, toying with the pleasures of reading and self-negation. Yet, by the end, the story strikes an impressive balance between deconstruction and wholeness of order.

As might be expected, some works are self-conscious to the point that they lack human connection, reading more like hypotheses than stories. Some, too, seem so concerned with surprising the reader that they derail the reading experience. To their credit, however, even these often spark intellectual interest.

While the best of these unconventional pieces can prove either enjoyable in the moment or provocative upon prolonged reflection, the most completely satisfying stories of the collection ultimately have a more traditional sensibility, inviting the reader in with their attention to character and conflict. Luckily, such works are well represented. Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s coming of age tale “Goose Chase” follows a small child who, by his grandfather’s side, finds himself confronted by class disparity and otherness within a gypsy camp; Ingo Schulze’s beautifully paced “Oranges and Angel” slowly immerses the reader in tone and voice for a delicate examination of character and family; “Hotel by the Railroad,” by Frode Grytten, is a quietly uncomfortable postmortem of a dying marriage, attenuated by the husband’s habit of tailing young women in public. The volume ends with a short piece of incredible tension, Arian Leka’s exquisite “Brothers of the Blade,” in which the narrator is obligated to shave his brother’s bared neck on his wedding day—a tiny taut moment, fraught with anxieties and sublimated desires.

Behind these stories, of course, are the translators, a cadre of scholars, editors, poets and writers who too rarely receive due credit. The gap between language and cultural expression never reveals itself within 2011, with each piece reading so natively that one can easily forget these are works in translation.

Since its debut in 2010, Best European Fiction has stirred lively discussion and rightly so. Can a single story be representative of an entire nation, its complications, fears and desires? Probably not. Yet, what Hemon accomplishes here is access to contemporary European writers, a community missing in the American literary imagination. In the introduction to this latest volume, writer Colum McCann posits (to the likely consternation of Europeans and Americans alike) that Europe is now perhaps more American—in its percolations as a melting pot, in its multifaceted identity—than the United States itself. Given the multitude of voices and conversations in exchange within this volume, the reader is liable to agree.

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