Best European Fiction 2010 edited by Aleksandar Hemon, preface by Zadie Smith. Dalkey Archive Press.448 pp, $15.95.
“The great pest of speech is frequency of translation,” Samuel Johnson once wrote, in the preface to his iconic Dictionary of the English Language:
No book was ever turned from one language into another without imparting something of its native idiom; this is the most mischievous and comprehensive innovation; single words may enter by thousands, and the fabric of the tongue continue the same, but new phraseology changes much at once; it alters not the single stones of the building, but the order of the columns.
If one wants to maintain the purity of a language, Johnson argues, “let them . . . stop the license of translators.”
The governing conceit behind the Dalkey Archive Press’s new anthology, Best European Fiction 2010 (the inaugural volume in what they hope will become a yearly publication), is to do just the opposite. The editor of this first volume, the Bosnian-born and Chicago-based Aleksandar Hemon, has rounded up 35 stories from Europe. From Albania to Wales, the anthology pays close attention to coverage in terms of language rather than of region, giving us two stories from Belgium (one translated from French and one from Dutch), two from Ireland (English and Irish) and nothing from Germany (the German language is represented by Austria).
Indeed, some of the stories Hemon has selected seem to be valued more for their cross-cultural subject matter rather than their literary merit, and decenteredness seems to be the watchword: the French story takes place in Tokyo, the Spanish and Serbian stories take place in France, the Croatian contribution is set in a Chinese restaurant in Budapest, and the Polish story is about a transgendered Slovakian hooker out on the cruel streets of Vienna. In other words, this vision of Europe looks more like a melting pot of disparate cultures than the “salad bowl” of staid Old Europe. In this way, Hemon avoids turning the anthology into the literary equivalent of “It’s a Small World.”
In his introduction, Hemon offers some brief preliminary thoughts on translation and Europe. He argues that the short story is remarkably vital there, judging at least from the “sheer diversity of narrative modes and strategies evidenced in the selections in this volume.” This diversity, according to Hemon, is a result of the specific constellation of European identity, “stretched” as it is between the “demands of national culture” and “the transformative possibilities of transnational culture that can exist only in the situation of constant flow of identity and exchange of meaning in the situation of ceaseless translation.” This is why, he suggests, the present volume contains stories which “inescapably question and probe and sabotage various national myths, often featuring migrants and vagrants, unabashedly questioning the propriety of the old forms in the new set of historical and political circumstances. These stories not only cross and trespass all kinds of borders, they are, quite literally generating translation in doing so.”
Blending and diversity are inherently related to the art of translation; when you take something from one culture and transform it into another, both the source and the target cultures remain distinct and yet transformed. But for all this crossing and trespassing, this project has an air of an “us and them” mentality to it: “[T]ranslation has to be a ceaseless process,” Hemon writes. “Not only do we have to provide a continuous flow of literary texts from other languages into English, we also have to be able to monitor in real time, as it were, the rapid developments in European literatures.” Eventually, one assumes, this increased correspondence will break down the differences between European and non-European literature. Already the influences and tendencies that come through in this volume go beyond a strictly European literary heritage, making that organization of literature by geographical area—especially one as vast as Europe—seem more and more arbitrary. The choice, therefore, to privilege these hybridized stories seems to indicate that the breakdown has already begun, to such a point that it seems as odd a construct to talk about “European fiction” as it is to talk about “North American fiction,” or “Asian fiction.” The exchanges between these literary spaces don’t stop with the landmass of a continent. Especially not one as arbitrarily located as Europe: where does Europe stop and Eurasia begin? What of the tantalizing closeness of North Africa?
The idea of Europe, however, seems very clear—at least to those citizens of member states of the European Union, who more and more describe themselves as feeling just as “European” as they are French, or German, or what have you. There are, however, a group of writers in this collection who conceive of themselves as somehow marginal to the idea of Europe. Goce Smilevski, of Macedonia, writes in the appendix that
The question of belonging and the attempt to situate oneself in a literary context have a rather numbing effect on Macedonian writer. A decade or so ago, we were part of Eastern Europe, and so we were considered a part of the European context. Now, however, the concept of a Europe divided into East and West has disappeared: after the creation of the European Union, one either lives in the EU, or they’re thrown into “the other” Europe—beyond the borders of the Union.
[T]he authors of the “Other Europe” rarely have a chance to talk about their literature—questions directed at us almost always concern our current politics. As writers, we are neither far away enough (so we can’t be “exotic”) nor close enough (to be “real” Europeans): we’re somewhere in between, in a place where we can barely be noticed and thus are easily and so often forgotten. Our place on the margin evokes two different feelings at the same time: one of inferiority, and then one of freedom. Our inferiority complex makes us feel that we are nothing but intruders in the European context, but the freedom that our ‘marginal lives’ allows us gives us the stability to choose only the best of the European tradition to help us move forward.
This “other Europe” is well represented in the anthology, not only in Smilevski’s terms of “marginal” Europe and “real” Europe, but precisely in terms of the cultural blending to which Hemon gives such priority. When the Croatian story is set in a Chinese restaurant in Budapest, we are quite far from the Europe of the Grand Tour.
As for the stories themselves—well, judging from the bulk of them, things are pretty bleak in Europe: dirty and dark, as in the Finnish flash fictions, shot through with an overwhelming nihilistic violence, as in the stories by Peter Terrin (Belgian/Dutch) or Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark). (These I found frankly repellant, which some might suggest is an indication they’re doing something right.) Many have a kind of pseduo-surreal quality to them; some succeed better than others at making this work. All, at least, have commanding voices, which dare you to look away or to turn the page. (That’s the great thing about anthologies: you can always turn the page.) These stories possess a certain kind of dark knowingness that seems to pass for “European” here, but it is unmitigated by the kind of absurd levity you find in more successful “dark” European fiction (I’m thinking of Dostoyevsky, or Kafka, or Beckett).
That’s the bad news. The good news is that there are stories in here that make beautiful use of time, and space, and landscape. The contribution of Igor Stiks (Bosnia) shows him to be a worthy inheritor to Walter Benjamin; “At the Sarajevo Market” is about the remnants and loose objects that turn up over time, “the things that had until recently filled the apartments and houses of all Sarajevans,” where “you could appreciate the true soul of Sarajevo.” He has a sense of European history that accounts for the jagged violence of the 20th century without giving up the lyricism and care that marks some of the best European writing of the past. His story is an important counterpart to all the blending and diversifying happening elsewhere in the volume, concentrating instead on way a culture evolves (a form of translation) over time, investigating the places where memory is contained:
Cities inscribe their history on walls and in objects, not in the unreliable and corrupt memories of their citizens. That’s the only way. Don’t we ourselves write our lives into those objects, diaries, jewelry, the painstakingly dried flowers that illustrate best of all the fragility of our memories and sensations and in this way link our existence to the existence of the city and to other similar attempts to preserve some records of our passage over this earth?
In his story, the narrator and his girlfriend find a pocket watch inscribed “Dear Rudi, with every second the war comes closer to its end, and we to each other. Your Teresa, Prague, 1914.” There’s a bitter irony in the finding of the object that at first seems sullied when Stiks lingers over it (“Teresa’s prediction about when the war would end certainly turned out to be overoptimistic,” he writes), instead of just letting it stand, letting the reader supply the significance. But then the narrator and Alma imagine various outcomes for Rudi and Teresa’s affair, giving the found object a significance it would not have had were it left to stand on its own. And the narrator’s lens pulls out—we learn that it is 1992 in Sarajevo, and the whole story sorts out differently.
I flipped for Julian Gough’s absurd, hysterical “The Orphan and the Mob” (Ireland: English), and loved Penny Simpson’s wistful “Indigo’s Mermaid” (Wales). I want to read more of Goce Smilevski, whose “Fourteen Little Gustavs” (Macedonia) is excerpted from his novel Sigmund Freud’s Sister. There is also the hauntingly beautiful Bulgarian “And All Turned Moon,” by Georgi Gospodinov, and a wonderful excerpt from Lovetown by Michal Witkowski (Poland).
On a deeper level, what unites these stories is not only the accident of geography, or a mixed drink representing some new idea of European-ness, but a similar response to a shared literary heritage. As Zadie Smith points out in her preface, these writers seem each to protest “Well, yes, I am European, Slovakian, actually, but I am also an individual, and what really matters to me is Nabokov, Diderot and J.G. Ballard.” Only a fool, she comments, could confuse this writing with anything coming out of America. Smith highlights some of the formal and stylistic commonalities of the stories in the anthology: “an epigraphic, disjointed structure”; a preference for the “violent distortions” of Kafka and Dostoevsky over the “cool ironies” of Tolstoy, and “a strong tendency towards the metafictional.” (She’s not kidding—they could very well have named this volume the Best of Euro PoMo 2010.)
In some of the stories in the collection, this kind of metafictionality appears as a self-consciousness about the artificiality of narrative. David Albahari’s “The Basilica in Lyon” (Serbia) is a key example. It begins like this:
The story begins in Lyon, but it could end anywhere. There are four men in the story, two policemen, five women, a couple of cameras, a bicycle (not visible) and an old soccer ball. The story has ten parts of differing lengths. The longest stretch of the story, covering more than one part, takes place in front of a basilica; the shortest part passes in almost total silence; all the parts are figments of the imagination. At one moment, even before it began, the story was out on the edge of town. It stood there for awhile, until rain began to fall. It brushed away the drops that were coursing down its face and stuck out its thumb.
And then under your eyes the story has become a girl who’s hitchhiking her way from (and back to) Lyon. It’s not a bad story—in fact it’s quite a good piece of writing—but it is so hyper-aware of itself as a potential story that the story is stuck circling dreamlike around itself. Giulio Mozzi’s “Carlo Doesn’t Know How to Read” is, similarly, so fearful that reading has become a rote exercise that we are told that the main character, Carlo, does not to know to “read.” What he knows how to do is this sensual, synesthetic activity that is so far from what his friends are doing that it can’t even be called reading. Mozzi is clearly calling out for a more physical kind of reading practice, but when the author has already made the leap from work to text, the reader is left feeling, at the very least, like her own work has been done for her.
Steiner Bragi’s story “The Sky Over Thingvellir” (Iceland) cuts to the heart of and transcends the problem. It takes on that same element of fiction-creating that has proved so tricky for writers—the fact that it’s all a sham, verisimilitude is sleight of hand, there’s a man behind the curtain—producing prose that is crippled with self-consciousness, the kind of writing that turns to the metafictional as a crutch. But Bragi’s story finds a frame in which to express these concerns: a boy and a girl, neither of whom are particularly important as fully drawn characters, out for a picnic by a river. The girl is trying to find a way to break up with the boy; the boy is realizing he is in love with the girl. The boy gives the girl a gift, a photograph taken from a security camera of the exact moment they met. “Something about the photograph made her think that this was a scam,” Bragi writes. Both are struggling to express what they each know to be true, all the while skeptical of any and all truth-claims. The girl wary of anything and everything that tries to be accepted under the banner of sincerity; the boy argues that you can’t avoid cliché (note that “cliché” in French also means “photograph”): “‘To be born is a cliché: we’re all born at the same level and die at the same level! Life’s challenge is to learn about clichés—which also happens to be a cliché—and to figure out how to handle them on our own terms.”
Bragi’s genius move, however, is not to side with either of his characters, nor to appear to use them as contrasting views in a dialectic interrogation of the meaning of it all. Rather, his camera pans out, getting more and more distant from his rejected hero, left alone by the river’s edge: “But we won’t examine his thoughts and feelings any more closely than we already have. Perhaps these will end up some other book, someday . . . for now, they don’t much matter. (Or else: they’ll never matter).” I quote at length:
Back in the grass, where they’d been sitting, in among some torn blades of grass, there was a red thread from the blanket and some breadcrumbs that the flies immediately dissolved with their saliva and ate. In the air, the faint odor of the boy’s shaving cream and the girl’s body odor were carried off into the afternoon breeze. Then the clouds arrived, the rainbows disappeared from the waterfall mist, the flies quieted down and it began to rain . . . this is how the two of them spent their lives—they lived, died, and all traces of their existence vanished from the earth. . . .
[I]t seems that on one certain beautiful spring day in a small hollow by a little waterfall, one tiny human being was able to see all this in the palm of his hand, and realized how important it is to express oneself decisively, to try and break free from the chains of the slow, inevitable death that concludes human life. For one fleeting second in the eternity of the cosmos, a girl by the name of Ella demanded truth—and received it. Her efforts exposed her to our scrutiny—but perhaps, in that moment, she understood that this report might one day be written about her.
For Bragi, story “is another kind of confrontation. Also doomed to failure, in all likelihood. As such, we will withhold any further explanations, withdraw, and head straight back up into the sky—not just over Thingvellir, but over the entire globe. We’ll let that suffice. There’s nothing left to say—except, let us all remember that as has often been said during one or another of the pathetic, pretentious errors that we call a human life, even a broken clock is right twice a day.”
We may as well be as self-conscious about our fiction as we are about our lives, Bragi suggests, but just as we accept the ruse and carry on anyway, to forge relationships, realize goals, and live our lives, so must we do in fiction. To remind ourselves that it’s all a “scam” seems important from time to time, if only to sort out the scam from the craft—but mainly, we carry on anyway.
Lauren Elkin is a writer, literary critic, and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. She writes about books and French culture on her blog, Maîtresse, and lives in Paris.
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