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Best European Fiction 2011

Edited by Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011

When Dalkey premiered its Best European Fiction series last year, several of my friends complained that the anthology opened up a somewhat narrow view onto the European literary landscape. Every anthology is, of course, haunted by all the stories that might have been included but weren’t, and the impossibility of making an adequate survey of anything as vast as contemporary European writing is obvious. So now that we have the new Dalkey volume, Best European Fiction 2011, it’s worth noting upfront that these are the best European stories mainly according to the tastes of a single reader, series editor Aleksandar Hemon.

The Best European series seems to be driven in large part by Hemon’s desire to fix our attention on the European writing that impresses him personally. While this method certainly has drawbacks, I prefer it to what we usually face with anthologies from Europe: pieces picked by official cultural organizations from different EU member states. You only need to read some of the committee-stamped French or Bulgarian anthologies to appreciate just how much more freewheeling Hemon’s approach is. He has always been an original and eccentric writer, and it’s exhilarating to experience his appetite for unexpected editorial selections.

Indeed, my first reaction to last year’s Best European collection was that it read like a gathering of Hemon’s own short stories. Since Hemon is a master of the short form, I didn’t have a problem with this. If the author of the eerie and moving novella Blind Josef Pronek and Dead Souls wanted to take me to meet his sometimes obscure discoveries among modern European authors, I was happy to join him. As an American living in Helsinki, I also liked that Hemon singled out for praise the piece that received the most positive critical attention in the 2010 volume: the excerpt from Juhani Brander’s brilliant and feverishly inventive book Extinction, superbly translated from the Finnish by Douglas Robinson.

Still, the presence of the Extinction excerpt pointed up one of the collection’s flaws. Seven of the pieces that Hemon chose came from longer works, and it was hard to tell much about them based on the brief samples that were presented. In the case of Extinction, for instance, the excerpt gave a strong sense of Brander’s exuberant imagination and humor, but little sense of how the book builds its impact through a deft and ultimately devastating succession of short, intense sketches about human destructiveness. Also, in the end, I came away thinking that quite a few of the anthology’s stories were impressive but somewhat limited in their stylized strangeness—hints of Saramago here, traces of Sebald there, touches of Kafka nearly everywhere. Hemon excels at grim, disorienting effects in his own fiction, and he is drawn to similar effects in other writers, but I think he miscalculated when he included so much work along these lines. Best European Fiction 2010 asked us to enter too many fragmented, self-consciously riddling situations, one after another, and they all started to blur together. The anthology was a tour de force, but it was also too much of a good thing, and it was less compelling as a whole than most of its stories were as individual achievements.

Now, with Best European Fiction 2011, Hemon gives us a much more varied collection. I don’t know if this was a clear decision or if he simply received a broader range of submissions this time, but what the new anthology lacks in unity, it more than makes up for in scope and depth.

Series Editor Aleksandar Hemon

The high quality of the writing reminds us that part of why we still turn to the great European novelists of the past is because they used their formal and stylistic boldness to give us figures like Don Quixote and Emma Bovary and the Baron de Charlus. Hemon’s selections affirm his devotion to aesthetic dexterity and inventiveness, and the experimentation here feels penetrating and fresh, growing out of the writers’ efforts to find the richest access to their characters. It’s unusual to read a collection as crowded as this one is with complex, provocative people, presented in complex, provocative ways.

“Professional Behavior,” by Turkey’s Ersan Üldes, is a good example of the anthology’s constant merger of ingenuity and insight. The story starts off with an engaging literary conceit: a translator begins making up false versions of the novels he renders into Turkish, giving greater prominence to the characters he prefers while changing the features that he finds clichéd. Eventually, though, he comes up against a writer whose books challenge his sense of superiority. The encounter adds unexpected layers to our appreciation of the translator’s personality, which is simultaneously self-effacing and arrogant, opportunistic in some ways and honorable in others.

Üldes doesn’t waste time either condemning the translator or trying to make him sympathetic: all of the writers in the collection seem more interested in exploring people than in striking simple attitudes towards them. Vilmer, the 58-year-old man in Toomas Vint’s “Beyond the Window a Park is Dimming,” emerges as a heartbreaking figure not because the story hides his flaws but because it leads us so deeply into those flaws that we recognize our common bond with him. Vilmer’s wife has recently left him, and he thinks about his increasing isolation from everyone as he waits for a potential lover to come out of the bathroom. Afraid of making a fool out of himself, absorbed in his own melancholy, Vilmer doesn’t notice until too late that the story is as much about the woman in the bathroom as it is about him. His confusion over what has happened to her is both affecting and chilling.

Many of the tales introduce us to a family or a circle of people, with each individual bringing out the full flavor of the others. These group stories tend to read like compressed novels, dense with observation. In the Albanian entry, Arian Leka’s “Brothers of the Blade,” a man shaves his younger brother in a complicated act of devotion and resentment, with a violent undertone that recalls the shaving scene from Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” The younger brother, a person of courage and common decency, has been the head of the family for many years, but is now leaving to get married. “And after this,” the older brother thinks, “when my little brother is not our father anymore, what will our real father be? What will I myself be?” As the older brother contemplates the younger’s face under the razor, the shaving takes us back into the family’s past:

Scars, welts, wens, and lines—a single careless pass would suffice to start a bloodbath. And meanwhile, their entire childhood, the time when they had been inseparable, was mapped right there in front of him, was there for him to touch; and in the space between two wounds he saw that day when they had rubbed each other with shoe polish, under their noses and on their cheeks, so as to look like men a little sooner.

The story closes on a note that could serve as an epigraph for the whole collection: “We change ourselves on account of others, we pay a high price just to be together…” Hilary Mantel pursues this theme with harrowing tenacity in her own contribution, which at first seems to be about anorexia but becomes an examination of the intimate pressures of family relationships. One sister grows thinner and more self-destructive while another sister watches, and gradually we see how the family members infect each other with their different shortcomings and obsessions. At one point the girls discover on their father’s computer a bondage photo of a woman on all fours, with a chain attached to her neck. The photo then comes back to shade the story’s final sentence, in an uncanny fusion of the kitsch and the sublime: a ghostly visitation from the anorexic daughter, accompanied by a white dog, “shining like a unicorn, a golden chain about its neck.”

Mantel’s work is in some ways a companion piece to the extraordinary “Holes in People” by Icelandic writer Kristín Eiríksdótter. A father abandons his family, and his daughter comes to believe that he left because of her. Years later, as an adult, she finds his corpse in a cargo container. Then she and her brother read the manuscript that the father has left behind:

The novel was titled Freedom [!] and dealt with a man who cut himself loose from a gray, monotonous existence and traveled the world. The narrative was unsophisticated and concerned a certain protagonist, a tall and well-built Icelander who was known only as “The Viking” in every port, always getting into trouble but saving himself with his cunning.

Amid these escapades were accounts of sexual conquests. Stories of Congolese black girls with big asses, submissive Asian beauties, promiscuous Inuit girls, and teenage Ukrainian prostitutes.

The daughter responds to the father’s fantasy of himself as a Viking sexual warrior by making an earnest attempt to understand his narcissism. She speculates whether “something at his core might really be beautiful, something that others couldn’t perceive but that he alone knew he possessed.” She also thinks: “Maybe this hidden something gave him his ever-renewed justification to seek out love and admiration.” Then her brother’s laughter pulls her out of her reverie: a fittingly open-ended way for Eiríksdótter to round off the narrative.

The subject of sex actually runs through quite a few of the stories, and again the variety of the writers’ approaches to the topic is refreshing. These range from Frode Grytten’s sly depiction of a husband stalking different girls to Mercè Ibarz’s funny, discerning portrait of three young women trying to lose their virginity—from Verena Stefan’s elegant meditation on warfare and pornographic snuff films to Manon Uphoff’s intricate recounting of a teenager’s rape. The Georgian writer Zurab Lezhava provides a raunchy, well-executed story about a man who bargains for the sexual favors of a married woman in return for a discount on the refrigerator he wants to sell her. More impishly, Bulgaria’s Alek Popov imagines a German town of the near future where the local wives are serviced by gigolos. The gigolos—in a parody of the Polish plumbers the French have been worrying about—are imported from Bulgaria and offer the wives a sexual vigor that the women neither want nor expect from their husbands anymore. Deliberately outrageous, Popov’s writing toys with German stereotypes about the former Soviet satellite nations, and with those nations’ stereotypes about Germany. It also dives into questions of sexuality and male insecurity that most writers are afraid to address.

A couple of the anthology’s best pieces involve that reliable old stomping ground of European literature, the circus. Anita Konkka writes the imaginary memoirs of a famous clown who has grown discouraged with life: Konkka finds just the right tone of listlessness to convey an artful sense of the clown’s decline. With similar skill, Olga Tokarczuk, from Poland, plunges us into the mixed motives of a man who marries a circus sideshow attraction, “the ugliest woman in the world.” After the marriage, the wife gives birth to an equally unattractive daughter. The husband is repulsed by both the mother and the child, and is shameless in exploiting and abusing them. Yet he is also devoted to them in some ways, and remains under their thrall. In time, his fixation on their appearance starts to change his vision of the world:

It was as though he had discovered a secret—that everyone is in disguise, that human faces are just masks, the whole of life one big Venetian ball. Sometimes he drunkenly fantasized…that he was removing the masks, and with a gentle crackle of glued-on paper they were revealing…what? He didn’t know. It began to bother him so much that he couldn’t bear to be at home with her and the child. He was afraid that one day he’d give in to his bizarre temptation and start trying to scratch the ugliness off her face. His fingers would rummage in her hair, seeking out the hidden edges, the straps and strips of glue….

Tokarczuk’s tale is set during the Belle Époque, and glides through a series of European cities. It embodies two other striking aspects of the anthology—the hefty quotient of historical fiction, and the prominence of fiction set outside the writer’s homeland. Enrique Vila-Matas, for instance, with his Spanish story “Far from Here,” enters the mind of a Russian district attorney in the early 1900s. The plot turns partly on the attorney’s relationship with his revolutionary son, and bears an oblique resemblance to Andrei Bely’s great Symbolist novel Petersburg. With calm intelligence, Vila-Matas immerses us in the attorney’s unhappiness over his failed family life. The historical background is used less for smug hindsight (“Look! They don’t know the Revolution is coming!”) than to dramatize the convoluted journey from the past to the present—ending up in Miami, of all places.

Following a now-familiar literary tradition, several of the stories from Eastern and Southeastern Europe are concerned either with government oppression or with the stifling elements of everyday life in the recent past. In “The Prophecy,” by Drago Jančar, a soldier at an artillery base in Southern Serbia discovers some counterrevolutionary graffiti in a bathroom stall and fears he will be blamed for it. Jančar evokes both the complex background of the Tito years and the poignant sense that the suffering of that era is already slipping away. He suggests that “tomorrow we too will be forgotten and no one will understand our stories.” Goran Samardžić’s “Varneesh” is less overtly political, but recalls a time in the narrator’s youth when cockroaches covered the bathroom floors and the apartment buildings were filled with surreal “underground strangers.” I don’t know anything about Samardžić, who comes from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but based on “Varneesh” I would say he is a highly original talent. Without ever letting the narrative feel cramped or rushed, he draws us into a set of lavishly developed situations: the narrator’s relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, a father pimping for his daughter, and the workings of the community of underground strangers.

Most anthologies offer up their fair share of duds. This one doesn’t: each story stood firm against my skepticism. Even the few stories that I disliked on a first reading turned out to be quite a bit better on a second, slipping past my prejudices as I tried to dismiss them. I have a mild bias against imaginary countries and Zamyatin-style dystopias, so I didn’t want to admire either “The Wire Book” from Michal Ajvaz or “Taboo” from Victor Martinovich. Yet on their own terms both stories are excellent, distinguished by subtle characterizations and skillful storytelling. Similarly, I resisted László Krasznahorkai’s decision to write “The Bill” in a single long sentence, but was won over by the steadily accelerating perceptiveness of the prose, which tracks a painter’s long-term fetishes as an artist.

In his introduction, Hemon asks us to read the stories slowly. That originally struck me as an oddly self-serving request—a bit like urging reviewers to be fair—and I flagged it as something to criticize. By the time I was done with the anthology, however, I realized that Hemon was right. The work in Best European Fiction 2011 is not only worth reading, but worth reading with the same care that went into its writing. This is a great book.

Kevin Frazier is an American author and critic who lives in Helsinki, Finland.