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Crossing the Boundaries of European Fiction

By John Holten.


Best European Fiction 2010, Aleksandar Hemon, ed., Dalkey Archive Press, 2010

It has been said before, and often, that anthologies are difficult and prone to error, and even if they do their job right they can still leave their readers dissatisfied, yearning for more. Anthologising Europe, in any shape or form, is always a formidable challenge. Dalkey Archive Press have initiated a timely and ambitious effort to try and collect the continent’s best fiction, edited by Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon, translate it and present it to an international, mainly American readership.

One way anthologies can succeed is providing a collection of work that is useful and practical, filling a void with a well-chosen condensation of content. The ostensible starting point of this collection is the permanent secretary to the Nobel Prize for Literature Horace Engdahl’s declaration in 2008 that ‘The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature [and] that ignorance is restraining.’ Only around 3% of books published in the US are translations and further only 0.7% of these are literary fiction and poetry – a pretty small figure. This book, the first in an annual series, is the commendable effort to alleviate this deficit. The whole project has been very thorough: from a series of fascinating author interviews on Dalkey’s Facebook page for the book itself, complete with 35 writers, translations from 25 different languages. The author’s bios for the most part come with a ‘statement’ in which they give forth their views on everything from Thomas Mann’s bowels (Iceland’s Steinar Bragi), to the West’s lopsided preference for tragedy over comedy (Ireland’s Julian Gough), their place in world literature and their influences. There is also a useful list of internet resources for each country included.

What needs to be remembered about Engdahl’s comment is the overlooked premise of his argument: ‘the fact that Europe still is the centre of the literary world.’ And indeed this book is as important for Europeans as it is for American readers: it offers to this most diverse of continents, where we are so adept in misunderstanding each other and overlooking our neighbours, a vade-mecum of successful contemporaries, each as different and exciting as the next.

The problems of translation are legion, not counting the pitiful number of novels translated: for example, we can interrogate why certain works of fiction are lucky enough to get translated. Dalkey Archive have never been afraid to take on some of the most challenging novels extant in the world today, and English readers the world over can be thankful to them for giving us the likes of Jean-Philippe Toussaint (here represented with his masterful 2006 Zidane’s Melancholy), Jacques Roubaud or a Gert Jonke. But otherwise, as ever, commercial concerns dominate who gets translated where and when, as does, I would argue, who conforms to the target audience’s own environment. For example, the world is familiar with Norway’s Per Petterson, namely because he writes boring little books that are comforting in form and content, and not other towering figures within Norway itself such as Dag Solstad, Jon Fosse (included here with a dense, Beckettian piece) and more recently Karl Ove Knausgård. This unfair focus is common across the board, and that is why the choice of Hemon as editor here was an inspired move, his stature as a Bosnian writer doing very well for himself in the US literary world allows him the opportunity to give a balanced, untiring view of Europe, in all its pluralistic detail. This need for a searching overview of an inexhaustible field is also why we should be thankful this anthology is going to be an annual outing.

Zadie Smith in her preface makes the germane comment that it would be a fool who could believe for a minute that this anthology could be ‘an anthology of the American short story’. The work found in BEF2010 is formally diverse, in fact there are very few ‘classic’ short stories – something for which we should be thankful. This is an anthology of short fiction – as opposed to short stories – and this has liberated Hemon to choose work that is often, choosing the word carefully, avant-garde: concerned with language, pushing it, reformulating it (for example Norway’s Jon Fosse, Austria’s Antonio Fian, Portugal’s Valter Hugo Mãe); twisting form in ways that don’t read to be self-conscious (Alasdair Gray’s [UK: Scotland] ballad, David Albahari [Serbia] writes his story in time with his character creation, Josep M. Fonalleras [Spain: Catalan] writes a work of noir through condensation, ellipsis); and in two of my own favourite works, images are included to compliment the text, in Julián Ríos (Spain: Castinian) the image is the starting point and inspiration. With Cosmin Manolache’s (Romania) ‘Three Hundred Cups’, the image is a humorous demonstration of the narrator’s attention; the reader is also treated to a wonderful Perecqian list in outer space, a concatenation more enjoyable, informative and human than many an over-stylised epiphany of the classic short story.

Naja Marie Aidt’s (Denmark) comment in her interview on the Dalkey Archive Facebook site could be applied to this anthology as a whole:

an unadorned, strongly linguistic mode of expression emphasizing the use of language, where writers take on their subject matter with absolutely no fears, no holding back. No taboos…. Literature of high artistic quality, whether it be underground poetry or a novel of broad scope.

It is a very exciting time for European fiction with a lot of voices emerging, from the Balkans to Scandanavia to the Baltic countries, and this emergence is evident in the courageous creative risks taken by the stories in BEF2010. This collection arrives at the same time as the continent organises itself on a post-national political level, allowing, one hopes, future muscle in terms of cultural promotion and protection of social rights. To continue the quote from Aidt’s interview:

…it all ties in with the financial support given to writers, allowing them to spend their time writing instead of using all their energy teaching, or mopping stairways. It also permits a great freedom – we Danish writers don’t necessarily need to appeal to a certain target group, a certain market, we can survive without writing bestsellers.

Because what Europe does have is readers – readers hungry for the challenging, the difficult, the formally new, probably because of the sheer scale of diversity and contiguity of so many traditions (translated works of fiction make up 40% of Germany’s published output, for example). And judging from the authors’ statements and interviews, it also has readers writing for themselves and their art; they have learned their art through a distillation of tradition (national, European, North American and a nod to Murakami) and, thanks to a social democratic belief in art in society, many of the writers here have been free of the need for commercial interest. The fiction here that transgresses the boundaries of polite realist dictates could never survive an MFA workshop: Creative Writing is not actively pursued in universities in Continental Europe (yet), and long may it not be. The Anglo-Saxon literary world is in danger of smothering itself under a blanket of homogeneity, ‘hyphenating’ any abstractions its youthful writers come across in a complicated real world – the power and ubiquity of the English language should not be allowed to become a poisoned chalice.

As for Europeans, they need to remember their freedoms, the liberty of reading each other, diversity and pluralism, the defense of markets not hell bent on autobiography and bestsellers. Freedoms borne out of a non-commercial drive for art – hard of course, and against the grain – but in the present situation, and with BEF2010, these freedoms can now deliver the benefits of avant-garde artistic cross pollination, warm humour and formal innovation.



John Holten has recently co-edited the anthology You Are Here (Broken Dimanche Press, 2009) a book at once an ‘exhibition’ of photography, prose, poetry, drama and essay, as much as it is a field book to the exciting and challenging future facing Europe.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, January 14th, 2010.