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A Realm of Possibilities: Best European Fiction 2017 Reviewed

By Toby Bull.

Best European Fiction 2017

Best European Fiction 2017, edited by Nathaniel Davis (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016)

Since 2010, Dalkey Archive Press has been publishing new, previously untranslated fiction from all over Europe in their Best European Fiction anthologies. Its scope is vast: the 2017 edition covers 29 countries in as many stories. I knew none of the authors beforehand and I won’t forget three: Mariosi Castaldi, Gauz, and Ann Cotten. Their stories are excellent, yet each approaches storytelling differently. Indeed, such variety is indicative of the whole collection, which has been edited by Nathaniel Davies with an undogmatic eye, as quality in BEF2017 is synonymous neither with conformity nor experimentation. Quality does vary, but this can be instructive, for an excellent story’s mechanics are clearer beside a simpler, less successful one. It is for this reason that Best European Fiction is an invaluable resource; a schooling in the short story and its possibilities at the present moment.

In ‘Chafer’, Ann Cotten writes seismographic prose that causes earthquakes, combining a poet’s sensitivity to detail with a storyteller’s command of narrative. It begins with an awkward holiday anecdote that occasions Cotten’s intellectually ambitious (and seriously playful) take on the love story as a story about desire. Heterogeneous in its form, mixing registers, plots and emphases, Cotten hangs it all together on the taut rope of the narrative’s design, which tugs the reader along without relenting.

There are three competing concepts of character in ‘Chafer’, and in the collection more generally: narrative, psychological and textual. Each describes the location and relative weight of a story’s meaning(s), and whilst an author may emphasise one over the other, all three are present in every story, affecting one another as the relative gravitational forces of the solar system’s parts constitute its movement as a whole.

Narrative-character is of the folk tale, where a character’s significance consists in its interactions with the world, for they lack any psychological interiority. In stories like Iana Boukova’s ‘The Teacher Came Back Drunk’, or Liza Alexandrova-Zorina’s ‘Bad Town’, character is subordinate to narrative, as in a parable, identifying the gravitational centre of meaning not with a protagonist’s conscious thoughts but in relation to the the whole narrative and the harmony of its constitutive parts.

Psychological-character is of the psychological novel (and the fin-de-siècle narrative psychologies of Freud et al.), where the substantial representation of a character’s interiority creates the impression that their significance exceeds their interactions with the world. As Barthes put it in his ‘Structural Analysis of Narratives’: “What happens illustrates them, it does not form them.” In such narratives, the reader’s pursuit of a narrative’s meaning is channeled through the characteristic thoughts and feelings of a protagonist, who seems to become the narrative universe’s centre. Exemplary in this respect are stories of recollection, in which the entire narrative-meaning is represented as if its meaning were coherent only within the context of an individual’s psychology: in Snežana Mladenovska Angjelkov’s ‘Beba’ and Daithí Ó Muirí’s ‘Duran’, the narrative voice recalls a childhood confrontation with adult power; in ‘Postcard to Annie’, Ida Jessen clearly delineates two centres of psychological meaning, of innocence and of experience; in ‘Everyone’s the Same Inside’, Wayne Price represents the developmental significance of memory alongside its ongoing symbolic significance by combining linear narrative with the narration of a seemingly unrelated event in the garden shed that still poses an irresolute moral problem worthy of Sophocles. Noteworthy is ‘A Comfort of Sorts’, where, by cutting the narrative’s past into its present, Philip Huff ensures that the depth of history is present in the pain of loss, like missing flesh in a gaping wound.

On first glance, the reader of such writing is asked (implicitly) to understand its meanings through their relation to (or relation by) the protagonist-narrator. Narrative meaning is (seemingly) subordinated to psychology as the latter’s illustration. Detective stories are exemplary of this approach, for a detective is this reader’s mirror-image: a person whose psychological resources are devoted (because of their narrative function) to recreating characters and their stories by identifying characteristic traces. That is the shared purpose of Mr. Vařeca, a football coach, and Mrs. Dvořáková, a schoolteacher, in the collection’s only (pseudo) detective story, Jiří Hájíček’s ‘Lion Cubs’. The story’s success lies in the detective narrative’s failure: when one investigation collapses, the other is purposefully sacrificed, shifting the release of narrative tension from the successful detection of a character onto the relationship between two characters. Every act of reading involves the pursuit of an unknown voice that you must speak; you reconstruct its mode of saying, ways of meaning, and the trajectory of its life. Yet, in ‘Lion Cubs’, both the reader and Vařeca are prised free from the constraints of his character (and its supposed narrative function) by the exchange of stories with Dvořáková; all are freed from the monomaniacal pursuit of character into the joy of relation that is fiction’s very form. Thus, although Mr. Vařeca’s absence from the story’s final section is notable, given that he has accompanied the reader throughout as their protagonist, his presence is anyway felt, as is our own, through the exhausted satisfaction of Mrs. Dvořáková, and the relation that is its cause: “The next morning the young class teacher sat at the breakfast table alone. Her colleague Mrs. Dvořáková hadn’t spent the night at the hostel… Her colleague thought how tired she looked, with no make-up and circles under her eyes; yet she looked relaxed and even-tempered, too.”

A story like ‘Lion Cubs’ multiplies the possibilities of voice through character. The joy of ‘Chafer’ is that Ann Cotten discovers such a multiplicity—of meanings, of voices—within the subject that is her narrative voice. Although narrative meaning is centred on a psychological person, this person’s significance is viewed impersonally, as a reflection of social, biological, and technological forms. Nothing internal is not also external, especially the subject’s own psychology: “Not even the families are really private, not even the emptiest part of the desert is really public, as one is so dependent on networks of human culture to survive.” The interaction of characters that constitutes narrative therefore reappears as the intra-action of the writing subject’s multitudinous self: “The Circassian, the Circassian, the Devil take me, I had forgotten her for a moment. And yet she is locked in my room all day long.” Yet the self is constituted not only through social relations or obscure desires, but also through the technological mediacy of writing itself: “Not even there could I command my line: it led me on, in figures I had not wanted to breach, it and I in the spell of some obstinate fidelity to something I had hardly the slightest idea of. Thus everything I did was necessary and imposed by its own character.” Character is attributed to deeds rather than subjects, implying that a subject’s character is not self-sufficient, but both the sedimentation of its interactions with the world and the mode of this interaction itself. Character is subordinate to narrative, its subjection to (through) its interactions with the world; the self is no more (and no less) than a reflection of this narrative reality.

A character, like Cotton’s I or mine, is subject to a past and future determined by their author (within the confines of a text, bracketing the text’s life in its readers’ hands). Like these characters, you are subject to a particular history that is mostly not of your own making; unlike them, your future is. It is in this respect that we are authors of our own lives, given strictly limited (and sometimes fatal) terms with which to write. That’s evident in Agnieszka Taborska’s ‘Not as in Paradise’, where the determination of I coexists with its relative autonomy. Although the I still exerts a strong gravitational pull, it is rendered definitively peripheral to various concepts and institutions that fragment the prose into a series of vignettes with titles like ‘BROTHER-IN-LAW’ or ‘BUREAUCRACIES’. The I appears within given contexts, in relation to which it realises its relative autonomy.

According to Cotten, the “depiction of delusion is a specialty of literature”. This specialty, well-represented in the collection, disturbs the prevailing fictional identity between psychological “realism” and linear narration. A graceful example is Teresa Präauer’s ‘Johnny and Jean’, where one is led by the narrative’s structure to mistake some of Johnny’s fantasies for realities. In this respect, Präauer gives substantial form to the very real delusions that characterise Johnny’s position, who lives a vivid fantasy life with Jean that plummets once or twice into the hard and empty fact that Jean hardly knows him. Yet, unlike the love poems of Wyatt or Keats, the intense pressure of dissatisfied adoration is no longer an opportunity to express the profundity of Johnny’s inner life. No space remains for a substantial self, for Johnny is little more than his obsession with Jean: “I can’t get any work done myself, because I’m always asking myself what Jean must be up to.” If Johnny is colonised by his idea of a distinct other, the voice of Mikell Bugge’s ‘Surrounded’, is swamped by a world of voices that cannot be distinguished from himself; like the schizophrenic, who occupies no place, being occupied instead by place. In ‘Moondust’, Jonathan Huston puts his narrative voice in the service of senility and forgetfulness, subjecting the reader to confusions like those arising from dementia. It begins with his perspective—“The Astronaut wheels down the sterile white hall under the blur of florescent lights”; “The Astronaut is hooked up to something: a tube protrudes from his thin, naked forearm and ends in a transparent bag slung around the top of a pole… probably to keep him hydrated on the flight”—ensuring a strong sympathy that makes the recognition of its delusional character acutely distressing:

The astronaut stretches out his hand to shake the girl’s. “How do you do,” he says. She must be a young admirer.

The girl doesn’t shake his hand. “Mom says hi,” she says.

(Perhaps Huston could have pursued this further, and tried, as Beckett did in The Unnameable, to give form to dementia’s peculiar temporality, where past and future collapse with perpetual forgetting into a sheer forgetful presence.)

Less successful than Huston is David Machado, in ‘The Commander’s Endless Night’, whose narrative voice is too little confused in its form to adequately represent the confusion its protagonist suffers, who relives traumatic memories of war not as recollected ideas but lived reality. While Huston confuses his reader in line with the confusions of his protagonist, Machado implicitly devalues the experiences of his subject by granting the reader a position of knowledge that is wholly external to the Commander’s, and according to which the reality of the Commander’s experiences are inevitably judged as less than really real: “He opened the door, walked in, closed it after himself and then stood, his eyes open to the dark, waiting to feel the first gunshot from the past pierce his flesh.” This sentence grasps for gunshots that puncture the present in spite of time, but the phrase “gunshot from the past” is rendered all too figuratively to communicate the terrible reality of metaphor that characterises traumatised neurotic experience.

The formal collusion of fiction with delusion is an instance of what Viktor Shklovsky termed “enstrangement”. Enstrangement inherently tends away from the identity of psychological and narrative meaning, given that its aim is to defamiliarise the normative values of any given language-community by recourse to the non-human or abnormal. Non-human perspectives work to great effect in two stories: ‘The Dogs Down South’, where Mikko-Pekka Heikennen rediscovers human civilisation at the periphery of things, through the faecal habits of dogs; and ‘Confectionary 1952’, by Zsuzsa Selyem, who re-sees humanity’s especial capacity for dehumanising violence by identifying the narrative voice with an ambiguous figure, through whose inhumanity humanity’s own is manifest.

A narrative’s meaning can be freed up from psychological meaning by locating the latter within the former like a planet in the solar system. In doing so, one fulfils Flaubert’s dictum, that “an author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”. That is Gauz’s great accomplishment in an extract from his first novel, ‘Stand-by-the-hour’. Kassoum, an African migrant from the Ivory Coast working as a security guard in Paris, comes modestly into focus as the narrative’s protagonist, but the narrative voice, although psychologically descriptive, doesn’t hug him like a limpet. Instead, it inhabits each space like the air, clinging to each thing and everybody, naming thoughts whose attribution is unclear. Who thinks: “black men are scary … this laundry list of noble-savage clichés”? Like such perspectival ambiguity in Flaubert, the question of attribution poses an exacting moral challenge, as the thought’s meaning (and my relation to it) alters if it is Kassoum’s, the recruitment officer, or Gauz’s. The interrogation of how and why I attribute certain thoughts different values (or characteristic thinkers)—in other words my perspective—is sustained by prose that exhibits great sensitivity to the many discursive registers and narrative forms not only of High Western Civilization, like Homer and DNA, and its other less celebrated achievements, like racial profiling, but also the tonal and stylistic richness of populaire, migrant lives. By placing an emphasis on the reader’s role in attributing thoughts (and evaluating character), Gauz draws attention to the reader’s operative function in organising a text’s meanings, slotting them into place according to the author’s assumed intentions and the reader’s conscious and unconscious values.

Such productive ambiguity is unthinkable without style. Like Ann Cotten, Gauz not only enstranges the world with a new perspective, but does so in a stylistically enstranged prose. These correspond to two syntactic structures that determine the experience of reading: the narrative’s and the sentence’s. The translation of narrative is relatively easy, for the story’s form lies mostly in the organisation of its parts, which can be so ordered in most languages. More difficult is the translation of the sentence, the experience of which can be qualitatively different in languages like English, where the infinitive will follow the modal verb immediately, and German, where the infinitive will to the end of the sentence thrown be. A writer’s style is an expression of the particular constraints and corresponding possibilities inherent to the syntax of her language, and the unfolding of a sentence therefore becomes an essential feature of how meaning arises within the text, form becoming indissociable from content and, whether it be written in verse or prose, becoming poetrys. Such stylistic particularity, translated in Gauz’s case by Tegan Raleigh to great effect, can present difficulties for the reviewer, for if a translated text tires, one cannot be sure whether the fault lies with the translator or the writer.

Nowhere is this problem more acute than in Maja Gal Štromar’s ‘Think of Me in the Good Times’, for her intention to represent “a single wish”, “in the middle of nothing”, with “no structure, no beginning, and no end”, leads her to spurn those traditional narrative forms that offer the translator a crutch. Success in such cases depends wholly upon the compulsive force of a writer’s style, which is lacking here, rendering the prose too vague to be philosophically compelling and too philosophical to be of imaginative interest. (Fault could be properly identified were Dalkey Archive Press to offer translators’ notes. If too costly to print, such notes could be made available online, for readers of BEF are evidently interested in translation and should be given the opportunity to learn about a foreign language’s distinguishing features: how its meanings are structured differently to those of English, what in the source text remains untranslated, or untranstable.)

One writer of the first order who is clearly graced with a skilled translator is Marosia Castaldi in ‘The Hunger of Women’. Like Štromar, Castaldi spurns traditional narrative forms, representing “the suspended time of the eternal present… things that have no end”; but where Štromar’s prose lacked an adequate substitute for a compelling narrative direction, Castaldi’s prose is electrifying, redeeming its narrative inertia with a propulsive style. She writes bald prose, and though each sentence’s syntax is standard, its first letter capitalised, Castaldi erases each full-stop, inducing an insistent, pulsing flow that halts for no one nor their thoughts—like the cinema-screen, but the light is language. You speed through “centuries of Mediterranean wisdom” (mothers, daughters, recipes, fashion, death) as presence, and can expect two paragraphs that paint the Med with epochal scope in broad staccato strokes of ecstatic prose.

Such a sense of geographical and historical particularity is a rare feature of the stories in this collection. Castaldi, Gauz, Selyem, Alexandrova-Zorina and Carlos Robles Lucena: for these writers, and few others, their situation—in a nation state that undertakes as part of its geopolitical role the definition of citizens and the regulation of borders—is palpably felt in both the content and form of their stories: geopolitics is personal and personhood is geopolitical. For half the stories in this collection, historical and national particularity takes on an incidental role in relation to the story being told, which is resolutely personal in its emphasis. Private relationships between individuals are coloured in with history like a paint-by-numbers book, where national dishes and foreign proper nouns fill in a given, familiar, narrative form with a superficially variant historical colour. One possible cause for this striking familiarity would be the past sixty years of U.S. political and economic hegemony and the rampant globalisation that has been its substance. But the fact is that this internationalism is addressed explicitly by Bugge, Cotten, Gauz, Präauer, Sven Popovic and Undinė Radzevičiūtė, and the lack of such reflection is therefore evident in the rest of the stories. This isn’t a failure, exactly, as historical consciousness can take many forms, but certainly in this collection each of the most brilliant stories reflects its historical moment internally, as both form and content. It’s for this reason that I haven’t identified each story’s country of origin as I named them. For some, it is almost irrelevant, and for others, it is part of the question that each work itself poses, that of belonging: to a lover, to a form, to a family, to a nation, to a place, an idea, or nothing.

Now, in 2017, the Mediterranean is indissociable from the dead that glut its waters and struggle for their lives upon its shores. I was conscious of their absence from the Mediterranean of ‘The Hunger of Women’, and, wondering for the first time when exactly each of these pieces was published, I turned to the volume’s back pages. First published in 2012 and republished at the end of 2016, this story comes out of the recent past, but is gathered together with many like it in the name of the coming year, as if it had something still to tell us about historical contingencies it could not have known and which we today confront. Indeed, what Castaldi offers, and what is offered by each of the best stories here, concerns an unconditional disposition and capacity, which remains as central to any literary, ethical or political undertaking now as it was four years ago. It is honed and nurtured by pages of prose that arrest habitual disregard and judgement, drawing us into realms of life and ways of meaning that are foreign to us. Ann Cotten names it thus: “Ten multiple-choice questions stared back at me with small, expectant eyes, with delicate fake lashes. Each character was more beautiful than the next. But what did they mean? … Was it not much more important to know and love them each in their own right?” Inherently a realm of possibilities, in reading fiction we merely nurture love and understanding as possibilities, doing nothing. It is not enough, but I know no better place to start than Best European Fiction 2017.


Toby Bull

Toby Bull lives and writes in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 24th, 2017.