Overall, the debut volume in an annual series dedicated to new fiction from Europe proves to be interesting and strong, featuring a range of voices from 35 countries including such celebrated writers as Alasdair Gray, Viktor Pelevin, and David Albahari.
Best European Fiction 2010 Edited with an Introduction by Aleksandar Hemon. Preface by Zadie Smith. Dalkey Archive Press, 416 pages, $15.95.
Reviewed by Vincent Czyz
Judging by a handful of short stories from Dalkey Archive’s “Best European Fiction 2010,” it would seem Europeans have mostly forgotten how to write them. Or have simply lost interest. Instead, they’ve taken up animated essays in which the characters, if there are any, tend to be mere ciphers, and there’s not so much a short story as a lengthy observation. The editor of the collection, Aleksandar Hemon, asserts that, as a genre, the short story “has the flavor of a report from the front lines of history and existence.” Well, maybe, but there should be more to it than reportage.
“All Turned Moon,” a Bulgarian import, is a somewhat weak attempt at science fiction that is so lacking in atmosphere it wouldn’t be surprising if it were in fact happening on the Moon.
France and Christine Montalbetti give us “Hotel Komaba Eminence,” which features an appearance by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Described in almost excruciating detail, the piece seems to adhere to French experimental writer George Perec’s concept of the infraordinary; Montalbetti spends entire paragraphs, for example, on the “olfactory struggle” between chlorine and the “subtle fragrance of a mild soap” Murakami used to wash off the smell of the swimming pool. Some of the writing is elegant, but a good deal of it is simply overwrought:
It also happened that through some gesture the collar of his shirt would suddenly come away from his skin before pressing back against it again, allowing a more powerful whiff—a condensed cloud of these conflicting fragrances—to escape from the fleeting gap.
What we get after pages of impasto-ed prose applied to mundane minutiae is a chortle—a punchline finishing off a long, complicated joke.
“At the Sarajevo Market,” a story from Bosnia, had the perfect opportunity to give us something still smoking from the front line, and in a sense I suppose it did, but the execution is so heavy-handed, the story comes off as pretentious. The two characters—again, never described and utterly historyless—are names on a page. Dialogue is nonexistent although you’d think two people walking through a besieged city would say a few things worth quotation marks.
“Waves of Stone” by Norway’s Jon Fosse, is an odd paean to the weirdness of existence that has the feel of a creative writing exercise. There is no story to speak of, which isn’t a problem in itself, but there’s not all that much to make up for it. Physical laws are broken at will, or perhaps simply don’t exist. Although there is dialogue, it’s hardly the sort you would see outside the printed page. Fosse might have done better had he compressed this into a poem.
Flaws cited, I must admit that for every story that ended flatly or never seemed to actually get started, there was a piece that I found haunting, beautifully accomplished, or simply transcendent (making me wonder if Sir Isaac Newton didn’t have a hand in this collection).
Falling into the latter two categories is “The Allure of the Text” by Lithuanian Giedra Radvilavičiūtė —all by itself worth the modest price of this book. Like so many of the European offerings, Radvilavičiūtė gives us metafiction, that is, a story either self-consciously about writing, like hers, or, like Fosse’s, one that creates a reality so bizarre it gets its own meta-classification.
Radvilavičiūtė not only lays out five exceptionally sound criteria for a worthy text (Fosse violates her second by being too far removed from experience), she gracefully illustrates them in the story she tells. The fifth and arguably most important also showcases Radvilaviciute’s quiet lyricism:
A good text is obliged to draw you back to it many times. Just like old parks—in which you can always lose your way—beckon you to go for a stroll in them. But notwithstanding the tangle of trails and the mystical sound of barking dogs echoing in the distance, and despite the pollen mist rising from the flowers, the overgrown ponds, [and] the sky … closing in like a lavender suitcase hiding dangerous things … you forge ahead., sensing that at some precise place, something like a denouement is awaiting you.
Conceptually as elegant as a physics equation, containing stories within stories, highlighting the interplay between text and reality as well as offering flesh-and-blood characters caught up in a layered narrative, “The Allure of the Text” is superbly realized.
Julian Rios’s “Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime” is something of a throwback, employing a couple of well-worn tropes (the deal with the Devil, the traveling stranger with a story to tell) but instead of leaning on them like an old man with his cane, the Spanish author flaunts them like a flaneur with a spiffy walking stick. Filled with Borgeseque echoes, with allusions to photography, images, duplication, and duplicity, Rios’s story remains after the reading like mist after rain.
Although Neven Usomovic is Croatian, he sets “Veres” primarily in Hungary. Detailing the desperation and sufferings of the modern refugee, Usomovic, a writer with a fine eye for observation and a gift for striking description, gives us a chilling tale with the sort of slippery ending that makes you wonder if the chills were real.
While something of a mixed bag, the collection exhibits an astonishing diversity—including a rhyming ballad from Scotland—such as simply could never be seen in American anthologies, which, as a rule, tend to be obsessed with O. Henry build-ups and endings, straightforward plots, and an almost generic, naturalistic style. I can’t help but think the homogeneity has something to do with our McCulture.
European artists, on the other hand, have often been accused by their counterparts across the Atlantic of producing work that’s overly refined, absurdly rarefied, so disconnected from ordinary experience few can relate to it. That is sometimes the case here, but more often we have stories with a distinctly European flavor. Overall, this anthology is a strong debut in what promises to be a very interesting and worthwhile series.
Vincent Czyz is the author of the novel “Adrift in a Vanishing City“. He is also the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Fiction and two fellowships from the NJ Council on the Arts. His work has appeared in “Shenandoah,” “AGNI,” and the “Massachusetts Review.”