by Peter Byrne
Best European Fiction 2011, edited and introduced by Aleksandar Hemon, preface by Colum McCann, 32 translators credited, Dalkey Archive Press, 2010, ISBN 978-1-56478-600-5, 511 pages."There are more ways than one to skin a cat."
(Swans - May 23, 2011) That Aleksandar Hemon has edited the book is one good reason to delve into the 511 pages of Best European Fiction 2011. He's not a cartographer or a European Union bureaucrat. He's a writer and author of the excellent 2008 novel, The Lazarus Project (ISBN 978-0-330-45841-2), reviewed in Swans, October 19, 2009. The Sarajevo-born American sails the Dalkey Archive galleon well beyond the European Union's ponds and canals. His ragged Europe sprawls over Turkey, Russia, Georgia, Moldova, Belarus, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Switzerland, Norway, and Island. In other words, it's the real thing and, as the EU founders France and Germany have argued, too big to handle. To sum up this cross-grained continent is impossibly ambitious even in the infinitely simpler matter of a literary anthology.
Difficulties abound. For instance, how exactly do Andrei Gelasimov's ten pages stand in for Russia? He recounts poor peasant life in a desolate village after the battle of Stalingrad. Or how much of Austria comes through in Dieter Sperl's brief account of dreams that he associates with several arthouse films made far from Austria? Colum McCann asks in his preface, "In what ways does a writer represent a country?" The answer is that he does not, the task being well beyond a few pages by any one author. He may reflect his country in the use of his mother tongue if that happens to be exclusive to his homeland. But even then he will have his own personal idiom.
Nor can a choice of "subject matter" -- always a slippery concept in fiction -- make him a national megaphone. The German Ingo Schulze tells a brilliant story of Naples, part travel chronicle. What he gives us are a particular writer's reactions to scenes and people, not Germany's point of view. Arian Leka stuns us with an account of how family responsibility can weigh in Albania. But it would be just as heavy a burden in a dozen other European countries. It's interesting that Hilary Mantel's sensitive portrayal of anorexia observes a family from the UK at the "Western" end of Europe. Family there was nuclear and meant "parenting," whereas in Albania it meant "clan obligations."
The short fiction here differs markedly from our current mainstream production in English-speaking countries. The difference lies in the freedom of approach, of form. No one formula rules. It's a difference underlined with humor in the memoir of Elif Batuman, recently published by Granta Books. (The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, ISBN-10:9780374532185). A New England writers' workshop offering diplomas in Creative Writing opened its arms to Batuman. In a young idealist phase, she sampled the program and was shocked to find that the teachers conceived of literature as pure craft to be learnt like carpentry. It was all pragmatic and "puritanical," a Friedrich Hayek salam to the market applied to the fine arts. The market knew best what readers wanted and the workshop taught how to prepare the product. Batuman watched with horror as the master carpenters in charge, themselves alumni of the workshop, reduced the short story "to a nearly unreadable core of brisk verbs and vivid nouns." Instruction amounted to showing the students how to read and apply the workshop blueprint.
The Serbian Vladimir Arsenijevic's account of a Balkan derelict's death in Barcelona wasn't written to recipe. It didn't have the New Yorker in its sights. Similarly, Olga Tokarczuk's The Ugliest Woman in the World wasn't meant for a Polish glossy full of ads for the good life in the suburbs. Verena Stefan, Swiss, reflects in snowy Quebec on war in Iraq. These European writers are restless and roving. If we count how many write about places foreign to them where their own language isn't spoken, it amounts to fifteen. And that doesn't include four authors concerned with outsiders in their midst, immigrants or Roma.
And while we are counting, it's revealing to see how "relationships" are treated in these European stories. In the prosperous West we know that spats with domestic partners, (from after-dinner sarcasm to murder), or wounds inflicted by parents (thoughtless or sadistic), fill countless volumes. Only six of the forty stories here fall into the relationship bin. As for erotic content proper, it enlivens only a further six. We can think about these random facts without drawing conclusions. A factor may be that half the stories originate from the Balkans and what's loosely termed Eastern Europe.
In this respect, the fall of the Berlin Wall should be an important date. Indeed, in his preface, Colum McCann tells us, "There is a whole generation conceiving a response to 1989 -- and the writers in this anthology prove the point." But the reader finds that these stories refer rarely to that momentous political change. Writers Victor Martinovich from Belarus and the Czech Michel Ajvaz do picture regimes of heedless cruelty, but they are places Kafka might have imagined in an unspecified Latin America. Only the Slovene Drago Jankar raises a tremor of fear when he looks back at the Tito personality cult. For Auntie Frosea in Iulian Ciocan's Moldavian tale, the new epoch began in the autumn of 1988 when Soviet TV broadcast its first South American soap opera. In the new millennium, Frosea still does her viewing from a "stalinka," a shoddy block of flats built in the year Stalin died. Just as she interpreted perestroika in terms of Brazilian romance and villainy, she goes on measuring world events against lurid south-of-the-border melodrama.
McCann's talk of writers searching for a new identity may be closer to the truth. Or could it be that 1989 didn't bring all that much of a change in the lives of many Eastern Europeans? Could it be that the fatal date meant more in the West where Cold War rhetoric had paved the way?
This anthology succeeds in shattering the mirror writers in English stare at in belief that they are looking at the world. These segments of fiction from forty writers and countries suggest that our own authors should do their staring instead out of a very large window.
The diversity revealed in European fiction is not only topographical. Nor is it simply a matter of content. Differences are much more in the writer's attitude and how he tells his story. Here there's much to learn as the adventure of short fiction morphs through various shapes: 1) The classic short story, a narrative run with a twist at the end (Wiliam Owen Roberts in Welsh). 2) A simple stretch of novelist's prose that avoids a climax (Toomas Vint in Estonian). 3) The authorial meditation (Nora Ikstena in Latvian). 4) A look back in age at a lived life (Anita Konkka in Finnish). 5) A portrait (Goran Samardzic in Bosnian). 6) A story in another story and both in a third story (Enrique Vila-Matas in Castilian).
But there are more unfamiliar approaches here to short fiction. 7) Fragments strung on a thread (Kristin Eiriksdottir in Icelandic). 8) A countdown of facts (Vladimir Arsenijevic in Serbian). 9) Cryptic, disconnected anecdotes (Goncalo M. Tavares in Portuguese). 10) A free-flowing dream without consequence (Frode Grytten in Norwegian). 11) Bifurcating narrative going in opposite directions (Ersan Uldes in Turkish). 12) The mock academic research paper (Blaze Minevski in Macedonian).
To reduce these stories to their basic structure, however, won't do them justice. It is as reductive as summing up their contents in a phrase or two. Fiction breathes with a single author's breath and comes alive through his myriad particularities. To put a story in a closed, conceptual box is to stifle it. We may begin to understand why if we take a close look at one of the best pieces in the anthology.
Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote The Bill in Hungarian. It centers on the historical figure, Palma Vecchio, an eminent Italian painter of the sixteenth century who worked much in Venice. He was known for his enigmatic portraits of women. How does the Hungarian author go about encompassing the artist in five pages of fiction? The title shows the way. The bill is the amount owed to the agency that furnishes the painter his female models. In a larger sense it's the price one and all pay, including illustrious artists, for their actions, right down to the stance they take to face their daily stint of work.
The narrative voice is that of the agency's spokesman or proprietor. He is annoyed with his client for a number of reasons not easy to define, judging him unconventional, eccentric, and even perverse. He objects to Palma Vecchio's ways and presents his reprimand in one long sentence that makes up the entire story. It's an impressive surge of words that by the astute use of commas and several semicolons gallops along in perfect clarity.
The subtlety of the great painter's gaze will be revealed by the remarks and complaints of the models the agency has sent him. The narrator, piecing these together in what amounts to an accusation, makes of his long speech a kind of angry poem woven through with the women's names, invariably musical in Italian: "...we supplied you with Lucrecia and Flora and Leonora and Elena and Cornelia and Diana from January through June, Ophelia and Veronica and Adriana and Danae and finally Venus from October through December...." (In the Venice of the day, female models were workaday prostitutes or that strange local specialty la cortigiana onesta, the respectable harlot.)
your whole art was so peculiar, everyone said, that it seemed it wasn't exactly art you were aiming for but for something about the women or in them, which led to ever greater confusion because the filthy way you looked at them was quite intolerable, they said, so even the most experienced whore felt nervous and looked away, but then you'd snap at them and tell them to look you straight in the eye, though otherwise you treated them well enough, it was just that you never laid a finger on them, that being something they could never understand, the reason they were scared of you, never looking forward to visiting you, although you paid them well enough...
For all his shopkeeper's crudeness, the narrator will in the course of his tirade stumble on what is the essence of Palma Vecchio's paintings of women. His real aim wasn't to depict their sensuality or fleshiness. What he sought to immortalize was a look of promise in their eye. He painted the moment of deferred pleasure, not fulfillment. The author reveals the uniqueness of this strange artist through studio gossip of the models incapable of understanding him. Krasznahorkai's magic works.
Aleksandar Hemon's introduction to the volume offers a last word to the public:
I therefore implore you, lucky reader gripping Best European Fiction 2011, to read one piece at a time and not rush through this book or skim it for the purposes of informed party conversation. [...] take your readerly time, for this is a book, not a website. [...] Indeed, pick any piece of fiction in this book and relish it, read it slowly, let it breathe with the lungs of common humanity.
Sage advice, without a doubt. However, there's another possibility. Take the five hundred pages at a gulp. Then move through this Europe as over one far-flung entity. Stop and visit with your new acquaintances. Ask Mima Simic in Croatia how her monologist is making out with his sultry blind lover. François Emmanuel in Belgium will tell you if he's got over his English femme fatale. Irish writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne will let you know in Gaelic whether her absent-minded murderer ever did take that planned flight to San Francisco. Merc Ibarz, who writes in Catalan, should know by now whether those girls who come to Barcelona from the country have succeeded in losing their virginity. Be sure to find out if Blaze Minevski's wannabe academician is still stating his hopeless case in Macedonia. Bon voyage!
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