Best European Fiction 2014
By Jonathan Gibbs.
This is the fifth year of Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction and already it’s possible to see how the cultural ground has shifted under it even in that short time. In his introduction to the original, 2010, collection, editor Aleksandar Hemon felt the need to deny that a book of (mostly) translated (mostly) short stories was a “doubly lost cause”. You can’t imagine him saying that today – not with regards to the short story, at any rate: not with the increasingly high-profile prizes, the prestigious wins for Munro (the Nobel) and Davis (Man Booker International), and the beginnings of a real digital presence for the form.
The relationship of the English-reading world to the European scene, however, is more uncertain. Indeed, Salt’s yearly anthologies of British, and Faber’s regular ones of Irish short stories might be helping to shore the form up on these islands, but they are necessarily inward- rather than outward-looking. And the globalisation – or, more realistically, transatlantic shift – of the Man Booker, and the appearance of the Folio Prize, run the risk of turning us further from our continental neighbours, and the culture we share across our different languages.
The dispiriting fact is that, in looking through the contents pages of the five Dalkey collections, I find that the number of contributors’ names I recognise is going down, over the years, not up. Obviously, this could be because Dalkey is keeping at the cutting edge (quite possible), or because I am an illiterate fool (ditto) or it could be because the reservoir of big name authors being brought across into English – the Toussaints, Darriessecqs, Krasznahorkais and Vila-Matas – is not being replenished.1
Not that Dalkey is to blame for that – nor Peirene Press, And Other Stories, The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and all the other fighters of the good fight. Just that this fight – for fiction in translation – is as necessary, and as uphill, as it ever was.
Which leads to the question, just how effective a weapon is BEF 2014? Well, much as it would be lovely to say that it’s an all-round fantastic collection, it’s rather patchy. The number of truly great stories – that I would press on friends – I could count on one hand, or one-and-a-half. I liked Mox Mäkelä’s ‘Night Shift’ (Finland) for its crepuscular menace, Eric Chevillard’s ‘Hippopotamus’ (France) for its witty takedown of writerly chauvinism:
“He’s going to go. It’s still the surest way to come back. Then he’ll be mistaken for another man. A new man. Africa changed me completely. I used to be that, now I’m this. I was White and now I am Black. He already hears himself say: life’s not worth living without the harsh test of Africa. And: you think you understand Africa from the papers and the news, but no, not at all, don’t make me laugh. You have to have been there.”
Europe’s bleak unsuppressible history stains the pages of a fair few of the stories, as you would expect: sometimes plainly so, as in Vladimir Kozlov’s ‘Politics’ (Belarus), which is little more than historical reportage, and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Zec’, by Elvis Hadzic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), an affecting but heavily loaded memorial to the dead of Srebrenica.
Sometimes things are more complicated, as in Herkus Kunčius’s ‘Belovezh’ (Lithuania), named for the rump of primeval forest straddling Belarus and Poland where, in 1991, the signing of the Belovezh Accord dissolved the Soviet Union. This story gives us Kalina Baluta, a forest ranger, whose love of nature, and of the forest, though at first admirable, does quick push the prose towards the offensively twee – “A badger ran off, thumping along… How adorable!” – though that’s nothing to what happens when he finds a roe deer caught in a trap.
“Baluta pressed himself against the dying animal as though it were the Motherland itself – any closer would have been impossible. He placed one hand lightly on the warm fur of the roe deer, while the other grasped her tightly. A moment, and he’s already… in her.”
If this is political allegory, I’m not sure I want to know what it means, but it makes for a pleasingly unpleasant story.
There is sex, and there is history, and there is the uncanny: this would seem to cover most the entries here, perhaps with those that take that furthest turn in- and outwards – into the mirrored realm of fiction – writing – itself.
This can come as welcome jollity, as in the Chevillard, or Christoph Simon’s ‘Fairytales From The World of Publishing’ (Switzerland), with its charming vignettes of Poet, Publisher and Critic (“the critic’s nails were so long, they were soon tearing every page he touched”), or as more serious play, as in Tom McCarthy’s ‘On Dodgem Jockeys’ (United Kingdom: England), which eulogises the fairground attendants who ride the bumper cars, free to dance in the third realm between heaven (the electrified grid) and earth (us, driving). It’s fine – very fine – and fun, but it seems to be here partly to prove the wideness of the parameters of what fiction might be, rather as Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s ‘Zidane’s Melancholy’, on the French footballer’s infamous head butt, did in the first collection.
Two other great stories that drift between sex and the unsettling – and that benefit from being placed side by side in the running order – are Vesna Lemaić’s ‘The Pool’ (Slovenia) and Susana Medina’s ‘Oestrogen’ (Spain: Castilian). Both of them, I’m glad to say, read strangely in translation, coming to you in prose that you think an English language editor would frown and shake their head over.
I say ‘glad to say’ because one of the problems of translation is the tendency to repress signs of otherness, to mould foreign idiom to a smooth Anglo-Esperanto. Think of writers like Javier Marías and Roberto Bolaño, who are so well translated that, paradoxically, their books may as well have written in English in the first place. While this Dalkey collection is far from exemplary in its ‘best-ness’, then, it is still doing its job in other ways: it’s keeping Europe familiar, and its writing strange.
1. It could be, too, because the pagination, and number of stories, has hit a series low this year, with a mere 28 stories, against 2011’s 40. ↩
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Gibbs reviews books for The Independent, the TLS, and elsewhere. His short story, ‘The Story I’m Thinking Of’, was shortlisted for the inaugural White Review Short Story Prize. His novel Randall, or The Painted Grape will be published by Galley Beggars Press in 2014. @Tiny_Camels