The Pleasures of Diversity: Best European Fiction 2010

Best European Fiction 2010

Best European Fiction 2010
EDITED BY Aleksandar Hemon
(Dalkey Archive Press, 2010)

Europe is a geographical entity, albeit one burdened with tumultuous histories. There is a founding myth of sorts: Europa was a Phoenician noblewoman ravished by Zeus in the guise of a bull. Most European countries participate in the European Union, and delight in its anthem: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony); its motto: “Unity in Diversity;” a day celebrating that unity: May 9th and/or May 5th; a serviceable flag; and 23 official languages, all of which on some occasions need to be translated into all others, creating a buzzing translation industry. Many European countries have adopted the Euro as a common currency, though with fraught results in times of economic crises. All these bureaucratic and monetary entities do serve to tie the area together, however, as does a delightful yearly song contest and a quadrennial football championship. But is there a “European” literature?

Aleksandar Hemon and the Dalkey Archive Press are to be commended for attempting to answer this question. That they have succeeded as well as they have seems miraculous. “Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six variétés de fromage?”[1] Charles de Gaulle famously complained. Literature is at least as diverse as coagulated-milk-based food products; and Best European Fiction 2010 includes thirty-five writers from thirty countries (Belgium, Spain, Ireland and the UK have multiple inclusions to cover differing language groups or distinctive regional cultures), many of whom were unknown, at least to this reader, and discovering them is one of the real pleasures of this anthology. Some countries are missing. There is no entry from Germany, none from Greece or Sweden, nothing from Turkey. Eastern Europe is well represented, as are the Baltic States and the Balkans; Russia is included (although Belarus and Ukraine are not); and some of the most innovative stories come from areas which the anglophone world tends to associate with political and/or economic instability. That imaginative fiction is also being written there comes as a revelation: Ornela Vorpsi’s wonderful “The Country Where No One Ever Dies” depicts an Albania never imagined and probably not soon to be forgotten.

Kafka’s spirit hovers over some of these stories, with a sense of exhaustion in the face of a bureaucratic menace that may itself have lost vitality.

Kafka’s spirit hovers over some of these stories, with a sense of exhaustion in the face of a bureaucratic menace that may itself have lost vitality. Given the history of Eastern Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that the effects of an oppressive system should be experienced as a reduction in the ability of the individual to engage with the world — and an increase in the yearning to do so. Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov’s “And All Turned Moon” portrays a bizarre future society in which death itself has become bureaucratized: “Once upon a time, people could just lie down and die, he thought with a touch of sadness. Now even death had been formalized.” In “Friedman Space,” Victor Pelevin crafts a comically bitter satire on the greed of Russian oligarchs with a bizarre take on the “scientific” nature of new wealth. The Slovakian writer Peter Krištúfek’s “The Prompter” pushes the trope of the Potemkin Village to a logical absurdity. A summit is to be held so local façades are rebuilt, and actors brought in to impersonate happy residents although “[t]he city’s budget wouldn’t allow for a sufficient number of extras to be hired, so the players all had to rush from one place to another at breakneck speed, depending on where the members of the delegation happened to be at that moment.” It is a comic masterpiece, a bleakly whimsical dissection of the absurdities of authoritarian incompetence. Yet one of the most bitter satires of the anxieties experienced by the individual living in an overwrought state is by the Belgian writer Peter Terrin. “The Murderer” presents a world in which murder itself becomes an allowable procedure, albeit one governed by regulatory agencies.

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  1. “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”

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