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Best European Fiction: uncomfortable, uncanny

Americans are good at anthologies. Every year you can expect to find your local bookstore’s shelves lined with such titles as The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, or The Best American Travel Writing. Europe doesn’t have an equivalent tradition, for obvious reasons perhaps: Europe is not a country, there is no European language, and it would probably be hard to define a single entity that is ‘European history’, let alone a single European literary tradition.

Then again, Texas is very different from Massachusetts, too. By the same token, if you take enough steps from the Old Continent, back to the other side of the Atlantic say, Europe begins to look like a pretty unified entity as well.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that an American publisher, the Chicago-based Dalkey Archive, should be the first to venture into the compilation and publication of a book titled Best European Fiction 2010. With contributions by writers from places as diverse as Macedonia (Goce Smilevski), Liechtenstein (Mathias Ospelt) and Iceland (Steinar Bragi) – in all, thirty countries are represented – the book is presented as providing a “cultural and intellectual window to Europe.” It also pays homage to the art of translation; all the stories have been translated into English and the translators receive a prominent credit at the end of each story (as well as ample footnote space, as in the case of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s story about Zinedine Zidane.)

If the book is indeed a “window to Europe”, then what does that Europe look like? What are the preoccupations of its – ostensibly best – short story writers? It turns out that, the proclaimed diversity of Europe and its peoples notwithstanding, there is definitely a common thread, or rather a general atmosphere, running through the stories – even if this probably has as much to do with editorial selection as it has with literary reality.

Something uncomfortable hovers over the anthology, something uncanny. For example, many stories are set in semi-futuristic, surrealist worlds, like the Belgian Peter Terrin’s story The Murderer, about a future world in which every citizen is allowed to kill two fellow citizens with impunity – the government’s way of solving overpopulation. Other stories describe nightmarish scenes, like the Austrian Antonio Fian’s While Sleeping, in which the protagonist dreams about witnessing one of his kids slaughtering a baby dolphin. Neven Ušumović, of Croatia, describes a Serbian refugee who finds himself tied to a bed in a Hungarian attic, where he is being fed, piecemeal, to an owl with no eyes.

None of this makes for comforting bedtime reading; it does make one wonder about the mood of anxiety that apparently has descended upon the European continent. Perhaps a collection of the Best European Essays would provide more insight into the provenance thereof.

 

Lynn Berger

P.S. One Dutchman was selected as well: Stephan Enter

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