Best European Fiction 2012
Edited by Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press, 544pp, £9.99
The euro may be crashing but European literature is thriving. After decades of market dominance by Anglo-Americans, more publishers, translators and booksellers are backing "Eurolit" as their new fictional currency.
When we speak of "European fiction", the phrase describes literature from the region of Europe, not literature funded by the EU or only Eurocrime - though the improving commercial status of European fiction in the UK does owe much to translated crime fiction. "European fiction" is also a brand name useful for highlighting the literature of smaller countries and neglected languages.
Best European Fiction 2012 is an ambitious anthology of the finest contemporary writing from all corners and in all languages of the continent. One of Europe's most accomplished writers of today, Aleksandar Hemon, Bosnian-born but now resident in the US, is the editor. With Dalkey Archive Press, the indefatigable flag-waver for European fiction, he has produced a volume that arrives garlanded with superlatives. There are impressive biographies of all 34 authors, and of their translators (to whom Dalkey rightfully accords high status). Everyone involved is multilingual, multi-award-winning and multi-talented. The average age of contributors is about 40; they live all over the world and come from diverse backgrounds. This book proves beyond doubt that the walls of Europe are breaking down and that its writers are enjoying their new freedoms.
This is a unique venture: where else would you find stories from Iceland and Slovakia in a single volume? However, the decision to ask a leading young American novelist, Nicole Krauss, to write the (beautiful) preface to this anthology tells us something about our own shortcomings: European names still do not sell very many books.
My favourite story in the collection is by Agustín Fernández Paz, the great master of the Galician language. "This Strange Lucidity" tells of two relationships - between a man and a woman, and between a man and a dog - observed through the eyes (and heightened senses) of Argos the dog. In second place, not far behind, is "I, Loshad", told by a very learned horse called Orlando, a witness to events on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, and written by the distinguished Czech novelist Jirí Kratochvil.
Orlando is an Arabian thoroughbred in the Cossack cavalry. He forges "deep intellectual friendships" with his riders and is keen on philosophy, but not experimental poetry. "I am one of a kind," he declares; "those who view me with favour perhaps consider me an equine Socrates or Spinoza." Culture, however, does not stop the war and Orlando witnesses "unspeakable acts".
From Russia comes Danila Davydov's "The Telescope". This dense but compelling narrative features "astronomical magnitudes" and a man called Ippleman who one night takes a bus out of the city to go stargazing with his telescope. The bus explodes (a terrorist attack?) and Ippleman is left blinded, but remains capable of great visions. It's then a quick geographical hop to Estonia and Armin Kõomägi's satire "Logisticians Anonymous", about a man who views everything - including life and love - as a logistical exercise.
I loved the emotionally intense story from France "Juergen the Perfect Son-in-Law", by Marie Darrieussecq, about a photographer, her mother and her husband, Juergen. This is a fictional reimagining based on the real-life photographer Juergen Teller. Then there is the Swiss French writer Noëlle Revaz, with her hypnotic tale "The Children". A group of orphans is abandoned by the adults running their orphanage, who continue to instruct them remotely. The result is chilling, a thought experiment with echoes of Kazuo Ishiguro.
“A question that bothers us," says the child-narrator: "what use is an adult? They are always so remote, and we don't really care about them, but can we exist without them . . . We believe we are all going to blow away without a grown-up to hold us."
In another story about children, "Down There They Don't Mourn", by the Norwegian writer Bjarte Breiteig, youth violence recalls the massacre carried out by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway in July.
There are other successes here: Clemens Meyer, a current star among German writers, delivers another disturbing story about disaffected young people; Bernard Quiriny, who is French-Belgian, writes about a woman who gives birth to a giant egg; and Marija Kneževic from Serbia offers a lively morality tale about a TV soap character who finds it hard to distinguish between screen life and real life. The Croatian Maja Hrgovic's joyful lesbian love story "Zlatka" is testament to the new Europe. And the presence of Poland's Janusz Rudnicki lends literary heft to this anthology - as do the rhythm king of Scottish fiction Donal McLaughlin and Slovenia's great experimenter, Branko Gradišnik.
Best European Fiction 2012 is Dalkey's third annual anthology in the series (all of them edited by Hemon), and one hopes it won't be the last. It is the first to be divided into themes - love, desire, war, family - in order "to facilitate book club and reading group discussions". This is unfortunate. If Dalkey wants to guide us, why not provide background material on the national literature of each country?
Best European Fiction 2011 was packed with great stories. Though its successor serves the purpose as a showcase for contemporary fiction from Europe and contains signs of greatness, it is more uneven. In her preface, Krauss describes her early reading of the European greats - Brodsky, Kafka and Calvino - as transformative. The question today is: who is Europe's next Calvino or Kafka? Dalkey and other publishers are giving the new generation a good leg-up, but the standards that they must reach are set quite high.
Rosie Goldsmith is a writer and broadcaster