By Tom Lynch
Remarkably, this has never been done before.
Taking inspiration from the Houghton Mifflin “Best” series, Dalkey Archive Press launches a new, unbelievably ambitious series of its own, “Best European Fiction,” and its inaugural edition for 2010 is edited by Chicago’s own Aleksandar Hemon. Attempting to solve the well-known literary problem of Americans not reading—nor being exposed to—literature from other countries, this anthology includes thirty-five short stories and novel excerpts from thirty different European countries, aiming to destroy the invisible shield that prevents such material from being translated into English and released in this country.
Dalkey Archive Press has been fighting the good fight for years in trying to get European authors delivered to American readers, so it comes as no surprise that this anthology is bulky, geographically expansive and features a selection of authors who, to put it bluntly, no one has ever heard of. Alasdair Gray, from Scotland, and Julian Rios, from Spain, have probably the largest audience among Americans—but even among bookworms, their audience is still tragically small. In that way, “Best European Fiction” is not only an introduction to the work of other countries, it’s also a view through the eyes of literary strangers, which makes it all the more compelling. To say the collection “transcends boundaries” would be insufferably predictable and downright cheesy, but perhaps there isn’t a better, or more important, way to praise it.
Anthologies such as this are most often edited by famous authors—in this case Hemon—and feature more than one introductory piece. In his, Hemon discusses the obvious importance of American audiences maintaining an open door to European literature, unveiling in his first sentence the embarrassing but not shocking statistic that only three-to-five percent of the works of literature published in the U.S. are translations. America’s isolation from the rest of the world in literature, its “disengagement” with the work of other countries, is not only ignorant, but dangerous. The phenomenon of American detachment seems to spread all around the arts—in foreign film, music, theater and more, we only scratch the surface. “White Teeth” author Zadie Smith provides a preface praising the collection that follows.
Like any anthology of this kind, there are hits and misses; there hasn’t been a perfect “Best” edition published yet. But Dalkey and Hemon succeed in providing more accomplished stories herein than not. With no apparent arcing theme, the stories are sorted alphabetically by country, a mechanical method that serves no obvious purpose and that one would hope would be abandoned in future editions. Hemon’s written some beautiful, deeply emotional novels, but he’s certainly not a humorless man, and his inclusion of Julian Gough’s “The Orphan and the Mob” is inspired. Gough, from Ireland, balances his humor and slapstick-like absurdity with a curious heart. Albania’s Ornela Vorpsi begins the collection with an excerpt from her novel, “The Country Where No One Ever Dies,” and her ability to evoke sadness in pride makes the reader want to get a copy of the novel, fast.
Because I’m an incurable sucker for nostalgia and bittersweetness, my favorite story in the collection is by the Netherlands’ Stephan Alter, titled “Resistance,” about a chess instructor and the meetings between he and his students. The story begins with his death, and what follows is a recollection, a retread of a lovely past. “Resistance” is a memory. Take that to mean whatever you want.
Another highlight is “The Sky Over Thingvellir,” penned by Iceland’s Steinar Bragi, about the failing relationship between two young lovers. (Leave it to Iceland to inject the anthology with some emo. One can almost hear Sigur Ros’ inevitable soundtrack.) Bragi achieves a stark reality with his two bitter characters, one that’s as oft-putting as it is familiar. A fine work.
There are duds here as well. Christine Montalbetti’s “Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami)” rings false, a sort-of love letter to the famous author, with clunky, grown-inducing lines like “We’re all disc jockeys for our own internal radio stations.” Come to think of it, that sounds like something Murakami would write. (I’ve always found the writer pedestrian.)
Nothing upset me more than the horror-overkill of Michal Witkowski’s “Didi,” a never-ending devastation tale filled to the brim with shit, stench and horrific sex. Enough already.
But, in the end, like most of the anthologies like these, the curators have enough good taste to choose more solid stories than not, making this flagship edition of the new series a worthy launching pad. If Dalkey can keep it up, this could easily become the most important annual literary anthology in America. Which is ironic.
Best European Fiction 2010
Edited by Aleksandar Hemon
Dalkey Archive Press, 416 pages, $15.95