Book review - Best European Fiction 2011

Best European Fiction 2011

Edited by Aleksandar Hemon

Dalkey Archive Press

In his Preface to Best European Fiction 2011, Colum McCann suggests that there is a distinct European literature that embraces “the shifting nature of contemporary identity.” Like Dalkey’s 2010 collection, the stories in the 2011 volume defy neat categorisation and many of the authors flit across borders, positioning themselves outside their own territory.

For instance, Spanish master, Enrique Vila-Matas, writes about a disillusioned and jaded Russian bureaucrat in Siberia on the eve of the Russian Revolution;  Bulgarian Alek Popov’s darkly comic tale, ‘Plumbers’, is about gigolos hired to service the lonely women of a town in Germany; and a Frenchman, Eric Laurent, writes a travelogue entitled ‘American Diary’.

Then there are those that remain firmly on home ground. In ‘Taboo’, the Belarusian Victor Martinovich offers an Orwellian tale of a couple hunted down for picking Lilies of the Valley. The story carries a particular resonance given President Lukashenko’s recent crackdown.

‘Professional Behavior’ by Turkey’s Ersan Üldes takes a playful swipe at the world of translators with its central character rewriting the novels he is given to translate into Turkish.

Many of the stories dissect family life, like Hilary Mantel’s sobering study of anorexia as seen from the perspective of a younger sister and Norwegian Frode Grytten’s tale of a man stalking young girls as he decides to leave his wife. I particularly liked the Irish offerings: Kevin Barry’s blackly comic account of an alcoholic doctor’s misadventures and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s disturbing tale of extraordinary violence on an ordinary day.

For me, the most memorable stories are those with a political twist. Slovene Drago Jancar’s ‘The Prophecy’ brilliantly evokes the final years under the authoritarian President Tito and the paralysing fear of ordinary Yugoslav citizens. Romanian Lucian Dan Teodorovici’s tale about stolen geese and one family’s uneasy relationship with the local gypsies speaks reams about some of the very real problems Romania faces today. Czech author Michal Ajvaz imagines a dystopia where a political prisoner is forced to craft a book out of wire.

In total, the volume contains 41 stories from 38 countries, chosen by Bosnian-born writer, Aleksandar Hemon, and the authors range from the well-known Mantel, Vila-Matas and German Ingo Schulze, to those who have never before been translated.

Hemon promises the anthology will cover “the depth and width and beauty of human experience” and he is not wrong.  This is essential reading for all those who share a love of global literature, the short form and literary experimentation.

Originally published in Tribune magazine