Anthologies are ill-fitting things - one size does not fit all. Its no surprise
to find the authors in this volume, collected under the broad banner "European,"
voicing a consistently ornery resistance (with variations): "Well,
yes, I am European, Slovakian, actually, but I am also an individual, and
what really matters to me is Nabokov, Diderot and J. G. Ballard."
Which is as it should be. Good writing cannot permit itself to be contained
within checkpoints and borders. But still its tempting for readers
to seek a family resemblance and Im not sure were wrong to do so. It
seems old fashioned to speak of a "Continental" or specifically "European"
style, and yet if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with
that of an anthology of the American short story, isnt it true that only a
fool would be confused as to which was truly which?
Its more than the obvious matter of foreign names and places. Its hard not to notice, for example, a strong tendency towards the metafictional. Characters seem aware of their status as characters, stories complain about the direction theyre heading in, and writers make literary characters of themselves - and of other writers and artists. When the real Christine Montalbetti (France) has breakfast with a notional Haruki Murakami in a Japanese hotel, the fantastic threatens to overwhelm them ("leaves were trembling behind the windowpanes, as if they were crouched, dying to pounce") and we know for sure were not in Kansas anymore. Meanwhile Goce Smilevski of Macedonia wants us to believe Gustav Klimts fourteen illegitimate sons were all called Gustav, and Jean-Philippe Toussaint - in one of my favourite pieces - boldly enters the soul of Zinedine Zidane to reveal the philosophical Weltschmerz hidden deep within that footballer-enigma.
What else? An epigraphic, disjointed structure. Many of these already short stories are cut into shorter, sub-titled sections, like verbal snapshots laid randomly on top of each other - and they end abruptly. They seem to come from a different family than those long anecdotes ending in epiphany, popularized by O. Henry. And their authors name different progenitors, too. Certainly no one mentions O. Henry. Or Hemingway. Laurels are offered instead to the likes of John Barth and Donald Barthelme. Meanwhile poor Dickens is dismissed in a single line by a young Icelandic experimentalist: "I weep with boredom over every single page hes written."
More likely to be name-checked: Beckett, Bernhard, Sebald, Claude Simon and Kafka, who, "of course, is always there," as Josep M. Fonalleras (Catalonia) asserts, and hes right. Judging from this collection, Kafka is literary Europes primary ghost and heaviest influence. Hes there in Antonio Fians (Austria) concretely expressed dream-stories, and in David Albaharis (Serbia) frustrating trip through Lyon, with its many obstructions and misdirections. And when this Kafkaesque respect for digression unites, in an author, with the headier brews of Laurence Sterne and Jorge Luis Borges, then we get baroque shaggy-dog tales like Julián Ríoss (Spain) "Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime," and Giedra Radvilavic ?iu¯te?s (Lithuania) "The Allure of the Text," both of which offer mazy structures in which readers may get blissfully lost.
Finally, in Europe the violent distortions of Dostoevsky seem to have trumped the cool ironies of Tolstoy. In this vein I particularly enjoyed Peter Terrin (Belgium), who revives the archetypal axe murderer in a banal and futuristic landscape, and Micha Witkowskis (Poland) "Didi," which brings notes from the underground of hungry hustlers. Of course, sometimes in Europe the reality outstrips all but the most garish literary fantasies and so a satirist in the Gogol-mode need only touch upon his subject very lightly. Thus the masterful Russian, Victor Pelevin, finds the perfect metaphor for the oligarch cash-grab of the 1990s, and the story seems to write itself.
Excerpted from Best European Fiction 2010 by Aleksandar Hemon. Copyright © 2009 by Aleksandar Hemon. Excerpted by permission of Dalkey Archive Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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