Book review: Best European Fiction 2016

Literature doesn’t get much stranger — nor more fun — than this. 

Preface by Jon Fosse

Dalkey Archive Press, €17.99

THIS is the sixth edition of Dalkey Archive Press’s annual anthology of new writing from Europe, and it remains as sparkling and unpredictable as ever. 

Of the 30 stories, apart from the United Kingdom (Wales’s Huw Lawrence) and Ireland (Rob Doyle), all are in translation, with the emphasis on writers from the less widely-used European languages. 

Preference is given to writing that challenges stereotypes in its form or content, while retaining high literary quality.

The introduction by the celebrated Norwegian writer Jon Fosse concerns itself with the question ‘What is literature?’, referencing Homer, Kafka, Goethe, Joyce, Flaubert, Proust, Beckett, Hamsun, and Woolf as part of the ‘western canon of world literature’, while struggling to find a definition for the term.

Huw Lawrence: A Welsh writer who features in this compendium of contemporary European literature.

Jean Paul Sartre wrote a book entitled What is Literature? without coming up with a pithy answer, so it is no wonder that Fosse appears to be stumped. 

However, it eventually becomes apparent that the case he wants to argue is that crime fiction is not literature. It is, he says, the opposite of it, because it reduces life’s challenges to a riddle, which can be solved.

Whereas literature, hard to define as it is, communicates in words the mysterious core of what it is to be human. 

It’s a bit of a come-down then to skip from this high-minded reverie to the Irish story, John-Paul Finnegan’s, ‘Paltry Realist’. 

This consists of a comic monologue by the eponymous novelist, aboard the ferry, the Ulysses, as it crosses from Holyhead to Dublin.

Ireland, he maintains, wallows in ignorance, it is a country where everyone pretends to have read Ulysses, but nobody has. 

Except John-Paul Finnegan. And also, it turns out, the self-effacing narrator of the story, Rob. 

Readers of Roberto Bolaño will immediately recognise the territory. 

It is good to see some of the maestro’s techniques applied to the Irish literary scene. 

You could say the story is overlong, repetitive and thin on content, but that is, presumably, part of the joke.

There is an exciting cluster of high-spirited east European women writers here. 

Justyna Bargielska, bron in Warsaw in 1977 offers an extract from her novel Born Sleeping, ably translated from the Polish by Maria Jastrzebska. 

The lively first-person narration is organised under various headings including I’d Like to Tell You about the Last Time I Gave Birth, How My Cat Pawel Fell to His Death from the Balcony, and Rain of Course.

The voice is strong, direct, humorous and delightfully unpredictable. 

‘House of Paper’ by Veronika Simoniti from Slovenia (translated by Nada Groselj) is told by a translator, who is physically shrinking, and fearing the loss of her memories and skills, while coping with the death of the famous novelist whose works she translates.

House of Paper is also the title of his latest work, and turns out, in a nice twist, to have a physical manifestation too. 

Lithuanian, Paulina Puktye (translated by Romas Kinka), lives in London and Vilnius, and her novel extract is based on the Kafkaesque experiences of Lithuanian immigrants in London, struggling with the language barrier, people-traffickers and alcoholism. 

In spite of the subject matter, it is hilarious.

Obsession is the theme of several stories. 

Claus Beck-Nielsen from Denmark (translated by Martin Aitken) is obsessed by fellow writer, Peter Hoeg, author of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow, while Austria’s Josef Winkler (translated by Adrian Nathan West) is haunted by the work of his compatriot, novelist and political activist, Peter Handke.

In all the richness of literary achievement, the story that sticks in the memory is an unprecedented collaboration between the avant-garde chef Andoni Aduriz, owner of the two Michelin star restaurant, Mugaritz, and the Basque writer and performance artist Harkaitz Cano.

Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo, it consists of bizarrely beautiful little stories by Cano interleaved with esoteric recipes by Aduriz. 

Literature doesn’t get much stranger — nor more fun — than this.

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