Half a dozen star turns in this year’s selection of the best European fiction

Best European Fiction 2013
Half a dozen star turns in this year’s selection of the best European fiction

Taking the widest possible definition of “European”, the anthology is characterised by the quirkiness of its selection: this is the short story as inspired by Laurence Sterne, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Borges and WG Sebald: wildly imaginative and innovative work, ranging from broadly comic to devastatingly tragic, from demanding to the point of impenetrability, to piquant, hilarious and instantly rewarding.

This year, for example, Ireland is represented in Irish by Tomás Mac Síomóin, a writer born in Dublin in 1938, now living and working in Catalonia, after a career in the US and Ireland as a biological researcher and university lecturer. His story, Music in the Bones, about a man who is compelled to conduct the indescribably beautiful music that he hears in his bones, yet is inaudible to others, is one of the half dozen star turns in the collection, yet in Ireland Mac Síomóin is a far from familiar name.

Editor Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian writer born in 1964 who was visiting the US as a tourist in 1992, and was stranded there by the siege of Sarajevo. He made a clear statement of intent in his introduction to the original volume of Best European Fiction in 2010, which has not changed since.

The project is an attempt to compensate for the fact that less then 5% of literary works published in the US are works in translation. Given that much of that 5% would be taken up by the classics — Tolstoy, Flaubert, Mann — and much by recent Nobel prize winners, very little of the lively and adventurous works of fiction published in languages other than English was accessible to readers.

He wrote in 2010: “The American reader seems to be largely disengaged from literatures in other languages, which many see as yet another symptom of culturally claustrophobic American isolationism.”

At the same time, there was a growing consensus among publishers that the short story was on the way out, due to changes in reading habits brought about by what they saw as the imminent disappearance of the printed word in favour of less demanding online entertainment. Serious students of creative writing, wrote Hemon, were being taught to see the short story as “… merely a warm-up exercise for writing a novel. Thousands upon thousands of ambitious young writers enrolled in American writing programs are churning out half-dead short stories, creating suffocating hyperinflation, all in the hope that one day they’ll be skilful enough to write a death-defying novel.”

Four anthologies later (the others had prefaces by Zadie Smith, Colum McCann and Nicole Krauss) perhaps even Hemon would be surprised at the enthusiastic reception of these annual collections. At the end of this year’s introduction he cheerfully boasts “The Best European Fiction 2013 anthology is proudly difficult and imperfectly translated.”

In addition to demonstrating the possibilities of the short story, the collection has also provoked a lively debate on fiction in translation. Extremes of fiction, as found in these stories, make huge demands on translators. Hemon in his introduction rejects the famous Robert Frost dictum, that poetry is what is lost in translation, in favour of the multilingual Russian poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky’s counterclaim that “poetry is what is gained in translation”. John Banville in his preface quotes the late John McGahern on the same issue: “There is verse, he would say, there is prose, and then there is poetry, which may be conjured in either medium.”

Since 2012 the stories have been arranged by theme, to facilitate discussion by book clubs and reading groups — reality, art, memory, death, women, and so on. Writers and translators are given full biographies, which have their own fascination.

Rather than reading from start to finish, I take each anthology as an opportunity to let one story lead to another, sometimes prompted by reading an author’s biography. It is tempting to start with a familiar name. AS Byatt’s Dolls’ Eyes starts out in a cosy, English manner, with an unmarried teacher, Felicity, known by her childhood nickname Fliss, who has accumulated a collection of dolls. The cosiness is shattered by her casual comment that she knows some of them are alive, and some of them only cloth and stuffing. The new chord is cleverly amplified with a lesbian affair leading to betrayal and a chilling revenge on the wrongdoer, which may or may not have been the work of a doll.

The title ‘Last Summer in Marienbad, with its echoes of Resnais’s film of Robbe-Grillet’s script, Last Year at Marienbad, attracted me to Russian Kirill Kobrin’s story, set in the same spa in 1914. It did not disappoint, with a series of ambiguous flashbacks and distorting time-shifts echoing the original.

That vies for best-in-collection with My Heart, a riveting first-person account of a heart attack by Semezdin Mehmediniovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its memorable first line: ‘Today, it seems, was the day I was meant to die.’

Ireland in English is represented by Mike McCormack’s ‘Of One Mind’ in the section themed ‘sons’. A lively snapshot of parenthood in present-day Galway, its dark overtones failed to deliver the anticipated blow.

Welshman Ray French’s story Migration, also on the ‘son’ theme, about the narrator’s father, an Irish labourer, also seemed tame in the company of a tour de force such as My Creator, My Creation’, a modern-day Frankenstein story by Finland’s Tiina Raevaara. Her biography reveals that she is also a geneticist, which made it even more scary. Some light relief is provided by ‘The Music Shop’ by Iceland’s Gyrdir Elíasson, a dream visit to a music shop that stocks Beethoven’s Eleventh Symphony, and Satie’s Military March for 203 Pianofortes, among other treasures.

'The Music Shop’ is a good analogy for the mind-opening effect of Best European Fiction 2013,, readers will find an extraordinary range of unexpected delights within.

- Kirill Kobrin, a Russian writer living in Prague, and Slovenian writer Drago Jancar (published in Best European Fiction 2011) will be reading in Cork City Library at 7pm on 25 April (free), as part of Cork World Book Fest.

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