Book Review: Alexander Hemon's Best European Fiction 2011

An anthology of contemporary writing from Europe opens unsuspected literary horizons on the continent’s Eastern rim

TVR Books | Grigory Borodavkin | May 2011

A Book with a View

As the digital, globalized World grows smaller, we get to live in an extraordinary time, witnessing borders dissolve and cultures intertwine. The European Union now includes 27 member states that strive to create a united and prospering version of the conflict ridden, bickering arena of nation states bent on imperialistic expansion and power grabs. In this fast pace of 21st century unification, the role of art in preserving individuality whilst reinterpreting current issues in an original way, grows more pressing with each passing year.

In all this English has become a sort of lingua franca, and the United States a gateway to mainstream acclaim.  And with publishing markets under increasing duress, however, many emerging artists are denied the recognition they deserve. Literature has become just another commodity, subject to consumer demand. "If it don’t sell – it don’t work" seems to be the order of the day. Publishers are reluctant to gamble, often not giving the reader enough credit, as they turn down promise for a sure thing.

Foreign language literature is particularly affected, with translations comprising a mere three to five percent of the U.S. publishing market – including new editions of classics like Crime and Punishment.

The best sellers of the past decade seem to be following a recipe, often resembling a copy of a copy. Looking to picking up the biggest audience possible and maybe a film deal on the side forces authors into formulas, leaving little narrative richness to explore, no metaphors to be deciphered or philosophies to be engaged.

In this arid landscape, I was surprised to learn of an anthology called The Best European Fiction, published in 2011 for the second time, where authors from over 32 different countries were collected, most never before translated into English. It is baffling to think that in the age of Twitter, Facebook and Google some of the most talented writers from all over the world had not yet been discovered. Isn’t that the point of the Information Age, when content travels at the blink of an eye and the knowledge of centuries is ever at your fingertips?

This second edition continues to introduce the English speaking World to writers that have so far remained under the radar, as well as including new works from well know authors such as Hilary Mantel and Ingo Schulze.

From the Caucasian Mountains to the groves of Ireland, Best European Fiction is a 500-page kaleidoscope of cultures and individualities, voicing the things that matter to them. Reading Best European Fiction feels like traveling, as the style, setting and world views of the authors are so different that taking on more than three or four stories in a sitting can be exhausting.

From contemplating the role of fear during Communist Yugoslavia (Slovenia) to following a fifteen-year-old girl’s first sexual experience (Netherlands), to finding yourself at a nineteenth century traveling freak show (Poland), the spectrum is so wide that this book becomes a sort of literary candy jar – so long as you don’t gorge, there will always be a treat waiting for you at the end of the day.

But the true beauty of the book lies not in the individual quality of every separate story but in having the chance to be exposed to Blaze Minevski from, for example, Macedonia and seeing reality through his eyes.

One story to single out comes from Turkish author Ersan Uldes. It is the confession of a translator who, at some point, started taking liberties with the works of the authors. Changing the plot, refusing to kill off characters and twisting the meaning, until it no longer resembles the original, the confession is a hilarious and profound tale, as entertaining as it is thought provoking. Polish author Olga Tokarczuk also offers an exhilarating and moving story about a man disgusted, yet inexplicably drawn to, a deformed woman in a traveling circus sideshow titled The Ugliest Woman Alive – a heartbreaking contemplation on the things that make us special.

Not every story will leave you breathless, and it is quite possible that none of them will; but the aim of Best European Fiction is, in the words of it’s editor Alexandar Hemon: "to provide a detailed snapshot of contemporary European literatures rather than establishing a fresh canon of instant classics."

This is a goal the book accomplishes and then some.

Coming back to the question of originality, it is quite refreshing to find that most authors included in Best European Fiction 2011 are not afraid to experiment and play with the boundaries of the genre. There are travel and dream diaries, confessions and meditations, speeches and streams of consciousness. With this second edition, Hemon promises there will be more.

Opening doors for the authors and windows for the readers, Best European Fiction 2011 is an anthology that anyone who cares about literature and is curious about the world, should add to the pile on their nightstand.

About damn time, if you ask me.


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