Best European Fiction 2010, Ed. Aleksander Hemon. (Dalkey Archive Press) $15.95
Best European Fiction 2010 is the first anthology in what will probably become a yearly fixture, aimed at the same readership as the popular Best American series. After a strange preface by Zadie Smith—in which she simply notes that much of the fiction in this collection is metafiction and then goes on to compare the stories to the usual suspects: Kafka, Dostoevsky, Gogol, etc.—Hemon provides a treatise on American cultural isolationism, the sad state of the publishing industry, and the enduring relevance of the short story.
Even though he’s dead-on about American ignorance (I only recognized a couple of names on the table of contents), the introduction, when coupled with the format of the anthology (the country of origin above the author’s name on each title page), sets the collection up to read like a survey of modern European literature, each story representative of a nationality. The collection is front-loaded with excerpts from longer works, adding to the survey vibe. My beef with metafiction is that the story is usually subservient to the structure of the story; likewise, future editors of the Best European series need to make the structure less imposing, so that the stories are presented as more important than the countries from which they come.
So what of the stories themselves? All of them are at least worthwhile. Most of them are good. Some of them are very good. Igor Stiks’s “At the Sarajevo Market” is metafiction done right, commenting on the way that stories are formed while still having its own gravity. Two lovers walk through a wartime marketplace in Sarajevo, rifling through what had once been prized possessions of Bosnians but were now up for sale. They talk about how useless the items are when the city is under siege (“To buy books instead of, say, noodles borders on insanity” ). They pause over a pocket watch from WWI that a woman had given to her lover, a soldier off at war, and the two end up inventing a story about the woman and the soldier. As they finish the story, they contemplate buying the watch, and they are both surprised and shaken when the man lets out a gush of romantic sentiment. The woman walks away while the seller doubles the price he is asking. The man doesn’t buy the watch. In just a few pages, Stiks is able to weave the violence and suffering that much of Eastern Europe has endured into a succinct and moving narrative that also touches on the function of story in a battered culture.
In another great story, Stephan Enter’s “Resistance,” a man sees a death notice for a substitute chess teacher and reminisces about the impact that the man had on his life. “This is no ordinary memory,” he says. “This is a splinter that’s been left” . When Mr. Vink, an army general and the regular chess teacher, is dispatched to Lebanon, he is replaced by Mr. Wiesveld, an effeminate man whose teaching style is far less structured, emphasizing intuition and creativity over drills and problem sets. The boys in the chess class flourish under his tutelage, but they mock his flamboyance behind his back. The narrator achieves success in a tournament and stands up to thank his teacher on the last day before the Mr. Vink returns. Worried that the others will redirect their abuse to him in Mr. Wiesveld’s absence, the boy fails to acknowledge the impact the teacher has had on his life. The boy’s betrayal is a small one, but it is also a significant one, a surrender to the type of linear thinking that the teacher has helped free him from. Stephen Enter nails the dialogue, as well as the shame and fear implicit in adolescence. He presents a subtle dilemma that works dramatically and displays a dark little chunk of the human heart.
There are plenty of other standouts. Peter Stamm’s “Ice Moon” achieves classic catharsis through the tale of longing and loss in a Swiss industrial complex that has been appropriated as low-rent workspace. Julian Gough’s “The Orphan and the Mob,” a satirical parade of Irish stereotypes, is one of the funniest things I’ve read in the last year. Perhaps the strangest piece is Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s “Zidane’s Melancholy,” which ingeniously stretches the soccer player’s famous headbutt in the 2006 World Cup final into a convincing artistic statement. Geared as it is towards an American audience, the Best European Fiction series will at the very least introduce some deserving writers to a reading public that otherwise would not be exposed to their work, but hopefully it will grow into an establishment in its own right—the strong fiction inside its covers certainly deserves the attention.
Kevin Funkhouser is an MFA candidate at Seattle Pacific University’s creative writing program. He lives in Costa Mesa, California.