Best european fiction 20.., p.1

Best European Fiction 2017, page 1


Best European Fiction 2017

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Best European Fiction 2017



  Copyright ©2016 by Dalkey Archive Press

  Preface copyright ©2016 by Eileen Battersby

  Edited by Nathaniel Davis

  First edition, 2016

  All rights reserved

  Please see rights and permissions on page 310 for individual credits

  Partially funded by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency

  Please see Acknowledgments on pages 307 for additional information on the support received for this volume.

  Victoria, TX / McLean, IL / Dublin

  Dalkey Archive Press publications are, in part, made possible through the support of the University of Houston-Victoria and its program in creative writing, publishing, and translation.

  Cover design by Gail Doobinin

  Printed on permanent/durable acid-free paper










  FROM Johnny and Jean



  The Two Writers



  FROM A as in Anything



  FROM Last Night



  Lion Cubs



  Postcard to Annie



  FROM The Destruction of the Liquor Store in Nuorgam



  FROM Stand-by-the-Hour






  The Untrodden



  Confectionery 1952






  FROM The Hunger of Women



  FROM A Taste of Lead












  A Comfort of Sorts






  FROM Not As In Paradise



  The Commander’s Endless Night






  Bad Town



  FROM Molecules



  Think of Me in the Good Times



  Two Stories



  Don’t Ask for Gagarin



  Death by Laughter



  Everyone’s the Same Inside






  THE WORLD IS growing smaller, ever smaller. The speed of travel, communication, headline-breaking news – much of it grim – is creating a universal language of celebrity and shared symbols or points of reference, such as those contained in a TV show or a broadcaster’s familiar catch cry. We all watch the same movies, listen to the same music, and increasingly, read the same books.

  Everything seems immediate, more accessible - because it is. The world of story is equally on the move, in fact it is moving even more quickly and is ever evolving; writers, traditionalists as well as innovators, continue to work, explore new themes. Other voices will emerge, develop, and mature. Crucial to this ceaseless expansion are translators, skilled linguists, who are themselves artists, alert to language and the wonders of nuance. This point must be made because new fiction is about far more than the latest big publishing deal that is mooted between New York and London; it is about the fiction writers across the world are shaping in a multitude of tongues.

  Nowhere is this explosion quite as diverse and exciting and as freewheeling as in Europe, where the tradition was shaped in the nineteenth century by literary masters from Russia and France and from the nation-states of what would become modern Germany. A casual observer asked for the one word which dictated writing in Europe would, probably, immediately reply “war.” It is true; territories ceded, cultures repressed, identities left reeling in chaotic selfdoubt. European fiction retained a correct, measured intelligence; history, society and tradition dominated as did a prevailing sense of melancholy which tended to conceal the very anger that had caused so much conflict in the first place. Lamentation became a shared, subtle communal response, as Joseph Roth suggested in his defining novel, The Radetzky March (1932). To hail from Europe was to be somehow denied the freedom which North Americans and Australians if ever eager to assimilate took for granted while Africans and Asians looked on, wondering at what it was like to lose something successive colonializations had denied them. Original fiction written in languages other than English was simply not receiving the priority it deserved.

  It had to change. And it has.

  Best European Fiction, spanning Scandinavia, Western and Central Europe, the Balkans and the Baltic, Iberia, the islands of Great Britain and Ireland, is the most cohesive bulletin one could hope to find. Since its inception in 2010 it has proven to be a vibrant and informed literary gazette; daring in its selections. Now in its eighth year it continues to present new voices, new trends; both the preoccupations of the moment and the broader way in which the individual has come to supplant the public.

  Over these years of change, Europe has not only begun to look more outward, it has taken over much of the energy and anarchic self-absorption which had made fiction from North America and Australia appear to be saying something that was new, more fresh. Uppsala Woods (2009) by Spaniard Alvaro Colomer, translated by Jonathan Dunne, is a numbingly funny and tragic study of a mosquito expert’s collapse in the face of daily living. It is ironic and also worth noting that the dysfunctional family and marriage breakdown, so long thematic domains of US writers and filmmakers, have been adopted astutely by Europeans. The Austro-German Daniel Kehlmann proved, with his sharp, witty and poignant domestic drama, F. (2013, translated by the late Carol Brown Janeway, 2014) that he was far better at working Jonathan Franzen’s chosen territory than Franzen could ever hope to be.

  Visionaries such as Jon Fosse, Julian Rios, Peter Stamm, Christine Montalbetti, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Jean Echenoz, Drago Jancar, Clemens Meyer, Ingo Schulze, David Albahari, Peter Terrin, George Konrad and his fellow Hungarian, the magus himself, Laszlo Krasznahorkai, have featured in Best European Fiction’s pages. English writers have also been included. I first encountered British originals Tom McCarthy and Nicholas Mosl
ey in previous editions. Why ‘visionaries’? Why not simply ‘writers’? Because each of those mentioned succeeds in looking at the ordinary in a different way. Their individual responses to life and the world in its internal and external forms do amount to visions of perception.

  Publishing moves in mysterious ways and while readers enjoy discovering new writers, publishing giants tend to play safe and permit market forces to run advertising campaigns promoting obvious blockbusters that have already been secured by Hollywood. It takes the courage of independent publishers to consider writing as art and not as a commercial venture. Passion plays a part, as do perception and instinct. The independent publisher is alert to ideas, not fads; there is a valuable awareness of the individual response of a writer when exploring that most impossible of subjects: what it is to be human. It can be complicated – even abstract; human and alone, human and lost, human and angry. Most of all there is cohesion; little more than a century separates, or links, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (1890) with his fellow Norwegian Stig Saeterbakken’s Self-Control (1998) and both are about responses to inner turmoil and both share that immediacy which great fiction achieves and retains.

  For too long contemporary international fiction in translation seemed to inhabit a rarefied position, that of little more than minority reading for literary specialists and academics. How often have you groaned on hearing someone loftily announcing, “I only read originals.” If so, does that mean that unless he or she reads Russian, they will not have experienced Turgenev and Chekhov? Much has been made of the small percentage of readers who will consider a novel or short story collection which has been translated from the original language. How many times has the coverage of the Nobel Prize in Literature been determined by the nationality, or more importantly the language in which the recipient writes and whether or not their work is available in English? But again, this has changed. It is a fact that the establishment of a competition such as the International Dublin Literary Award in 1995, then under the sponsorship of IMPAC, dramatically increased the readership of international fiction in translation. To date the winners have included Romanian Herta Müller and Turk Orhan Pamuk who both were later awarded the Nobel Prize, while Norwegian Per Petterson’s international reputation was consolidated by winning in 2007 for his third novel, Out Stealing Horses.

  Prizes help and yes, independent publishers, often lone champions, have enabled this to happen. We the readers have benefited and the rest is literary history in the making. Readers alert to independent publishers rather than publishing giants and hype have been seeking, identifying and supporting interesting writing. It sounds simple but this is exactly what has been happening, assisted by word of mouth and that most effective of opinion makers – book clubs. And all made possible by the efforts of literary translators. This year, 2016, witnessed the revamping of the Man International Booker Prize. It is now about far more than an award, it is an expression of confidence in the marketability of quality fiction in translation. If writers, readers, critics and publishers are pleased so too are booksellers.

  Instead of being awarded to an author for a body of work, the Man International Booker Prize is now presented to a single book. Most importantly, the prize is shared equally between author and translator. It could be argued that the author should have a larger share of the prize money but the point has been made; translation is understanding and understanding is power. Translated fiction is also winning a growing share of readership, which has been proven to have increased almost one hundred percent since 2001. It sounds unbelievable. But why should it be all that surprising when one considers that many classic works of literature over the centuries have been translated into English from their original languages?

  Literary translation is not elitist, it is essential, a vital transition; looking at a view through a window, the glass may be slightly misted by rain, but the view is still emphatically visible. Literary translation is of course a huge subject and Western readers are now discovering major Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese writing. Yet our subject here is the diversity of contemporary European fiction. The Balkan region continues to intrigue with writers such as Albania’s Ismail Kadare, who, by the way, was awarded the inaugural Man Booker International Prize in 2005. “At dusk the city [his birthplace Gjirokastë], which through the centuries had appeared on maps as possessions of the Romans, the Normans, the Byzantines, the Turks, the Greeks and the Italians, now watched darkness fall as part of the German empire” writes Kadare in his finest work, Chronicle in Stone (1971). The passage could be addressing the plight of many European peoples as their borders, rulers, and at times even their languages changed in the aftermath of each new war.

  The Balkan wars of the 1990s have inspired a younger generation of writers such as Bosnian Selvedin Avdic: “Whoever ends up reading this text will not be my choice, as I have no say in the matter. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I’ve never managed to choose the best option in my life …” (from Seven Terrors, 2012; translated by Coral Petkovich, also 2012). In common with many writers from the Balkans, Avdic not only has his own rich cultural heritage to draw from, in his everyman fiction he has also cracked Western culture. His depressed narrator, still suffering in the wake of his failed marriage has spent about nine months attempting to recover, largely in bed. Reading fashion magazines helps pass the time: “… I found out that something called Clinque exists – a new dramatically different gel: and another page brought a Tiffany broach, magical like the arch of a mosque in Isfahan, which I had seen in a photograph. The ‘In Vogue’ column presented me with compelling news from the latest fashion line and informed me that hysteria was ruling the world – the cause was a red dress in which every woman would become provocative.” Aside from humour though there is the sense of having been present at dangerous times. Translation can and does soar. Also from Seven Terrors: “Silence. But it was not normal silence. This was inhabited. Something was living in it. It had composed itself and was holding its breath … something full of anger and hatred.”

  French and Spanish are the two European and international languages which are proving vehicles for much of the most exciting fiction being written in our sad, angry, exciting era. Siberian writer Andrei Makine has written all of his thirteen novels to date in French, not in Russian, and has said writing in French makes him think “with more exactness.” Many of Ismail Kadare’s books have been translated into English from Albanian via French. And to Spanish must be added Galician as spearheaded by Manuel Rivas (translated by Jonathan Dunne), Bernardo Atxaga who writes in Spanish and Basque, and Catalan Eduard Marquez, whose novella, Brandes’ Decision (2006; translation by Mara Faye Lethem, 2016), both celebrates and deconstructs the power of memory.

  Intellectualism has always dogged fiction, preoccupied as it has been with the cerebral and the sleight of hand, demonstrated so magisterially by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Unique among his peers in this respect is the mercurial Jean Echenoz, who delights in tricks yet also engages with humanity through a candid generosity of spirit, as his novels based respectively on the composer Ravel and the long distance, Olympic hero Emil Zatopek, testify. Echenoz’s profundity, as evidenced in his war novel 1914, is countered by his lightness of touch and a balancing of pop culture with high art. Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales (1996; translated by Linda Coverdale, 1997) displays this peculiarly French flair for juxtaposing the profound with the profane. If Echenoz has a kindred spirit it is most probably the Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas, whose magpie flair suggests that he is aware of what writers all over the world are doing.

  Considering a volume such as this new selection of work by European writers, many of whose names are unfamiliar, is not daunting. Instead it entices. The influences are present, Kundera and his compatriot Josef Skvorecky still shape the voices of younger writers. Equally can a translator draw a reader to a work. The veteran Celia Hawkesworth’s lively rendition of young Croatian Olja Savicevic’s debut Adios, Cowboy, extracted in an earlier selection, d
raws one on to Vedrana Rudan’s forthcoming Love at Last Sight. Hawkesworth has also translated Rudan’s Night and the Croatian Vladimir Arsenijevic’s debut, In the Hold – A Soap Opera (1994), which remains an urgent, eye-witness account of what it was like for the post-Tito generation coming to age in a Yugoslavia that would no longer exist.

  Why read European fiction in translation? Because it consistently proves to be among the finest literature of ideas, emotion and sensation in the world; thrilling, profound and heartfelt, it has created writers such as the metaphysical Berliner Jenny Erpenbeck who explores her country’s fractured past in order to understand its present. Why read Best European Fiction 2017? It is the surest way of following the path forward.





  FROM Johnny and Jean

  I PICTURE MYSELF as a young boy living in the countryside.

  It’s summertime, and we’re sitting together in the grass, a group of girls and—yes, we already call them “guys.” Some talk about going away, others talk about staying here. Then someone runs to the edge of the pool and everyone chases after him, some jump from the one-meter springboard, most do what we call a cannonball: splashing into the water with your knees tucked in, trying to be the loudest.

  I dive in head first and almost lose my trunks. I quickly pull them up underwater, resurface, and see if anyone saw. Everyone claps and cheers, because someone’s done a somersault from the three-meter board; he’s the one they call Jean.

  Then the summer is over and each of us goes his separate way, as the saying goes.

  I don’t see Jean again until I show up in the city with my work under my arm. I didn’t go to the largest city, but the second-largest. Jean was here before me, he managed to take the earlier train, and already knows his way around. He’s laid out his work and taken his shoes off under the table. He lays his portfolio on the table—no, he doesn’t even have a portfolio, his pictures are gigantic, and he’s made a handsome roll out of them, which he now spreads out on the floor. I turn around and see everyone staring at Jean and his roll, see him cut the cord and unfurl the individual leaves: each as big as the entire room all of us are standing in, where we’ve been waiting for half the day to be called up one by one.

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