Suspend Your Disbelief

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Best European Fiction 2010 (Aleksandar Hemon, ed.)

What is it about the European cultures, tucked like bats into their tiny cubbies, that seems so much more specific than our own? How do Belgium or Luxembourg achieve "culture" in little more space we might use to construct a Wal-Mart megastore? What is it about confinement that breeds a more tribal than national identity? What are we doing when we sit down to read a collection of fiction culled from a continent?

best-european-fictionIt’s impossible to read an anthology like Best European Fiction 2010 (Dalkey Archive Press) without some thought of comparative geography. Look at America–a behemoth hung between two oceans, the boxy outlines of its “flyover states” cut only by the lonely beacons of their airports. We seem to have spread out in these areas, too, mimicking with our bodies the wide cars, wider highways, and still-wider suburban sprawl. Give us space, and we’ll occupy it–with our cars, our invisible fencing; even, finally, our bodies. Over here, we describe (some might say “stereotype”) middle America as so monocultural as to be a void between the twin Godots of our coasts. Fly over as much of Europe, and you’ll miss the Jutes, the Angles, the Geats, and numerous other formative tribes before the beverage cart even gets to your aisle.

Prague / photo credit: Pablo Sanchez

Prague / photo credit: Pablo Sanchez

What is it about the European cultures, tucked like bats into their tiny cubbies, that seems so much more specific than our own? How do Belgium or Luxembourg achieve “culture” in little more space we might use to construct a Wal-Mart megastore? What is it about confinement that breeds a more tribal than national, identity? What are we doing when we sit down to read a collection of fiction culled from a continent? What to make of the contiguities of the stories, that seem at times to overlap the national boundaries so as to “say something about that place”? The very assemblage of stories is frustrating, and self-confounding. What you could comfortably say about “Europe” after a summer abroad and a few hostels in Prague sounds positively Mrs. Mortimer-ian after the reflexivity (On se voit) and pure strangeness of these narratives (?): even naming them calls for fresh punctuation and some superior method of notation, a more fertile subjunctive.

Olympic Rings in Berlin / photo credit: Will Palmer

Olympic Rings in Berlin / photo credit: Will Palmer

How to avoid taking roll? Three collections of unrelated vignettes, present. Three stories tangent upon a famous person and his or her actions as reflected upon the world stage, present.

Zinedine Zidane, in a Camus-worthy cameo penned by Bruxellois Jean-Philippe Toussaint, is gripped by nausea as he feels his presence–in the existential sense–at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium on July 9, 2006. Toussaint, a cinematographer as well as an author, cites Freud among his influences, but it is a stunt double of Camus’s “dark wind” that seems to draw Zidane from the future that has become the present, and to the absurd act that will become immortal: the headbutt to Marco Materazzi’s chest. Like Meursault, ennui and pure fatigue lead him to the “unscripted action,” the endpoint that his entire career has determined for him. Everyone and no one has seen the action: there is only the “Italian player” on the ground, and Zidane’s own head, forever covering half the distance to his opponent’s chest, without ever arriving. What better characterization of the action shots, the contortions of perpetrator and victim immortalized on Google? How much of what we claim to know is based on circumstantial evidence about what we’ve missed?


Suspended almost dead center of the volume, Giedra Radvilavičiūtė lays out a handful of answers in her five criteria for evaluating texts. In a collection like this, the gesture is reminiscent of a primary-school exercise book: tear out this ruler, and use it to solve the problems on the other pages. The tenets–in short, memorability, connection to lived experience, immersibility for the reader, revelation of the banal, and the impossibility of formulating any assertion without doubt–hover over the rest of the stories, inducing the reader to flip back, like a dutiful student to the endnotes, even after moving on to a new region. Connection to lived experience? Check. Revelation of the banal? Half a check. Immersibility? Perhaps not; here we are, flipping around, taking measure.

TerrinP_BlancoBack to the roll call for a moment. (What is about this collection that calls forth the spirit of the schoolroom? Do we, with an anthology, become students again? Do we read it because we assume it’s good for us, because there is some moral good in having read it, in the plus-que-parfait, like “the classics” our Brit-Lit teachers upheld?) A pair of stories about futuristic death-obsessed bureaucracies, present. Now this is the sort of gritty, dubbed stuff we expect to tune into when we delve into the European humanities scene. Flamand Peter Terrin tracks pro-/ant-agonist Ferdinand, noir-style, through his unauthorized murder of a loud and boorish neighbor. Haunted by some indistinct memories that he may have already drilled through more than his allotted share of murders (two per citizen, thanks), Ferdinand has some “Tell-Tale Heart”-ish moments as he attempts to sneak out of his victim’s house. His reasoning, though, about his neighbors, about others in general, is purely modern: “They’d rather see me dead than alive.” We all sort of feel this way about each other, in a way, which makes the two-murder ration seem at once gratuitous and not quite enough. If “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” then “le ciel, c’est la solitude.” It is in this solitary utopia that Ferdinand lurks farther and farther afield, into les quartiers difficiles, waiting for the sound of the punitive shot, knowing that the actual bullet to the brain will have preceded it. It’s a dim and sardonic story, one where you wonder more about what it’s like to off someone than get off with them, and where the two-murder-per-person method of population control is considered kinder than asking people to cut back on their childbearing.

Over in futuristic Bulgaria, Georgi Gospodinov reports on the anesthetic–literally, flowers no longer have scents and the sky gapes at the seams like an old baseball–conditions that follow our depredations upon genetics and the ozone layer. Castor P., an elderly astronomer who still remembers real bees and who, way back in 2011, discovered the universe’s smallest black hole, is about to sign over the last several decades of his allotted twelve and a half. He’s only waiting for the arrival of his son, on some other star; the silent recipient of his brief telegrams. As he waits, Castor arrives at the conclusion that loneliness has become the only organic substance, having escaped from its container like a gas and filling the vacuum where air used to be. His son never does arrive, and Castor is extinguished, mortal as his namesake. We’re left to wonder: who is his twin? Is the reader meant to be his double? There’s an Oedipal universality to this narrative: we can picture our old fathers, in their felt shirts, sending us voice mails and shakily lettered cards from our old ZIP codes. We only respond ceremonially, when we have to go back because they are sick, or dying or, finally, when we have to sort through their crumbled old papers and photographs of a world where they were at ease. He’s touching, this untwinned Geminorum, because he doesn’t want to make a fuss; he doesn’t tear up in front of the young woman clerking at the death office, still hoping his son will take a shining to her when he gets there.

Fian_fertige_GedichteNot everyone is so moving: in the other corners of Europe, a john runs off from a bust in a public pay toilet, leaving his homeless young servicer unpaid and beaten by cops; children kill a dolphin in a salt-water novelty tank during a dinner party, and the adults laugh it off; a girl rejects a boy during a secluded picnic and makes him drive her back to town; and a couple, lost on an idyllic bike ride, tie their dog to a tree and abandon it just before the husband proclaims his affair with his wife’s half-sister. But what’s the difference, anyway? In the first collection of vignettes, Austrian Antonio Fian‘s narrator confesses to an eerily similar act with a friend of his wife’s sister who, surreally, turns out to be his wife–and every other woman in the world–after all. “So, all the women in the world know about us?” asks the adulterer, unsettled. They might as well–as in Gregory Corso’s poem, “Marriage,” we’re all alike–“All streaming into the same cozy hotels/All going to do the same thing tonight.” The only rebellion we might possibly enjoy is to remove ourselves from the honeymoon suite altogether: “Stay up all night! Stare that hotel clerk in the eye!” Sexuality, so fascinating and individual to the self is, in reality, one of our most banal habits.

sacredAnother of humanity’s more banal projects, pop culture, finds an apt definition in Victor Pelevin‘s description of “the merely comfortable selling the poor fantasies about the lives of the rich, the very rich, and the fabulously rich.” One immediately visualizes the same photos duplicated and recaptioned in the high-budget celebrity mags down to the press-release reprints in the low: if magazine layout was still analog, these images would be peeled bare by masking tape. From Professor Potashinsky, pioneering theorist of “Friedmann Space,” we learn that there is a whole field of quantum mechanics specific to wealth; apparently, the wealth-traveler, or “lucrenaut” (take that, Laika) ceases to perceive time and cannot recall any lucreventures if he or she is once again separated from the critical mass of wealth. Not for lack of trying, though–lucrenauts live it up, eating and drinking and–here is Pelevin’s most brilliant line, at least in translation–“transferring their genetic material to gentle creatures who sold themselves so expensively that the transactions already resembled love.” At the end of the experiment, the brain images of the lucrenauts’ perceptions during these brave ventures are uniform: a green corridor. The proletariat struggle, the rise and fall of communism, the corruption and trafficking, and drug-cartel stabbings for wealth, and what does it feel like? A waiting room in a third-rate clinic.

It would be a Short-Story-210, too-clever-by-half reader who would state that the motifs of overmanaged, generic nation-states and transactional, interchangeable relationships–and the substitution of celebrity gossip for village tongue-wagging–directly correspond to anxieties about the European Union and any amalgamating tendencies it might have on the cultures within its borders. Without putting words in anyone’s mouth, it’s fair to assume that no one wants the mother country to turn into the Epcot version of itself: a souvenir stand with a few snack specialties–extra points for chocolate, fried stuff in cones, and sausage. It’s limiting, though, not to mention a little boring, to read literature symptomatically, and we’re often so immersed in our era that we tend to overdesignate themes as specific to our own time. Reading with an inflection is one thing; “getting the news through poems,” or short stories, for that matter, is another.

Europe isn’t the only continent where people are overwhelmed by market psychology and looking around at each other to define themselves. The laments that nothing is genuine anymore, that style is winning over substance, that there’s nothing original left to do or say, are almost as old as recorded history–or, cynics might say, as old people themselves. Somehow, there have been new utterances and new pastimes and, much as the new is always indebted to its antecedents, the breath hasn’t been entirely snatched from us yet. In fact, if anything, there’s a little too much breath–together with text and bandwith and airtime and any of the other major transmitters. Of course, surplus doesn’t equal substance, and language doesn’t equal an utterance. We’re watching the same shows, in different languages: celebrities are whittling their faces and bodies down to the same androgyn; music is so produced it’s hard to name the instrument; and food–at least the affordable, available stuff–is so processed you can’t name the food animal or the preservative. The vacuum-inflating loneliness and ersatz bees may not be far behind.

Further Reading and Links

Aleksandar Hemon

Aleksandar Hemon

– In this interview, World Books talks to series editor Aleksandar Hemon about the challenges of promoting first-rate European fiction to American readers.

– Here on Fiction Writers Review, read a review of Hemon’s most recent story collection, Love and Obstacles.

– Read interviews with some of the anthology’s contributors: The Quarterly Conversation talks to Jean-Philippe Toussaint; Dalkey Archive Press talks to Georgi Gospodinov (Bulgaria), to Antonio Fian (Austria), to Peter Stamm (Switzerland), to Naja Marie Aidt (Denmark), and to many others.

– Via BookBrowse, read an excerpt from Best European Fiction‘s preface (by Zadie Smith).

– If you’re shopping for a copy of this book, support indie bookstores by ordering it from Powell’s.

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