shining the spotlight on short story collections
Preface by Enrique Vila-Matas
Dalkey Archive 2014
Let’s not quibble with the “Best” in the title. This is a fascinating glimpse into contemporary fiction across Europe.
An anthology with pieces from thirty different countries calling itself Best European Fiction is a wildly ambitious project. But let’s not quibble with the audacity of that “Best” in the title: alternatives such as “An Interesting Selection …” merely sound feeble.
The challenge for any reviewer is say something coherent about the anthology as a whole. Surprisingly, that was easy. As a reader steeped in English-language short stories, I was immediately struck by the number of pieces that are speculative or experimental, or take the form of contemporary fables. Only a minority adhere to the conventional tradition of the short story – as understood by key notions such as realism, revealing details, compact character studies, turning points, sensitivity to regional setting.
Several of the stories take an interesting premise and run with it, letting the idea unfold. For example the narrator in The Birds writes a series of postcards to her lover to explain why she suddenly left their home. Strange things have begun to happen to her: little colourful birds work their way up her throat and fly free. The story has a nineteenth century speculative feel to it, like Poe or Maturin. “One’s thoughts steal around on the rim of rationality’s light, circumventing the correct and smiling facades of day; yet neither is it the logic of dreams that is in charge …” It’s a beautiful story, a kind that a reader will return to time and again.
Rein Raud’s The Demise of Engineer G. features an aspirational gourmet who is famed for his fine dinner parties, and who often drops mention of exquisite wines and spices. It is set in an era of queues for butter and grey concrete surroundings. Events take a dark turn as we learn G. has a diabolical method of obtaining these refined ingredients. It’s a well-executed tale, timeless in its style, yet a clear allegory of life under communism.
In Diego Marani’s The Man who Missed Trains, the narrator observes the eponymous elegantly dressed gentleman miss a train by seconds. A couple of days later he spots the same white-suited man once again sprint elegantly after a departing train, and just manage to touch the door handle before it slips way. It seems the man in white is practicing an artform entirely for his own purposes, and the narrator has become his discerning audience. “… missing a train is just one precise moment. Arrive a moment too soon or a moment too late, you’ve missed the point.”
Another story plays with the conceit of a car which magically stops when an occupant tells a lie. Or a fable with the force of one Nietzsche’s Zarathustra parables, about a man whose best friend is a snake.
I don’t have sufficient expertise to judge to what extent the (unnamed) editor’s tastes may have influenced this selection. But I feel sure that even if you were to twist the arms of a representative number of English-language writers, you would not be able to come up with enough stories of a speculative/fabulous/introspective nature to fill this volume.
Short stories in the USA and Ireland often take on the task of a presenting a hard-edged chunk of reality, conveying the precise texture of experience firmly rooted in a specific era and location. ‘Authenticity’ is at a premium, and more often than not, is most readily found among the marginalised or those not given to much reflection.
There is food for thought in the speculation that countries accustomed to deprivation are not much interested in realist depictions of hard-pressed lives. Maybe ‘authenticity’ is a value of more concern to readers with stable and comfortable lives in Western countries.
Joanna Walsh’s is another tale of a metaphysical nature. Communication – the spoken and written word – begins to go out of fashion: “We scarcely noticed how the silence went mainstream, but if I had to trace a pattern I’d say our nouns faded first.” It’s great fun to read, there are plays on words and satiric jabs at several trashy trends in contemporary culture. Yet the story has an underlying loneliness as it turns from the wider society back to the narrator’s relationship. “I tried things that were wordless: I took your hand and pressed it, but feelings meant nothing to you. We were always words apart.”
If you were to make a checklist of social issues of general European relevance over the past couple of decades, it might include: the transition from communism, rapid pace of change, immigrants from outside Europe, economic boom & bust, shallowness of contemporary fads and manias, anonymous life in big cities. Such issues rarely make an appearance in the fiction in this volume. I am not sure why this is so, I only wish to note it.
One exception is Aixa de la Cruz’s story True Milk. This story toys with the idea that the newer generation is becoming increasingly conservative. On the level of ideas it’s a lightly-futuristic romp. But then it hits at a visceral level and becomes a thoroughly original horror story. It made my stomach churn, and I’m not speaking in metaphors.
Petrescu’s picaresque account of a misspent youth in communist Romania instantly grips the reader’s attention. Part of the fascination is this insider glimpse behind the iron curtain, to a life where nothing ever functioned quite the way it should: not trams, nor television, nor electricity, nor even a jazz band.
Martynova’s story Hospital Room Nr. 13.54 has a dense texture of layered thought and incident. It features a professor recuperating in a hospital and looking out the window a lot. That sounds like a recipe for a yawnfest, but it’s actually one of the most interesting and witty pieces in the collection, even if it inevitably ends as it began, with the professor lying on the bed thinking.
Returning back to concept-driven stories, here’s a premise: what about a maverick thinker who seeks to reassess man’s relationship to one of his most intimate products, his own shit? “I realized that, whatever the norms of civilization might dictate, once we lost contact with our own crap we lost contact with earth, nature.” This deviant philosopher soon wants to move beyond theorizing: he wants to take action. Any takers for this one?
What I’d love to see is Joanna Walsh take on this idea of fecal-allure from the Slovenian Brulc, while Brulc cranks out a story based on Walsh’s conceit of people losing words to speak with.
A highlight for any reader will surely be the story by the Welsh writer Meredith. His precise and luminous prose is a delight to read. A young couple have a romantically-charged meeting at a stile by a field. The world is vivid to all their senses, and they seem joyfully present in their bodies. Sensuality is skilfully conveyed with an almost Blakean mystic appreciation for the cleansing of the senses. Gradually we come to know that these two young people are avatars for a couple in a geriatric ward.
I found this story particularly disturbing. Our lives are predicated on the inevitabilities of aging, on realities that cannot be obviated. But with this virtual-reality equipment we can take on younger bodies and live in the landscape of our choosing. Life becomes wish-fulfilment without limits. The reality – for those with any interest in reality – is a muttering geriatric in a hospital ward, barely capable of finishing a jigsaw.
There were many stories in this collection that I loved, many others that I admired. There were a few duds that were easy to read, but didn’t have much at stake. The story translated from the Irish was a disappointment of this kind. And the final story is the longest in the book, but its insistent ‘hysterical-realist’ style bored me.
The preface by Enrique Vila-Matas is a strange and wildly-wrought thing. It is like a prophetic vision that can only be sustained in the small hours, a vision which will dissipate when confronted with pleasant company. At first sight this preface seems to bear little relation to the stories in the anthology. “I dream of a spiritual insurrection, a rebirth. And yet I sense an attraction to the apocalypse,” he writes. He describes himself as “a writer who seeks words in order to reign in a paralyzing kind of horror that drives him to an endless vertigo …” And later there is the extraordinary sentence: “Now then: how do I manage, when I am talking in front of my Saturday friends, or when I speak or write for the press on the theme of fragile Europe? Naturally, by telling them things I do not remotely believe …”
The stories in this anthology by and large do not directly concern themselves with the matters that Vila-Matas broods on: Europe sheathed in its death shroud, totalitarianism, dreams of apocalypse, loss of faith in democracy, a rebellion against an excess of skepticism. I find them as a whole optimistic about the role of fiction in probing out truths of human experience.
A mention of the process by which the writers or pieces were chosen would have been helpful. Or even a mention of the editor’s (or editors’) name(s). It seems to have been omitted by mistake, and the publisher did not respond to an email query.
About the reviewer: Aiden O’Reilly lived for nine years in Eastern Europe and is now based mainly in Dublin. He studied mathematics and did research into a quantum mechanical dynamical system. He has worked variously as a mathematics lecturer, translator, building-site worker, and property magazine editor. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly (x4), The Prairie Schooner, The Irish Times, and The Dublin Review (x3). In November 2008 he won the biannual McLaverty Prize for short stories. His debut short story collection Greetings, Hero was published in November 2014.