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Sunday, December 19th, 2010
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Best European Fiction

by Aleksandar Hemon

The Pleasures of Diversity

A review by John Givens

Europe is a geographical entity, albeit one burdened with tumultuous histories. There is a founding myth of sorts: Europa was a Phoenician noblewoman ravished by Zeus in the guise of a bull. Most European countries participate in the European Union, and delight in its anthem: Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" (the fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony); its motto: "Unity in Diversity;" a day celebrating that unity: May 9th and/or May 5th; a serviceable flag; and 23 official languages, all of which on some occasions need to be translated into all others, creating a buzzing translation industry. Many European countries have adopted the Euro as a common currency, though with fraught results in times of economic crises. All these bureaucratic and monetary entities do serve to tie the area together, however, as does a delightful yearly song contest and a quadrennial football championship. But is there a "European" literature?

Aleksandar Hemon and the Dalkey Archive Press are to be commended for attempting to answer this question. That they have succeeded as well as they have seems miraculous. "Comment voulez-vous gouverner un pays qui a deux cent quarante-six varietes de fromage?" [1] Charles de Gaulle famously complained. Literature is at least as diverse as coagulated-milk-based food products; and Best European Fiction 2010 includes thirty-five writers from thirty countries (Belgium, Spain, Ireland and the UK have multiple inclusions to cover differing language groups or distinctive regional cultures), many of whom were unknown, at least to this reader, and discovering them is one of the real pleasures of this anthology. Some countries are missing. There is no entry from Germany, none from Greece or Sweden, nothing from Turkey. Eastern Europe is well represented, as are the Baltic States and the Balkans; Russia is included (although Belarus and Ukraine are not); and some of the most innovative stories come from areas which the anglophone world tends to associate with political and/or economic instability. That imaginative fiction is also being written there comes as a revelation: Ornela Vorpsi's wonderful The Country Where No One Ever Dies depicts an Albania never imagined and probably not soon to be forgotten.

Kafka's spirit hovers over some of these stories, with a sense of exhaustion in the face of a bureaucratic menace that may itself have lost vitality. Given the history of Eastern Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century, it is not surprising that the effects of an oppressive system should be experienced as a reduction in the ability of the individual to engage with the world -- and an increase in the yearning to do so. Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's "And All Turned Moon" portrays a bizarre future society in which death itself has become bureaucratized: "Once upon a time, people could just lie down and die, he thought with a touch of sadness. Now even death had been formalized." In "Friedman Space," Victor Pelevin crafts a comically bitter satire on the greed of Russian oligarchs with a bizarre take on the "scientific" nature of new wealth. The Slovakian writer Peter Kristufek's "The Prompter" pushes the trope of the Potemkin Village to a logical absurdity. A summit is to be held so local facades are rebuilt, and actors brought in to impersonate happy residents although "[t]he city's budget wouldn't allow for a sufficient number of extras to be hired, so the players all had to rush from one place to another at breakneck speed, depending on where the members of the delegation happened to be at that moment." It is a comic masterpiece, a bleakly whimsical dissection of the absurdities of authoritarian incompetence. Yet one of the most bitter satires of the anxieties experienced by the individual living in an overwrought state is by the Belgian writer Peter Terrin. "The Murderer" presents a world in which murder itself becomes an allowable procedure, albeit one governed by regulatory agencies.

The concern with bureaucratic processes in many of these stories results in a kind of weary acquiescence to the inevitable. Ennui may be a cliche European pose, and some of these stories read more like literary essays than traditional tales with character, plot and denouement. (We have come a long way from Maupassant or Chekhov.) Cosmin Manolache's wry visit to a museum dedicated to the somewhat meager Romanian contribution to the Soviet space effort ("Three Hundred Cups") is one of the most engaging pieces in the anthology, and seems to draw equally from W.G. Sebald and Nikolai Gogol. The Estonian writer Elo Viidig's story about the deleterious effect of the "superior" culture of the West is wonderfully comic ("Foreign Women"). While capturing the humiliation felt by an Estonia dependent on Western charity, it also moves into a broader criticism of the uncaring nature of the charity givers and the enervation of those who submit to it."

In addition to the ironic portraits of somewhat feckless citizens surviving in a malign yet incompetent state, there are stories that operate in a more conventional vein, with plot, characters, and even occasionally a resolution. "Didi" by Michal Witkowski from Poland portrays the brutal life of an Eastern European "rent boy" struggling to survive in the decadent West. Igor Stiks' "At the Sarajevo Market" captures the poignancy of the effects of war in Bosnia. A Chinese restaurant in Budapest becomes the improbable setting for Croat Neven USumovic's "Veres," an occasionally brutal if weirdly cheerful take on the spavined nature of our polyglot new European reality. The Irish writer Julian Gough's "The Orphan and the Mob" begins: "If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the mob would never have burnt down the orphanage," and then justifies this improbable causality with a hilarious skewering modern Ireland. Other stories that at least give the impression of adhering to the conventions of "telling a story" include: "Bulbjerg" by the Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt; "The Sky Over Thigvellier" by Steinar Bragi of Iceland; and "Resistance" by Stephan Enter from the Netherlands. That the so-called well-made short story functions as only one genre among many probably points to the healthy willingness to experiment found in this anthology, although what violates conventions is often a kind of self-conscious post-modernism. And some of these meta-fictional exercises do feel dated. French writer Christine Montalbetti's imagined breakfast with Haruki Murakami ("Hotel Komaba Eminence") seems little more than the product of an overheated imagination. The Portuguese writer valter hugo mae (sic) obeys all the rules of orthography except for the use of capital letters in "dona malva and senhor jose ferreiro" (sic), immediately leading me to wonder why. "Waves of Stone" by Jon Fosse of Norway also omits punctuation in places, yet is repetitive and corny in a faux-artistic manner. In what was probably the weakest offering in the anthology, Scottish writer Alasdair Gray's "The Ballad of Ann Bonny" cuts a pallid tale into poetic lines, complete with internal rhymes; it's hard to justify its inclusion.

Other "experiments" seem more interesting. The Finnish writer Juhani Brander's excerpt from "Extinction" is essentially a series of flash fictions that may or may not relate to each other yet are often funny, and are propelled forward by a manic energy. One of the most enjoyable stories in the collection is the Castilian writer Julian Rios's "Revelation on the Boulevard of Crime," which is set in Paris instead of Spain and seems intent on unpicking a mysterious daguerreotype that binds together events that may or may not have happened. It carries some of the expectations of metafiction that are found throughout this book but wears its self-consciousness lightly. Another story that marries "po-mo" tropes with character and plot (of sorts) is "The Basilica in Lyon" by the Serbian writer David Albahari. It begins: "The story begins in Lyon, but it could end anywhere. There are four men in the story, two policemen, five women, a couple of cameras, a bicycle (not visible), and an old soccer ball. The story has ten parts of differing lengths…" and so forth. There is a "story" here, a meandering and self-conscious one in which the idea of story is also treated as a character, but the self-conscious narrative device doesn't intrude excessively. Oddly similar to Albahari's story is "The Allure of the Text" by Lithuanian Giedra Radvilaviciute. It starts from the same kind of ironic distance that metafiction establishes then subverts it with "story" so effectively that occasional references back to the artificiality of the written text nevertheless fail to diminish the pleasurable qualities of conventional story-telling. It's a remarkable piece, and distinctly satisfying.

Perhaps one of the peculiarities of this anthology is the degree to which despite the homage paid to the great Europeans Kafka and Sebald and J.G. Ballard, some writers seem more influenced by Donald Bartheleme or John Barth or Robert Coover, American anti-realist writers of the last decades of the previous century. A unifying characteristic that ties many of these stories together is the expression of a need to confess to the artificiality of the lineaments of narrative fiction. Several stories adopt the pose of making do without character, plot, setting or dialogue -- to say nothing of narrative drama, rising action, and resolution; and they often read like skewed essays written by someone both overwrought and exhausted. This does not mean they do not work; many do. But even from within this sense of self-consciousness, the need to narrate, to regale, to inform, pushes forward often enough so that for all the artificiality of the form, there is still a place for conventional content.

That said, the best stories really are very good. The sense of diversity is inescapable, and for every exploration of self-conscious tedium there is an encounter with a strangeness that is not soon forgotten. The first of an annual production of anthologies of new European fiction, this book is a very welcome addition to world literature.

÷ ÷ ÷

[1] "How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?"

Born in Northern California, John Givens graduated from the California State University, Fresno, and earned his MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, University of Iowa, where he was also a Teaching/Writing Fellow. After serving as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea for two years, he studied language and art in Kyoto and worked as a writer/editor in Tokyo. For fifteen years, Givens was a creative director and branding consultant for advertising agencies in New York and San Francisco. He has published three novels: Sons of the Pioneers (1977), and A Friend in the Police (1980), both published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, as well as Living Alone (Atheneum, 1981). His new publication, a collection of short stories set in Japan in the last decade of the seventeenth century, is The Plum Rains & Other Stories (The Liffey Press, Dublin, 2010).

This review was originally published in Cerise Press.

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Co-founded by Sally Molini, Karen Rigby, and Fiona Sze-Lorrain in 2009, Cerise Press hopes to serve as a gathering force where imagination, insight, and conversation express the evolving and shifting forms of human experience.

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The Spring 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 6 of Cerise Press features Smoking, Chongqing, a photograph by Steven Benson.

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