Florian Duijsens reviews Best European Fiction 2012 and the 2011 International Literaturfestival Berlin



At last November's International Literaturfestival in Berlin, authors Priya Basil and Nam Le spoke about Le's wanderlust, discussing the way both he and the short stories collected in The Boat sprawled across the globe. In an inspired response, Le explained that going to new places and breaking his routine was a kind of class in kismet, a way to force fate's hand and bring new people, new places, and new feelings on his path.

Reading a collection of stories as wide-ranging as those in Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2012 (BEF2012), edited by Aleksandar Hemon, has a similar effect. The editor's wanderlust brings together a selection that is perhaps not as strong across the board as last year's (which introduced me to Verena Stefan, Peter Adolphsen, and Ognjen Spahič, among quite a few equally worthy writers), but will still reveal new bright spots of international literature for readers ordinarily sequestered in their own linguistic spheres.

Some stories had lines, phrases that got stuck in my head (the Hungarian phrase 'here's where the dog's buried', meaning 'that's the root of it' from Zsófia Bán's "Where There Were Only Animals", set near Captain Scott's hut in Antarctica; or "The town is full of people whose diagnosis is unknown but whose condition obviously requires immediate hospitalization." from Andrej Nikolaidis' "The Coming"), some featured characters with perfect back stories (Serhiy Zhadan's "The Owners" revolves around a 'civil rights advocate' and member of the "Boxers for Justice and Social Adaptibility Association", previously the owner of a sandwich place turned gay club that's called, yes, "Sandwiches"), while others were revelatory in their totality (or their simplicity).

Maja Hrgović's story "Zlatka" is the simplest of these. In Tomislav Kuzmanović's translation, her vivid and often witty language presents a decaying, hideous Zagreb that's transformed through love. The one livable room in the protagonist's apartment, for instance, is introduced as grimmer than grim:

The wardrobe looked like a vertically placed coffin into which someone very clever had installed shelves. A large square window opened upon yet another horrible one-story building and just barely let in enough light to give a sense of what I was missing.
But then, after she runs in to her hairdresser at a dinky local "Balkan Drum & Bass" night and ends up going home with her, the city around her seems different, not necessarily brighter or less gray, just somehow more alive. Love stories are hard to wind up without cloying or mucking up the tale, but Hrgović's ending makes this one of the smallest, sweetest stories in this year's edition.

Noelle Revaz' "The Children", a much darker kettle of fish, has an allegorical threat level closer to Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery". This story of a happy orphanage whose children are deserted by their much-loved headmasters and forced to fend for themselves may sound like just another Lord of the Flies or a Haneke film in synopsis, but the denouement is much more elegant than that, turning it into an effortless parable on parenthood.

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At another Berlin Literaturfestival reading last Fall, gifted author Adam Haslett noted that most of his contemporary American literature feels politically lobotomized, never openly engaging with the fascinating complexes of money and power. While many stories here also take place in a political vacuum, one even daring to reinvent the "Sixth Sense" plot from the perspective of a dog (an unsuccessful update, I'm afraid to say), a surprising number of authors stray outside the familiar worlds of daily life and romantic love. The story that felt most topically acute came from neutral moneyhoarding Switzerland, Michael Stauffer's "The Woman with the Stocks", about a woman drawn deep into the current crisis: 

The woman had rarely before racked her brain over whether she had enough money or not.Now she would think for hours about nothing but money. She followed the development of her stocks' market value, which had not interested her for twenty years, and it was as if the woman with the stocks' life now only developed in step with this value.The woman with the stocks read the numbers and didn't know where the money had gone, but she could not help thinking it had to be somewhere.
Addressing the banking bubble and the growing urge to protest is tricky, as things can easily devolve into unproductive forms of blind idealism or equally uncircumspect cynicism, but Stauffer uses a fabulist form that is neither overbearing nor slight, and translator Dustin Lovett conveys a dry tone well suited to the stylized material. 

My biggest revelation in this 459-page anthology, however, came from Ireland and was originally written in English. Despite having published several novels and writing acclaimed short story collections in the 1980s, Desmond Hogan, a contemporary of Ishiguro and Carey, seems to have fallen off the face of the earth in the 1990s, first plunging into Berlin's demimonde, then disappearing and reappearing in the world of the Irish travelers. The story of his that Hemon selected for this collection, "Kennedy", is set in Limerick, where Hogan lived in a caravan amidst curious gypsies.

Hogan's prose is radical in its line-by-line juxtaposition of different subjects, voices, and tones. The story thus snappishly switches between lyrical descriptions of local flora ("creeping cinquefoil"), to the lives of the saints, to the brutal murder of Kennedy, the young snitch who gives the story its name. Hogan's bright dialogue and his sharp use of language ("warfare orange hair", "a shaven headed boxer who looked like a defurred monkey or a peeled banana") ensure his criminal subjects are neither exploited nor glorified. It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I immediately after reading broke a New Year's resolution against impulse online shopping and ordered Hogan's entire back catalogue. 

In the end then, we are blessed with Dalkey Archive Press and editor Aleksandar Hemon's Best European Fiction series, as this 2012 edition once again indulges a voracious reader's wanderlust and at the same time honors the work of writers and translators working to tell stories of Europe in its widest possible interpretations and hallucinations. 

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In closing, a few notes on the Berlin Literaturfestival, which despite its obvious passion for books and writers from all over the world is suffering from some stodgy presentation strategies: All international authors, no matter their native language or the audience's potential familiarity with it, are paired with an actor who does the lion's share of the session's readings in translated German (often reading an extended version of text read by the author just minutes earlier).

At Gary Shteyngart's appearance, for instance, the self-deprecatingly witty writer hardly got a word in edgewise about his prescient novel Super Sad True Love Story, sandwiched as he was between an actor on his one side and a stern moderator on his other, one who seemed out to show that funny people aren't trusted to tell us the truth, let alone our fortunes. 

The wonderful translators who make this ventriloquism possible are hardly ever named, let alone given the chance to reveal what makes their work so infuriating or worthwhile. By silencing the author and hiding the translator, not even discussing their role in adapting the work for a different audience, and hiring a well-combed actor instead, I cannot help but feel doors closing, opportunities evaporating, discussions being quenched.

To extend my rant to the greater local cultural climate, it always fires up my inner anger, my complete intolerance even, to find cultures dubbing movies and even interviews with foreign dignitaries or historical witnesses, thereby literally erasing people's voices and substituting them with painstakingly adapted and redacted sentences deemed appropriate for audiences assumed too dumb to be able to read subtitles.

By their very nature international literary festivals should break down this hegemony of majority languages and embrace different ways of translation as the key to opening up smaller languages to a wider audience; just as it opens up audiences in smaller language areas to literature and experiences from people speaking and writing languages with a broader base.

My plea then is for greater transparency in readings like this, for embracing the technological advances that enable projections or subtitles for literary readings, and for recognizing the translator as the crucial intermediary, the actor that truly counts in the complex negotiation process of introducing one culture's stories to another.



Florian Duijsens (Asymptote's Senior Editor) is a writer and editor, was born in the Netherlands, and was schooled in the United States. His travel journalism has appeared in The Guardian and National Geographic Traveller, and his music writing at Askmen.com and elsewhere on the Web. He has a serious addiction to buying batches of Amazon Marketplace books and uses this to satisfy his various literary hungers—Virago early feminist classics, YA trilogies, gay fiction, and the 'lyrical essay', among many others. His (non-lit) blog and Twitter feed provide further indications to his splintered attention span.