-Reviewed by Rebecca Burns-
I haven’t read much in the way of translated texts before so this was my first exposure to many of the writers featured in Best European Fiction 2013. And, as the editors of the anthology might hope, as too the individual writers, I was so struck by the quality of the work that I plan on reading more by the authors in the future.
Introducing European writers to a wider audience is the anthology’s ambition, as cheerfully alluded to in the Preface by John Banville and Introduction by Aleksander Hemon. Yet Hemon is not fixated upon sales, more the continued ‘flow of communication’ between writer and reader; Banville is keen to celebrate the ‘infinite undependability of words’, the endless negotiation between origin and meaning that emblemises the act of translation. The writers picked for this anthology range across every country in Europe and the quality of their prose is very high.
The opening story in the collection is a cracker. ‘Before The Breakup’ by Balla (Slovakia) is a powerful exposition of an overbearing, unspecified sense of threat. Miša, the central character, has ‘something’ growing behind her TV set. We never learn what this ‘something’ is, only that it is ‘moving sinister, slowly and inevitable’. We discover that a similar, unidentified thing appears in Miša’s friends’ apartments, driving them out, controlling their behaviour in so much as they pretend it isn’t there. Is this thing a representation of the interference of the state, alluded to by the link one character makes between the thing and ‘actually existing socialism’? Setting this interpretation aside, the story is a great precursor to a collection of European writing.
Similarly, ‘My Creator, My Creation’ by Tiina Raevaara (Finland), is riveting. It is a story told from the perspective of a female robot, designed to cater for her male creator’s needs. The reader is jammed into the robot’s consciousness from the shocking and very first line: ‘Sticks his finger into me and adjusts something, tok-tok, fiddles with some tiny part inside me and gets me moving better […].’ Such a sentence is evocative of the transgressive control the creator has of the robot. She is programmed to conform to the traditional female role, being demure and friendly, and amenable to men. This is not, however, a straightforward story of suppressed outrage or a cry for emancipation. It is more complex than that; indeed, it is a touching love story. The robot strives to connect to her creator, beyond occasional moments of ‘stroking’. The narrative moves along in elliptical, jerky phrases, mirroring the robot’s attempts to understand her growing emotions and make sense of her existence. It is also incredibly sensual, for all the talk of metal and wires:
After that keeps me on later in the evenings, strokes me more slowly than before, maybe he wants to smooth my lumps and bumps, remove the dark oxides from my case, maybe he wants to make me gleam. When it is already far into the night—I have never been on so late in the night—he sighs, touches my innards, and switches me off.
Tiina Raevaara is a writer I want to read again.
The style of ‘Angels on the Inside’ by Dulce Maria Cardosa (Portugal) is different but no less moving. A young man recalls an incident from his childhood, which was essentially a moment when his brother was almost hit by a car. The story is written in an unobtrusive manner with the odd, heart-tugging phrase thrown in; the man and his brother were cherished as ‘our mom was proud of us, more than she was of anything else in life’. Cardosa’s straightforward style allows a sense of foreboding to develop, though the danger is not apparent until the very end of the tale. She is also adept at capturing the sense of being a child; tiny outrages and disappointments produce fleeting emotions as the boys ‘still felt everything in a provisional sort of way’. Lovely, lovely.
There are other gems: ‘Music in the Bone’ (Tomás Mac Símóin, Irish), about a man who is compelled to conduct an imaginary orchestra; ‘Migration’ (Ray French, Welsh), in which a son grieves for his father, suffering from dementia, whom we eventually learn has died; ‘When the Glasses are Lost’ (Žarko Kujundžiski, Macedonian), where characters are trapped in a lift and represent society in microcosm, with all its suspicions and distrust.
There are stories within this Best European Fiction collection that I will revisit again and again. The editor’s ambition – that the collection will encourage readers to pick up books by European writers new to them – has worked for me.