"Albania is a country where no one ever dies. Fortified by long hours at the dinner table, irrigated by raki and disinfected by the hot peppers in our plump ever-present olives, our bodies are so strong that nothing can destroy them." Stories often serve as cultural markers. In just a few words, Ornela Vorpsi manages to say something both satirical and profound about the Albanian psyche. It is an opening full of promise, not always lived up to, in this inaugural issue of an annual anthology.
Given that the editor, Aleksandar Hemon, is a Bosnian, it is no surprise to find a strong Eastern European presence. Czechs and Germans may like to know why they are not represented among the 30-odd countries covered and connoisseurs of the short story may be surprised to find that some contributions are extracts from longer works.
That said, they number among my favourites. Another joy is Michal Witkowski's bittersweet offering from Poland, relocating a Slovak rent boy in Vienna. Of the short stories, one of the best comes from an already celebrated Russian master. Victor Pelevin's "Friedmann Space" is a surreal take on the rise of the oligarchs in the 1990s.
The stories defy neat categorisation. The fact that many authors position themselves outside their own territory implies a degree of "European" integration. But many of the narratives are fragmented, suggesting a landscape of uncertainty, a breakdown in communication and questions about identity.
Even when touching on similar subjects, the authors are refreshingly diverse. Mortality and bereavement, for example, are repeated variously in Portuguese Valter Hugo Mae's ghost story; in Jon Fosse's Nordic cliffhanger; in a Scottish ballad by Alasdair Gray; and the Bulgarian Georgi Gospodinov's futuristic tale.
Not only is Best European Fiction 2010 a worthwhile attempt to introduce readers to some contemporary literary trends in Europe, it is an enjoyable and intriguing journey.