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Best European Fiction 2014, Preface by Drago Jancar - Review


Several stories in Best European Fiction 2013 were so haunting that it feels like the 2014 anthology has come around too quickly. Time flies when you’re discovering innovative literature in translation, although perhaps “discovering” is the wrong word when some of this year’s contributors, including Norway’s Kjell Askildsen, have been publishing in their own languages for decades, while others, such as France’s Eric Chevillard, have been translated into English elsewhere. Readers from the UK can feel like Johnny-come-latelies at the continental fiction party but that’s no reason to be discouraged. This annual anthology, which in 2014 contains 28 contributions from across Europe, derives its richness in part from placing celebrated authors alongside emerging voices.

For the first time since Best European Fiction’s 2010 inception, Aleksandar Hemon relinquishes editorial duties. Where thoughtful words from John Banville and Zadie Smith set the tone in previous years, the Slovenian writer Drago Jancar uses part of his preface to condemn the publishing industry which, he claims, “demands and rewards superficiality”. The writers who suffer most for Jancar’s windbaggery are those included here, because it will alienate readers. While introducing an anthology, which is marked by a decline in production values, Jancar is unwise to slate publishers for operating within their means. 

Another own goal is scored at the beginning of Vladimir Kozlov’s “Politics” – the first and weakest story – when a dense footnote explains that “protests rallies … were frequent in Belarus between 1995 and 1998”. Other stories are similarly hampered by writers’ determination to connect fiction directly to real events. In “The Curious Case of Benjamin Zec”, Elvis Hadzic’s “skeletons hugging each other in a heap” alludes to one of recent history’s atrocities. At its conclusion, however, the Bosnian author’s dedication – “To the victims of the Srebrenica Massacre” – immediately grounds the story in the world outside and denudes it of some intensity.

The strongest stories thrive on internal coherence. What’s happening in Mox Mäkela’s hellish “Night Shift” where place and time feel immaterial? “My brain is crawling. Over my back and away,” says the narrator of Inga Zholude’s “Dirty Laundry”, an existentialist meditation on what we leave behind and the slipperiness of self-knowledge. Tom McCarthy’s nimble “On Dodgem Jockeys” radiates wit and ideas, but England might also claim the collection’s standout story because the Spanish writer Susana Medina was born in Hampshire. Whether riffing on “the luxury of frigidity” in an age of erotic saturation, or comparing dreams to waking life, Medina’s “Oestrogen” conjures rare intellectual power. 

Olja Savicevic Ivancevic’s “Adios Cowboy” shows globalisation exploiting the cultural vacuum created by war, but other translations sound blandly Americanised as Belgians watch a “whole bunch of movies”, Latvians queue by “standing in line” and Spaniards “go pee”. There are plenty of typos which wouldn’t be too problematic in isolation but, added up, become irritating. Previous Best European Fiction anthologies were categorised by themes so the decision to alphabetise these contributions by nationalities looks like lazy editing. Perhaps the publishers should have followed Hemon’s lead and given the series a year off.