I hesitated to buy this book because it had this ridiculous superlative “Best”. But then the cover auto-remedied its own deficiency by declaring that this collection is edited by Aleksandar Hemon with a preface by Nicole Krauss, both writers I have previously read and liked in The New Yorker.
I read this book in complete web2.0 seclusion: my smartphone was on airplane mode, I had no access to wifi, no access to any library or bookstore or human being to share my reading with, and so this book proved particularly difficult for me. I wonder if one is “permitted” when reading collections to skip some stories when nothing makes sense anymore…
The idea behind this collection is that Hemon selects one story from each European country, or more precisely from each European ethnicity. This is the reason why Spain, for example has 3 stories translated from Galician, Castilian and Catalan. Surprisingly, Italy has none. The stories are grouped according to 8 themes: love, desire, family, thought, art, home, work, evil. Apparently, special effort was given to translation, as Krauss notes it in the preface: there are writers and translators’ biographies and I appreciated that. When I had access to wifi again, I checked Dalkey Archive, the publishers of this collection, and it seems they specialize in publishing out of print books, writers that few publishers want to work with, and of course works in translation, precisely because American audience, publishers claim, are not too keen on translated works. Their website even has a growing page of interviews with contemporary writers, such as: David Markson, Cortazar, Kundera, etc…
Under the category Love, I liked Patricia de Martelaere’s (Belgium: Dutch) My Hand is Exhausted, a story about a pure moment of love between a painter and her model, examining along the way painting, or perhaps the creative process, as impossible to separate from the emotions of the creator. I loved the character of Esther, a woman who endures her monotonous life while being fully conscious of its monotony.
Esther lets them talk and listens. She listens very carefully, but actually she’s not listening. Listening is a form of looking . Watching how a face changes when the lips form words.
She despises them because they come all the same. The only ones she doesn’t despise are the ones who don’t come.
This Strange Lucidity by Augustin Fernandez Paz (Spain: Galician) tells the story of the beginning and the end of a relationship told from the perspective of the guy’s dog. I had to re-read the first passage because I could not imagine that the main narrator would be a dog.
I’m not blaming him, routines end up sticking to the skin as if they were part of us. When I think about it, everything I do is a routine. If you could see me, you’d realize, after standing by his side for a few minutes, that I always grow impatient and start running up and down the pavement, without ever leaving the area between the corner shop and the greengrocer’s. Sniffing here and there, at tree trunks, lampposts, garbage corners, building walls.
Santiago Pajares’ (Spain: Castilian) Today is a story that I loved because it’s one of the few that I found quite funny. It deals, as its title tells, with the protagonist’s daily life, his one and a half relationship which at the start of the book has ended and the changes that happen with him at work, changes against which he has no saying. I think we all find ourselves in such a situation when we decide, today or tomorrow, that we will be changing something with out daily routine, something to keep the negative vibes away.
It’s not that I haven’t gotten laid in a year and a half, of course that’s not it. I’ve had sex with three women. I met all three in a bar – not in the same bar – and I asked all three if they wanted to get breakfast the next morning, but they all declined. They had to get to work. All three of them worked on Sunday.
I work for a technology company, a midsize company that’s been acquired by large corporation, so that even though I still work in the same office, and the majority of my colleagues are still around, our logo is different now.
Desmond Hogan’s (Ireland: Irish) Kennedy left me quite disappointed. I was looking forward to the Irish stories in this collection, but this one felt bland, and talks about difficult neighborhoods, crimes, etc… The opening paragraph made me want to skip it, but I thought it would be unethical to do so: A nineteen-year-old youth is made to dig a shallow grave in waste ground beside railway tracks near Limerick bus station and then shot with an automatic pistol.
One of the stories I loved was Armin Koomagi’s Logisticians Anonymous. It’s funny and smart, and talks about an expert in logistics who is so efficient in his work and in reorganization of businesses that he once fired himself to improve efficiency. It’s quite a different take at the current corporate world obsessed with cost-cuttings and competitiveness and its implications on our own daily lives, us who populate the corporate world.
The order in which I laid down my clothes on my chair before going to bed, the precision with which I portioned out the toothpaste onto my brush each morning, likewise how precisely I could fold toilet paper into the right shape for wiping my bottom, in what order I placed groceries in my refrigerator, and the logical means by which I conjured the last drop our of the ketchup bottle – none of this earned me the faintest esteem in my wife’s eyes.
France & Norway
France was “represented” by Marie Darrieussecq, and this was another disappointment as the editor chose a sort of a preface she wrote for the catalog of photographer Jeurgen Teller’s exhibition. On the other hand, I was completely taken by Bjarte Breiteig’s Down There They Don’t Mourn. In this story a student at a vocational school takes an escape from his swimming class and together with a friend goes on destroying the content of the classrooms along with the students’ projects. The violence that is quite visible in his acts made me wonder why a Norwegian would write about violence and destruction until I read the author’s biography bit in the book, and recalled the massacre that Anders Breivik committed.
He slaps his hand against the kiln door and laughs when he sees me jump. He gropes his way along the far wall, opens the supplies cabinet, and shoves everything aside. The he climbs up onto the shelf. The door creaks shut after him, and for a few seconds I hear him rummage around in there, but then it goes quiet. I figure he’s just sitting there waiting for me to open the cabinet, and when I do, he’s going to let out a roar or throw something at me.
This story is one of the reasons why I liked this collection and even ordered the 2014 one. In a quick glimpse of 10 pages at most, one gets a feeling of a distant society and the issues that people have to deal with. Strangely, this reason is also why I find foreign literature difficult to read, since I sometimes am not familiar, except vaguely, with the socio-political construct of a certain country, or with the personal background of a particular writer.
Switzerland & Serbia
Another disappointment was Noelle Revaz’s (Switzerland: French) The Children. It’s the story of the children of a pension who, one day, are asked to gather in the yard and the headmistress informs them that she and her husband must leave to attend to a certain matter and will be back later during the day. She gives them advice on what to do during her absence, and the extends those advice to matters they might attend to at night in the case of them being late. Over time, the time the headmistress and her husband grows longer and the advice become of a different nature than simple chores. I though the story had amazing potential but towards the end it felt a bit moralizing and too literal for my taste.
Michael Stauffer’s (Switzerland: German) The Woman With The Stocks is another light story that I enjoyed because Lebanon was not affected by the financial crisis that hit the US and Europe and this short story provided another take on the effects of this crisis on normal people than the news did with their grim coverages and the political orientations their stories take.
Marija Knezevic’s Without Fear of Change is a nice, light story about career change, and changes in general in our lives, told from the perspective of an actress in a telenovela whose role in the soap opera goes into a series of changes as a result of the personal changes that go into the love lives of the producer of the show.
Sanneke Van Hassel’s Pearl is one of two disturbing stories in this anthology. It is the story of a woman who becomes pregnant against her wish and the changes this pregnancy brings to her daily life and to her relationship. The story disturbed me because it made me wonder what system of values do we still possess in this day and age? And incidentally what is this moral reference point that keeps but also reinforces our humanity.
I hunt through my old college books for heroic role models from literary history, becoming absorbed in confessions by Anne Sexton and Sylvia PLath. The head in the oven, tea towels under the kitchen door. Poets of dispair, stylizing for all they’re worth. Sometimes I read a story by Colette; She perseveres in love, despite the ragged edges, the insoluble tensions.
Passiontide by Maritta Lintunen is a story I enjoyed reading, because it was written without any complexities, no confusions with respect to time or characters and it deals with family. It is the story of the 70-year old narrator who opens the story lying on the ground, amidst cake ingredients. We later learn that she slipped on the ground while preparing food and baking desserts for her boy who will be visiting her during Easter. The story is told from this perspective, a helpless old lady, stuck to the ground, listening to the radio programs, and with no food nor liquid available except those that dropped to the floor when she slipped. Such a story would not be deemed credible in Lebanon: it is impossible, no matter where one lives, that one ends up spending 5 days on the floor of his/her own house without somebody calling or passing by or being worried of them not calling or passing by. But this is another contrast between societies, made stark through the power of short stories.
The first thing I saw was round, domed shapes: golden brown and yellow, smeared with egg whites and sprinkled with sanding sugar – dozens of little buns scattered before me. [...] I took all of this in without understanding any of it, and then drifted off into a deep sleep once more. I woke up again, after an indeterminate period of time, to the same view.
The Case of M, by Clemens Meyer is a story inspired by true events of a pedophile. If I got it right, the pedophile’s actions are told by an inmate, a rapist but not a pedophile. What’s disturbing about it is the recounting of the stalking of this little 8-year old girl. It has such a narrow focus that the reader doesn’t have the space to breathe, and it felt quite plausible, before I knew it was a true story, that it made pedophile stories one hears about in the news more real because they could happen anywhere, in the blink of an eye.
You had enough time, mind you, you spent days watching her, imagining over and over what it must be like, how it must feel, but when you’ve done what you’re planning with her, what then? And where do you put her? You didn’t think of convincing her to keep quiet, like some pedophiles do, did you? No, you came straight out with the tape when she’d only been sitting on the sofa for two minutes.
All in all, I liked this collection. The stories weren’t all straightforward and easy to digest, but their advantage to me – and this was highlighted in the preface – is that they gave me a different take on the issues that are affecting Europe. By a different take, I mean different from the one I get reading newspapers and magazines and blogs. These stories present characters, they take the time to develop the characters and their surroundings, even though they are short stories, they showed me how ordinary people cope with the changing world. Packing the lives of ordinary people in short stories, offers the reader the much needed advantage of staying away from political colorings that frequently taint the news as reported by the media. Lives change independently of political strategies, partisan calculations or changes in economic orientations. The human being will find methods to cope, some are time-tested, some are unorthodox, some are criminal and some decide to just quit.