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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Best European Fiction 2015

I’m going to drag out the Enrique Vila-Matas theme for at least another day!!!  One of the collections I have recently acquired is the Dalkey Archive Press “Best European Fiction 2015” work, an anthology of twenty-seven writers from generally smaller “overlooked” countries such as Albania, the Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, but more on that later...the 2015 edition of this work, which commenced with 2010 and has been released yearly, has an introduction by Enrique Vila-Matas himself. In his preface he looks at “translation as a language”.

Now where I am normally gripped by his style, his meanderings, side notes and references to the everyday process of writing, this introduction left me a little flat. Unlike other writings by Vila-Matas, the language seemed a little jarring, the flow stilted, could this be the translator?

Yesterday I went back to the alleyway that I had never come across before. And I noted again the frozen, glacial gust. At some point, I thought, someone will certainly end up asking me for a light, or will try to assault me, or will make me believe they are going to shoot me, and finally will shoot me and kill me.
Behind lowered blinds I seemed to hear a voice that said the alleyway did not appear on any map. I imagined running across pimps, small-time conmen, exceptionally lascivious hookers, vagabonds who smiled at me ominously.
The sordid climate of the alleyway did not keep me from meditating, though my thinking, it is true, showed itself increasingly incapable of escaping the sordid climate created by what I was imagining about that very place.
I was coming to understand that we are afraid.
It is the fear of Europe.

The translator was Adrian West, whereas the books I’ve read by Vila-Matas have been translated by Anne McLean, Anna Milsom and Rosalind Harvey. This could simply be a case of different translator, different end result, which of course gets me thinking. I could well have dismissed whole works by writers purely based on the translation. I could be biased towards a certain style of translation, not necessarily a certain language, it may be that some languages (Italian and French for example) become, for me, more accessible once moved into English. But surely a too broad a statement, how on earth am I going to pick the wheat from the chaff? I can’t simply have a listing of translators where the work I’ve read I did not enjoy and then avoid them in future, it may have been the original text. Then again, I can’t write off a writer based on a single work, it could well have been a poor translation. What a conundrum??

However I digress, the preface may have just come from Vila-Matas on an ordinary day, a day where his red notebook was bulging with other ideas and the concept of introducing a “Best of European Literature” collection was too much of a chore. In summary, it is my least favourite work of his, and of course this won’t put me off his books, I will be approaching other books by him, as well as reading other works translated by Adrian West (if they come my way). But I will have a keen eye for another mismatch.

Onto the work itself and to Dalkey’s credit there is a decent female representation in this collection. The fact that they published ZERO works by women last year has not influenced this collection with eleven of the twenty-seven works being written by women.

However I’m not going to look at any of the women’s contributions in this review, I will save that for Women in Translation Month, where I will attempt to post every single weekday of the month, something about a female writer in translation, whether that be a review of a full book or at least a highlight of a single writer and her work (chosen from this book and “A Thousand Forests In One Acorn” collection of Spanish writing, as reviewed yesterday). The intention is to highlight writers you may not have come across before, writers who do not have the breadth of work available in translation – a taste of what you can explore if you want to delve further.

So onto a couple of contributions by the men from this work.

As part of my reading of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for 2012 I thoroughly enjoyed Diego Marani’s “New Finnish Grammar” and as he was included in this anthology with a piece titled “The Man Who Missed Trains” (translated by Elizabeth Harris), I thought this was as good a place as any to start.

Our story opens with our narrator, an employee of the train station cafe, comparing famous train stations to different types of women, but the real story here is about an immaculately dressed man appearing amongst the homeless who has a habit of missing trains:

Missing trains: this was the man in white’s special skill. His business card to his new group of friends. Taking a train is automatic; anyone can do it. Nothing’s required, you just show up on time, buy your ticket, and drink your coffee while you wait for the train to roll in. After you’ve found your seat in a car, every minute’s exactly like the next. The departure’s over before it begins. But missing a train is just one precise moment. Arrive a moment too soon or a moment too late, you’ve missed the point. A moment too soon, you haven’t missed the train at all; a moment too late, the train’s already gone. And you can’t miss a train if it’s already gone. Missing a train also means renouncing everything that could come with that train; it means side-stepping one life and choosing another. Every train’s a journey, and every journey’s a place, and we’re never the same from one moment to the next. By letting the door handle slip away from his sincerely reaching fingers, the man in white became a juggler of possibilities: every train, like every pin, was different. What mattered was the gesture, the acrobatic move. Of course, not all trains were equal. Missing the local for Codigoro wasn’t the same as missing the intercity for Udine. But the man in white missed each and every train with the same flair, the same love.

Our narrator who “suffered” and “reveled” in train stations, finds out where our man in white, Zlarko, sleeps, and he needs to locate him to find a missing train, one which has moved into a different time zone, a train that’s arriving 20 years too late!!

I then moved onto Balša Brković, from Montenegro and his story “The Eyes of Entropija Plamenac” (translated by Will Firth). This is set in the future, the time of “simbies”, disposable, simulated beings:

Oh it’s a long story...Today’s world is ruled by ecological inspectors. And ecology has become a dangerously broad concept – it’s the ideology of our age. They say that everything, absolutely everything, can be “polluted” – not only the soil, the rivers, and the air, but also language, art, and science. If they label you a “polluter” today, you’re as good as snuffed out: no one will talk with you, no one can give you a job, and you even lose all welfare entitlements and civil rights. But that’s common knowledge. Bodo is one of the few, ever rarer people who believe it’s possible to lead a different life; they live in communes out in the wilds and do their own thing...But the masses are convinced they’re effectively avoiding history. Decades of turmoil have convinced people that total control is justified, as I’m sure you know.

This is a futuristic tale (of course), a “1984” on speed:

Curiously enough, they haven’t banned the word “freedom.” They’ve given it a new meaning instead. Today it relates exclusively to free time, in the sense of the time you spend outside your corporation.

A visionary piece highlighting what the human race may become, or are we already there?

I then moved onto another piece translated by Will Firth, the Macedonian Aleksandar Prokopiev and his very short fable “Snakelet” (“This fairy tale should not be told near stagnant water...”). The story of a man with a trained pet snake, who has lived as a hermit in a cave for five years. Suffering loneliness he decides he will return to the city with his pet. A meditation on friendship and trust quite deftly told in three pages.

Again, this is an anthology which can serve to introduce us to new writers and translators, a collection where we can explore the surface and style of writing from lesser known parts. Another worthwhile entry point for people who would like to explore the world of translated fiction a little more.

Stay tuned though for more highlights from this collection as next month I explore the women featured in the book as part of Women in Translation Month – maybe a new highlight is about to come my way?

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