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America First?

Best European Fiction 2010

edited and with an introduction by Aleksandar Hemon, with a preface by Zadie Smith
Dalkey Archive, 421 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Americans do not read enough foreign fiction. The accusation is made by Aleksandar Hemon in his anthology Best European Fiction 2010, and again by Edith Grossman, celebrated translator of Don Quixote, as well as many other Spanish works, in her Yale lectures, Why Translation Matters. Only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the US are translations, we are told. Hemon sees this as another manifestation of “culturally catastrophic American isolationism”; Grossman feels that the resulting incomprehension of foreign cultures has dangerous implications for world peace. Thus both these publications that invite us to experience other cultures do so within the frame of a polemic at home.

Hemon’s anthology arranges thirty-five stories in alphabetical order of the country of origin, from Albania to Wales. The initial impression is that it offers one piece from every European country, except in cases where a country has two languages; so Belgium, the Republic of Ireland, and Spain all have two contributions. However, we then notice that Europe’s largest country, Germany, is not represented at all, nor are Sweden, home of the Nobel, Northern Ireland, an area of great political sensitivity, Greece, the source of Europe’s richest mythology, and the Czech Republic, home of Franz Kafka, to whom so many of the writers pay homage in personal statements at the end of the book. Wales, which has a large and lively Welsh-speaking community, is represented only by a story in English, and Switzerland, with its three official languages, by one story translated from German.

Represented” is hardly the right word. Many of the stories do not take place in the writers’ native countries: the pieces from Castilian Spain and Serbia take place in France, the French story in Japan, the stories from Poland and Macedonia in Austria, the story from Croatia in Hungary, the story from England in France; most curiously, the story translated from Gaelic tells of an old blind clairvoyant in rural Bolivia.

I have no problem with this. All the contributions are interesting and some impressive. That is enough for me. But it does make one wonder whether we are learning much about other cultures from this venture, whether it is true, as Hemon claims, that “ceaseless” and “immediate” translation of literature from abroad is a “profound, non- negotiable need.” Similarly, as if in response to Grossman’s concerns about eventual conflicts brought on by cultural isolation, frequent references here to the recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another. Remarking, in her short preface, on this reluctance of the anthology’s contributors to be identified with their national cultures, Zadie Smith nevertheless feels that

if the title of this book were to be removed and switched with that of an anthology of the American short story, isn’t it true that only a fool would be confused as to which was truly which?

Truly, truly, aside from superficial markers like names and places, or the fact that it is fairly easy to distinguish translated texts from those in their original tongue, I am not sure that Smith is altogether right. It seems to me rather that as we tackle intriguing stories from Latvia and Lithuania, Bosnia and Macedonia, we are struck by how familiar these voices are, how reassuringly similar in outlook to one another and ourselves.

This affinity is most evident in the stories that take a satirical approach. The Slovakian Peter Krištúfek imagines a city given a cosmetic facelift for an international summit, as a result of which it now “contained numerous phantom doors that led nowhere and false windows that could not be opened.” Ornella Vorpsi pokes bitter fun at male attitudes in Albania, a place where a woman is encouraged to “sew up her slit” when her husband is away, since Albanian men “have a highly developed sense of private property.” Julian Gough indulges in surreal farce to expose the extent of Irish xenophobia and backwardness. Each writer appeals confidently to an international liberal readership at the expense of provincial bigotry and hypocrisy.

This is equally true where humor is renounced for more direct denunciation: Polish writer Michał Witowski recounts the fate of a Slovak rent boy in Vienna; Croatian Neven Ušumovic´ tells of an illegal immigrant in Budapest tortured by local youths and eventually rescued by the local Chinese. It is as if literary fiction didn’t so much reflect other cultures, obliging us to immerse ourselves in the exotic, but rather brought back news of shortcomings and injustices to an international community that could be relied upon to sympathize. These writers seem more like excellent foreign correspondents than foreigners. Across the globe, the literary frame of mind is growing more homogeneous.

The many different narrative forms used in the collection, though frequently “experimental,” are, again, hardly unfamiliar; stories are fragmented, seen from different angles, in ways that make it interestingly difficult for us to decide how much reality to attach to them or how much emotion to invest. Again this is in line with an eclectic renunciation of any absolute version of events. In personal statements included at the back of the book, writers mention such models as Kafka, Borges, and Barthelme, suggesting that narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.

Both the Austrian Antonio Fian’s “While Sleeping” and the Slovenian Andrej Blatnik’s “You Do Understand” offer a half-dozen densely plotted melodramatic fragments whose witty and disquieting juxtapositions leave us confused between engagement and detachment, at once intensely aware of how varied human experience can be, but also of how ultimately equivalent. Either piece, one feels, could equally well have come out of America, or the Orient for that matter. Christine Montalbetti’s account of a breakfast that may or may not have taken place with Haruki Murakami focuses precisely on a notional meeting of cultures in an experimental literary medium, the French writer’s style both emulating and pastiching the Japanese. Her opening sentence suggests a déjà vu that is frequent as one reads through this collection:

Murakami spoke to me, he was addressing me, but really, I felt as though none of his sentences had been composed especially for me. The things he said were well used, he was drawing from a stock of phrases that he must have tried out a thousand times before, as though we were still in his bar and he was playing a record for me, many records in fact, having decided to make me, me in particular, listen to them, naturally, but having chosen all the selections long before.

Translation matters, Edith Grossman tells us, because without it we would not have books like Best European Fiction 2010, or indeed any literature written in other languages. This is self-evident. She also insists that American publishers have a special duty to foreign writers since without an English translation their work cannot compete for international literary prizes, in particular the Nobel. While it is debatable that American publishers need concern themselves with Nobel ambitions around the globe, the remark does hint at differences between the forces driving translation in Europe and America.

Both Grossman and Hemon applaud countries like Germany, France, and Italy where translations account for perhaps 50 percent of published fiction. What they do not say is that all but a few of these translations are from English and take the form of genre novels, detective stories, thrillers, and so on. So commercially successful are these books in a country like Italy that the newspaper Corriere della Sera splits its best-seller list into domestic and foreign fiction, since otherwise there might be times when domestic authors would not feature. Some publishers concentrate almost exclusively on translations, freeing themselves from the arduous task of finding and fostering new writers in their own language.

Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism? Grossman says she is at a loss to understand the American reluctance to translate; the fact is that in Europe there is enormous public interest in America as the world’s first power and the perceived motor of changing mores. American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America. This gives them a celebrity value; readers want to read them. An equally good Polish author talking about Poland is simply not considered interesting and will very likely not be translated. Indeed many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries.

Since many people have come to share a vision of the novel as a peculiarly liberal art, related, for better or worse, to journalism, dedicated to the construction of a better future through an account of the present, and deeply hostile to anything that curbs the freedom of the individual, it is not so surprising that we are moving toward a literary internationalism whose driving force, at least at the commercial and popular level, remains, for better or worse, the mainstream American novel.

It is ironic here to find Grossman quoting a Nobel Prize judge claiming that Europe is still the center of the literary world; this is wishful thinking on the Swede’s part. European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition. If Americans translate little it is partly because all eyes are turned in their direction. That said, a University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?

Grossman is at her best when she focuses on the special blend of skills and experience required to translate and least helpful when she bemoans the inability of reviewers to comment intelligently on translations. She is concerned that a reviewer able to examine translation against original may only look for semantic errors, yet she feels that not knowing the language of the original text is no excuse for not remarking on its translation. She fiercely objects to reviewers praising the “author’s” style without acknowledging that the writing is actually the translator’s. However, when it comes to giving a positive example of translation reviewing, all she can do is admire this statement by James Wood in a piece on Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace:

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