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)
Cameraphoto Arte, Venice/Art Resource/© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome
Giorgio de Chirico: The Dream of Tobias, 1917

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…

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