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Books: Best European Fiction 2011

November 16, 2011

The second installment of the Best European Fiction series begins with a question: what does it mean to be European? While it is true that the issue of a common continental identity was on the minds of the editors and readers of the first collection, it seems an even more vital question today, in the face of changing Greek and Italian regimes, the threat of Euro-instability, of economic collapse. Nations as independent and as deeply cultured as Greece and Germany are coming face to face with a question of whether or not their commonalities outweigh their differences.

As Larry Rohter points out in the New York Times, “Certainly there is no lack of variety or daring in the work Mr. Hemon has assembled. Some of the writers…are well known, but several others are being translated into English for the first time. The oldest contributor was born in 1941, the youngest in 1981; both are women, who account for a dozen of the works chosen. There is even a story…from Turkey, a country that the European Union seems to consider insufficiently European, and also one from tiny Lichtenstein.”

Can commonalities be found here among such a varied cast? Among stories borne from Communist rule and other, lighter reads? Does this collection reflect what it means to be a European, or simply a European writer?

Interestingly, though the collection showcases the diversity of its contributions, some sort of a common aesthetic does emerge, regardless of subject or style. The stories here tend to be short, which I find incredibly welcome not because they are difficult to read, but because they are dense and thoughtful. The preface of this collection starts with a question; the introduction gives a recommendation: “I therefore implore you…to take your time and not rush…”

It is appropriate advice for the kind of work collected here–brief, rich, and varied. Approached in this way, with one story at a time, perhaps before bed, perhaps while you work your way through a novel, your appreciation is guaranteed. America has recently been accused of literary isolationism. With a collection like this, there is no excuse not to begin fighting that claim. Worth owning.

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