Tag: Best European Fiction

Best European Fiction 2015: Rudan and Petrescu

BestEuroVedrana Rudan, ‘My Granddaughter’s Name Is Anita’
Translated from the Croatian by Ellen Elias-Bursać

A woman lies in bed, unmoved by the attentions of her husband. He tries to pleasure her by stimulating different parts of her body, but none of it works; instead, the woman dreams about things she does enjoy – mostly shopping and clothes:

My head is in the closet. I am sniffing my blouses. I count them. Forty-three colorful babes watch me merrily. White, green, red, pink, pale green, the color of water, black. I even have one the color of dirt. A big, dull, dark-brown blouse. I don’t dare take it out of the closet because it is a gift from my husband. When he gave it to me, I thought, God, you know nothing about me. A dark-brown blouse. A mound of dirt by a freshly dug grave.

Ellen Elias-Bursać’s translation is full of such choppy rhythms that evoke the narrator’s restlessness, but also her raw emotions – desire and repulsion. Her feelings about clothes may be genuine, or magnified by the dream state; either way, they’re a sign that she’s uncertain about her life and herself. She clings on to material things that aren’t actually real, but shies away from sensations that are.

The title of Vedrana Rudan’s story stands out because it’s a seemingly throwaway line that has nothing much to do with the main story. But it opens up an entirely new context in which to view the narrator: as a grandmother, someone with ties beyond the immediate sphere of her marriage (which is all we really see in Rudan’s tale). The story illustrates that even the simplest-seeming moments can reveal emotional complexity, and may show just one facet of a life among many.

Răzvan Petrescu, ‘G-text’
Translated from the Romanian by Alistair Ian Blyth

Well, this must have been fun/interesting/challenging/frustrating to translate: a monologue full of long, rambling sentences, with plenty of G-sounds. For example:

[…]I hated the open air grills, and the claws of the griffon that fluttered above us on odd-numbered days, I hated the glaring lies, the gladioli, the unquestioned chacun à son gout that was always questioned, but not Simon and Garfunkel, and Gogol, and Dizzy Gillespie, and Sartre’s gagging in Nausea was crushingly minor compared with the apocalyptic work of my nausea.

It’s a fabulous piece of translation by Alistair Ian Blyth. The Gs wax and wane, but the voice of Răzvan Petrescu’s narrator is always there: angry at the past and Ceaucescu’s regime – the music that was banned, the trams that didn’t run, and much more besides – a voice that feels as though it has been waiting for a chance to speak, and seizes the moment with an unstoppable torrent of words

Best European Fiction 2015: Djørup and Lenz

BestEuroAdda Djørup, ‘Birds’
Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken

Teresa, a professor of English, writes to her partner Alejandro to explain why she has gone away without warning. Something like that, anyway:

I should say right away that my story is not an explanation, that I am not even sure myself how it is to be understood. I doubt even that it may be a story at all, for perhaps the beginning does not hang together with the middle, the middle with the end.

Teresa is not quite sure what has happened; but something changed in her when she started spitting out live birds. The line in Adda Djørup’s story that really struck me was this:

All those highly abstract and perhaps quite meaningless words about being oneself… But the birds are real, Alejandro[…]

I love the way that this inverts the standard order of fantasy and reality: the mundane things – thoughts and emotions – are elusive; the impossible birds are the only thing that Teresa feels she can hold on to. Martin Aitken’s translation is dense and discursive with introspection; but, for all Teresa’s words (which, of course, are her tools and her living), they aren’t enough for what she’s experiencing now.

Pedro Lenz, ‘Love Stories’
Translated from the dialect of Berne by Donal McLaughlin

Any work in translation is a duet between author and translator – something that’s notoriously easy to forget as a reader. But it’s perhaps more noticeable in the case of ‘Love Stories’, because Donal McLaughlin has chosen to translate Pedro Lenz‘s series of character sketches from the dialect of Berne into the dialect of Glasgow:

The wee nurse
checked the infusions,
footered aboot wi the switches again
then—a bit embarrassed like—
an’ left us
oan ur ain again.

The layout, by the way, is in recognition of the fact that Lenz often performs these as spoken-word pieces. So one’s very much aware that these are voices, and the dialect invites the reader the reader to imagine what sort of individuals these might be. I imagined Lenz’s speakers as ‘ordinary’ folk for whom expressing their emotions might not come naturally. But these acute emotional portraits – a son and his dying father; a woman making a public performance of a phone call to her lover; a man who longs to visit Thailand again – remind us that, if you look, there’s really no such thing as an ordinary person after all.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.




Best European Fiction 2015: Raud and Evtimova

ReinBestEuro Raud, ‘The Demise of Engineer G.’
Translated from the Estonian by Matthew Hyde

The narrator tells of his old friend G. – engineer, philatelist and gourmet, who threw the most fabulous dinner parties in an age when ingredients were scarce for most people. He also had shelves of literature: books he never really read, but which often had curious printing errors Somewhere in all this is the key to the riddle of how G. died.

Rein Raud’s story is delightfully oblique, shorn of the specific details that might enable us to work out exactly what’s going on: it’s mostly just G., his friends and his food. And what food it is:

In his masterfully planned menus one delicacy followed another, such that the most subtle nuances of flavor of every dish created a marked contrast with those of the succeeding course…at exactly the right speed for each subsequent taste to cut into the previous one at the very last moment, when the surface of the tongue, slightly straining, still wanted to keep the fading aftertaste in the mouth, so that the first new aromas had the best possible impact.

Though Matthew Hyde’s translation is capable of bringing to life sensations like that, there’s a certain fustiness about it which gives the sense of a tale being dredged up from the past, complete with the distance that implies. We can hazard a guess as to why G. met his fate; but all we really know is contained in the tale’s wry closing lines.

Zdravka Evtimova, ‘Seldom’
Translated from the Bulgarian by the author

A translator walks up the drab grey street, thinking about all the men who’ve forgotten her, and the banal novella that she’s translating. She comes upon a familiar-seeming car, whose driver turns out to be the author of that very novella. He offers the translator a lift to her office; but, as the car only moves when its passenger is happy, it could be quite a long journey…

I enjoyed this story. Zdravka Evtimova’s prose is unassuming and understated, which only adds to the sense of ordinariness:

I thought one could hardly  dub “town” the dozen ramshackle houses and the narrow, asphalt road that touched the apathetic buildings and climbed to the black sky in the distance.

Of course, what’s going on – be it hallucination or something more mysterious – is far from ordinary; but the lightness of Evtimova’s touch makes her tale entirely persuasive. When the abrupt final lines come along, it’s like waking from a dream – for reader and protagonist alike.

Read my other posts on Best European Fiction 2015 here.

Best European Fiction 2015: Walsh and Armen

BestEuroBest European Fiction is an annual anthology from Dalkey Archive Press which gathers together short stories from all corners of the European continent. This year’s volume is the sixth, and I have it in mind to do a story-by-story review. Unlike previous times doing these, however, I’m not necessarily going to restrict myself to one story per post. I may as well start right now…

Joanna Walsh, ‘Worlds from the Word’s End’

This particular journey around Europe starts in England, with Joanna Walsh, creator of the excellent #Readwomen2014 project. Walsh’s piece takes the form of a break-up letter written by a woman who lives in a place where language is no longer in use. It started off as a hipster trend, then went mainstream: imprecision of speech gave way to silence, then no writing at all; until people lost the ability to name things ansd find meaning in words. Walsh’s narrator explains to her lover (who still lives in the ‘speaking world’) why she can no longer write to them:

As for me, you twisted my words and broke my English until I was only as good as my word: good for nothing, or for saying nothing. I stopped answering and that was the way you liked it. You told me you preferred your women quiet. You wanted to increase your word power? Trouble is, you didn’t know your own strength.

What particularly intrigues about this story is how slippery it all is: this world without words doesn’t quite ring true, especially when you have an individual from it who writes so fluently. The occasional deliberate grammatical errors made in reference to particular changes in the outside world feel almost like challenges to the reader: just try to imagine this! Metaphor slides seamlessly into reality, to create a world that looks coherent on the page – but try to hold it in your head and it evaporates, like the last flimsy ties of a dying relationship.

Armen of Armenia, ‘Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?’
Translated from the Armenian by Haik Movsisian

Here’s another story which has a sense of completeness, yet is difficult to encapsulate mentally. An ‘I’ challenges a ‘you’ to answer six-and-a-half Millionaire-style questions:

Send your list on February 29, and I’m obligated to make mine public on the same day. One million Armenian Drams are being wagered. You’ll get the whole amount, if all of our picks match.

The questions include ‘What do you want?’, ‘What are you looking for?’ and ‘What happened to us on February 29?’ – all with four answers, each implying a different interpretation of events. Are these people lovers? Hired killer and victim? Both? Armen’s piece – and Haik Movsisian’s nimble translation – jumps between different levels of fictional reality, leaving the reader to decide for herself. What’s clear, though, is that the most important question is the last one: ‘Loves me, loves me not?’ The answer to that question makes all the difference.

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