for The Independent
If anthologies are often books that we buy but neglect to read, then Best European Fiction 2013 deserves to be an exception. For four years, Aleksandar Hemon has edited this annual collection of translated stories which display the possibilities of short fiction and negotiate what Hemon calls "accelerating history". This time, John Banville provides a preface, 32 countries are represented, and strong writing resonates across regions.
In his introduction, Hemon says the stories are "imperfectly translated" but what does he mean when he warns that they are also "proudly difficult"? Must difficult fiction combine dense language with unconventional structures, or can it include realist depictions of strange events which leave us not knowing what to think? "There's nothing worse than a reader with blind faith," says the narrator of Lasha Bugadze's "The Sins of the Wolf", a Georgian satire in which a novelist's assumptions are challenged when a girl demands to meet his characters.
To attribute some excellent contributions from south-east Europe to historical trauma diminishes the imaginative achievements of Borivoje Adasevic, Mirana Likar Bajzelj and Semezdin Mehmedinovic, but war features prominently for each. Adasevic's "For a Foreign Master" uses layers of narration to expose brutality between Serbs, while Mehmedinovic, who left Bosnia for the US in the 1990s, exhibits in "My Heart" a feel for words' materiality which makes palpable "the taste of cement on my tongue". He compounds a claim in Banville's preface: "There is verse, there is prose and then there is poetry, which may be conjured in either medium."
Comparisons become inevitable when subjects recur. Ray French's "Migration" looks unsubtle in the same book as Miklos Vajda's "Portrait of a Mother in an American Frame" and Bernard Comment's "A Son". Each confront the deaths of parents, but the ambiguous emotions Vajda's Hungarian expresses towards his mother, and the mixture of pity and scepticism inspired by Comment's narrator, are more interesting than the Welsh writer's reflections. The pretend experiments of Eloy Tizon's "The Mercury in the Thermometers" pale in the light of Beledian's virtuosity.
The Romanian author Dan Lungu's "7pm Wife", which draws a disturbing picture of a man who expects warmth and dependability from prostitutes, is one of several accounts of the Continent's murkier precincts. In "Madame Zabee's Guesthouse", Marie Redonnet imagines a Parisian brothel where displaced people cross national and sexual boundaries but remain powerless to alter their fates.
Loss of home and language is ubiquitous, but there's comedy to savour in Zehra Cirak's "Memory Cultivation Salon" when an old lady smooches a teenage boy as reward for exhaling smoke rings. In Tomás Mac Síomóin's hilarious "Music in the Bone", an Irishman conducts "the most magnificent orchestra that performs in the deepest depths of my soul".
The stories collected are moving, haunting, funny, powerful and, yes, difficult. More than a list of adjectives, however, they warrant attention. A slightly hectoring credo accompanies the Best European Fiction series – namely, that we don't read enough literature in translation – but the likelihood that you will relish this anthology's depth and variety is reason enough to read it.