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A break today from the Brazilian stuff to mention an event I went to this week at the South Bank Centre. It was an evening of readings and discussion to promote a new Dalkey Archive book entitled Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksander Hemon. Accompanying Hemon were three of the book’s contributors, Christine Montalbetti, Jon Fosse and Andrej Blatnik.
Hemon opened with an introduction to the project, wherein he outlined the somewhat startling statistic that only three percent of the books published in the States every year are works in translation. Apparently the statistics are similar in the UK and, when you consider that this fraction includes translated classics, you’re looking at very few books reaching us from beyond the English-speaking world.
An audience member asked Hemon what could be done to improve the figures mentioned above. Hemon raised a copy of Best European Fiction 2010 and tapped it. And it’s true, this compilation is a step in a really positive direction. It’s no surprise that a collection of literature drawn from across a continent of fifty countries is incredibly diverse. I’m sure I’ll end up writing more about the authors therein (particularly one outstanding piece by Jean—Philippe Toussaint, Zidane’s Melancholy) but for now I’ll stick to what was read at the event, a suitably varied selection in itself.
Christine Montalbetti kicked things off with her story Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami), reading from the original in French and then handing over to her interpreter to continue in English. The other two writers likewise began in their native tongues, giving their listeners a chance to experience the rhythm of the piece and the feel of the language in which it was first composed. It transpired that Montalbetti’s use of an interpreter was incredibly modest: her English was impeccable when it came to discussing her piece, which is an imagined conversation with Haruki Murakami in a Tokyo Hotel. What’s interesting about the account of the conversation is that Montalbetti doesn’t focus on what was said. She focuses instead on the experience of the exchange, the setting and the physical sensations of interacting with another person. No dialogue, in fact, is presented. I found that as I progressed through the story and realised that this would be the case I became utterly captivated. Montalbetti documents an experience running parallel to the exchange of words, deeper and at times paradoxical: the experience of being incredibly distant from another person while still in close verbal communication with them. It’s fun and clever and I look forward to reading Western, the only one of her novels currently translated into English.
Jon Fosse was up next, a very distinguished playwright in Norway, a chevalier of the Ordre national du Mérite in France, and a theatrical and entertaining presence at the event. He was both outspoken (in one humorous exchange writing off crime fiction in its entirety as a kind of death porn) and able to draw on an incredibly successful career to add to the discussion of the nature of translated work that followed the readings. Fosse writes in Nynorsk, a language spoken by only about ten percent of Norwegians and something he holds dear and ‘second only to God.’ He was able to talk at length about the ways translations reach us: with his work often passing through multiple translations to reach its audience (since it’s unlikely that a speaker of another small language will also speak Nynorsk, they’ll need to use the English translation as the basis of their own, leading them to create a kind of copy of a copy). His contribution to the book is Waves of Stone, which in form is a kind of counterpoint to Hotel Komaba Eminence (with Haruki Murakami), since – as befits a playwright’s piece – it consists almost entirely of dialogue. From just those two examples you can see what range there is in the compilation.
Slovenia’s Andrej Blatnik was the final reader. I’m a big admirer of the kind of fiction he presented: the very short kind variously called flash fiction, the short short story or the prose poem. Stories that are less than a page, perhaps just one paragraph, but which are dense in meaning and moment. They require a poet’s sense of economy and structure, which is a rare thing to come by. Blatnik read two of these: Separation and Sunday Dinners. The latter is about the narrator’s grandmother’s stuffed duck dinners, and her insistence that they continue come rain or shine, war or peace. But war is in fact breaking out, and the family are loathe to attend the dinners. In the space of twenty three lines, Blatnik uses this domestic bone of contention to evoke the sense of uncertainty and distrust that modern conflicts create in everyday life. This is done with the lightest of touches. Indeed, Blatnik has thirteen stories in Best European Fiction 2010, all of which are so elegantly put together that you can scarcely believe he has managed to convey so much with so few words.
I could go on, and probably will do, about other stories in this book, but for now suffice to say that the positive side to the startling dearth of translated European works in English is that, should publishers start to do something about it, they’ll find whole heaps of hidden gems waiting for them. That’s if the evidence of this volume is anything to go by.
Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksander Hemon, is available from Dalkey Archive.