“Gianluca, says Aleksandar after class, we’d like to hear about your favourite three things in the world, too. — H’m, an interesting game, starts Gianluca, looking at the ceiling, Football, that goes without saying, Jarrett’s Bridge of Light, and sleep. But if I could answer again, I’d say it was mostly stories. I could even say: stories, stories, stories.”
Villagers and tourists in a seaside resort, and the depths that lie beneath gossip, small talk and the breezy exchange of ideas. One man’s agonising over finding just the right spot to scatter his wife’s ashes. Students basking in ostentatious leisure, and taking turns to ask each other: what are your three favourite things in the world?
In Mere Chances, a short story collection by the Slovenian Veronika Simoniti, there is no strongly binding mood, emotion or thematic concern. Rather, the most pronounced common trait is of an author trying – straining – to be profound; to put some revelation on the table.
From one perspective, Simoniti is no different to any writer. After all, the raison d’être for many (most) is to share their preoccupations – make the world cry their beautiful words. But there is a tangible fixation on profundity here, at the expense of storytelling – and it is off-putting. Consequently, basic ingredients are too often left wanting. In story after story, characters don’t really develop. They fail to become living, breathing entities that the reader wants to invest in. Dialogue is over-dramatised or stilted. And plots twist with a ta dah! in mind. The end result is that these stories, concerning small lives going quietly wrong, lack ‘immersion’ – the reader is too often left skimming the surface.
Annoyingly, Mere Chances cannot be entirely dismissed as second-rate. In stark contrast to most in the collection, a few stories really come alive. Perhaps significantly, two of these concern the war in the Balkans, and those having to deal with industrial-scale death. ‘Portugal’, however, about a woman with terminal cancer going off-grid to make a trip she’d always planned, is deeply affecting – more so because it does not rely on the reader’s natural sympathy. It is, first and foremost, a story – one that the author gives room to grow and settle within the reader, and from which profundity naturally follows. (One is almost curious to understand how the author that wrote ‘Portugal’, could be satisfied with so much else in the collection…)
In The Stone Tide, the narrator is given to opine on European film, which he describes as something ‘…where terse sexual encounters and awkwardly slow discussions fill three hours before everyone dies in a random car crash.’ And from this reviewer’s admittedly limited exposure, this is a recognisable characteristic of European literature too. Stories on love, loneliness and death will never go out of fashion – and yet when compared to contemporary Anglo-American short fiction, these stories, barring notable exceptions, seem effete; a bit ‘yesterday’.
Any Cop?: Just occasionally, Mere Chances really sparkles – but too much of this collection is dense and disengaging.