The Best European Fiction 2019 anthology begins with a particularly relevant message. In ‘Every Last One, Place and Date’ by Alberto Olmos, a man becomes a Google-like secret notary of his Spanish town, recording names of passers-by and neighbours and the dates of meeting them, until the time comes for him to pass the task along to someone else.
The anthology of thirty-two stories and excerpts by contemporary European writers is as diverse as Europe itself, but the stories are united by common themes of crises, migration, loneliness, and war.
In Vesna Perić’s ‘What Has She Done Wrong She Hasn’t Done Anything Wrong’, an ugly beautiful relationship develops against the backdrop of domestic violence and a refugee crisis in Serbia. Gábor Vida’s ‘The Other Side‘, from his recent book The History of a Stutter, explores family history alongside the Ceausescu regime and Hungarian nationalism in Transylvania, merging memoir and fiction.
In another favourite of mine, Ádám Bodor’s ‘Anatol Korkodus’ from The Birds of Verhovina, a delinquent boy from a reformatory school arrives in Verhovina – a godforsaken village in the lands of former abundance and natural beauty. Rumour has it that the only train to the village will be cancelled soon, and the rails will be dismantled and sold. It is clear that these are the last days of the village.
Olena Stiazhkina’s excerpt from ‘In God’s Language’ tells the story of Revazov as he retrieves the body of his ex-girlfriend’s husband from them – the new rulers of Donetsk, becoming Charon the ferryman of the newly dead.
In contrast to the Eastern European themes of war, violence and destruction, the stories from Western Europe focus on the more subtle but insidious crises of lost family and connections. In Caryl Lewis’s ‘Against the Current’, a Polish worker in Wales tries to save a drowning man, taking strength from thinking about his young daughter in Poland. In Hélène Lenoir’s ‘The Foreign Girls’, a mother of adult children faces loneliness in her marriage, realising that a decision has to be made.
Some of the stories were written in English, but the majority are in translation that is seamless and elegant – essential for reading literature in translation and allowing the reader to be absorbed into the rich tapestry of voices without feeling overwhelmed.
Any Cop?: Best European Fiction 2019 is a timely reminder of the fascinating world that exists beyond the English-language literature, but it is also a mirror to the contemporary Europe struggling with self-identification and loneliness.