Unreliable Voices From Europe

Bruce Robbins

The first sentence of the Slovakian writer Balla’s “Before the Breakup,” the opening story in Best European Fiction 2013, goes like this: “Miša discovered there was something in the apartment.” The narrator never describes the something, but it is ominous, attentive, and located behind the television. It is also associated with Miša’s growing unease about the state of play between her and her lover or boyfriend or husband. In the last paragraph, after feeling herself watched intently by the something, which has moved from behind the TV to underneath it, she wonders “what she and Jano wanted from one another.” It’s as compelling a mystery as the nebulous intruder, which does not receive a fuller explanation than this, and does not require one. But the real point of the story is not that Miša and Jano are headed for a breakup but that what they are suffering is not after all an alien visitation. The population is accustomed to these bad, nameless somethings that move in with long-term couples. Miša tells a friend she thinks she’s going round the bend. The friend tells her she’s right, “but nobody will notice you’re mad. It’s a collective madness. You’re no different from anyone else.”

Leading off a much-praised collection, this exemplary madwoman seems to represent what’s new in contemporary European fiction, at least according to Aleksandar Hemon, editor of the Best European Fiction series: a pleasantly relatable voice that hints at the dark imponderability of everyday things and also her own darkness, but does so without threatening to drag her readers down into that darkness. Now compare this with Lu Xun’s “Diary of a Madman” (1918). The narrator of that classic Chinese story comes little by little to suspect that the people around him are concealing a terrible secret, namely that they are cannibals. He decides that even his brother is a cannibal; the death of their sister, many years before, must have been murder. Lu Xun’s narrator too may have gone round the bend. But whether he has or not, he also sees a collective madness, an uncomfortable social truth that is both widely shared and casually denied. Twenty-five years ago, in his notorious essay “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism,” Fredric Jameson put it like this: “In their desperation, disguised and indeed intensified by the most traditional forms and procedures of Chinese culture, [his fellow citizens] must devour one another ruthlessly in order to stay alive.”

He sees a collective madness, an uncomfortable social truth that is both widely shared and casually denied. 

The family resemblance between these two stories, each straddling the line between realism and allegory, the first from today’s Slovakia and the second from China a century ago, suggests that it would be a mistake to expect novelty from the metropole and slavish imitation from everywhere else. Or, to put this another way, it suggests that literarily speaking, we are now living in One World. Which is impious—we are supposed to deplore the McDonaldization of everywhere—and intriguing: does this mean Europe has become more like the Third World in the last 20 years? That may be a relief to all concerned.

Jameson’s “Third-World Literature” essay became notorious because it seemed to argue that, for the purposes of literature, we are not living in One World. First World writers, Jameson said, had largely lost the ability to see in their characters’ private experience the fate of the larger collectivity to which they belonged. He praised Third World writers for having kept that ability and for displaying it in potent allegories of the person-in-the-nation and the nation-in-the-world. Understandably enough, however, many Third World writers balked at the idea that producing national allegories was their glory and, therefore, the literary job they were obliged to perform. Who wants to be stuck forever doing the same thing, however praiseworthy?

In fairness to Jameson, he did not see national allegory as in itself either Western or non-Western. (It didn’t even need to be national—often he seems to mean “political” or merely “public.”) What happens in Lu Xun’s story, Jameson wrote, is “an unveiling or deconcealment of the nightmarish reality of things, a stripping away of our conventional illusions or rationalizations about daily life and existence”; in the next sentence he added that this effect is also characteristic of “western modernism.” So it is. That’s why the same effect can function so well in Balla’s something-in-the-apartment story. Whether we see them behind the TV, or while watching the latest zombie story, we learn that cannibals are no different from anyone else. Brecht couldn’t have said it better.

For better or worse, a number of the writers included in Best European Fiction 2013 seem to have self-consciously assumed the task of representing their countries. This return of national allegory may be a reluctant response to the same market demand for self-exoticization that weighs so heavily on writers from the old Third World. If so, this would not prevent it from also satisfying Jameson’s criteria for political seriousness. On the other hand, it may just be that readers from place X cannot be stopped from reading fiction as a source of information about place Y—if not necessarily as a guide to how people in Y eat or vote or do their hair, then at least as evidence of how people there feel about all those things, even as reflected in the dark mirror of madness. Good luck to anyone who thinks that geopolitical curiosity of this sort can be legislated out of existence. Whether or not fiction is born representative, it will almost certainly have representativeness thrust upon it.

Hemon, a talented Bosnian-American novelist, seems a bit ambivalent about the national representativeness that he has edited into his collection, or perhaps merely failed to keep out of it. Each story’s nation of origin is given at the top of the first page, above the title and author, as if it were more important than either. But the nation is printed in a miniature, squint-inducing font and is enclosed by square brackets, as if, after all, the editor and/or the publishers were ashamed of mentioning it and had been forced to against their better judgment.

For better or worse, a number of the writers included in THE Anthology seem to have self-consciously assumed the task of representing their countries.

It’s not hard to understand the mixed feelings. Hemon favors stories that recall the worst about their fatherland. In a Basque story, two Franco-era thugs learn from the French judge who sentences them the meaning of the phrase “carte blanche,” a non-idiomatic expression for what they once had, as the Spanish regime’s designated murderers, and now would like to retrieve. It’s a genuinely European moment. The following story, nicely interwoven thematically with its predecessor (as many of the stories are), deals with the rape of the Serbian narrator’s 47-year-old mother during the internecine violence of the 1990s, a rape that explains why he has chosen life in exile (as many of these characters do). The Serbian story quotes Joyce on Ireland (as an old sow who eats her farrow) and, like Lu Xun’s story, it has its traumatized narrator say that in a state of mind like his, “people seem to laugh differently, walk differently, react to you differently.”

But other stories find craftily disguised ways of embracing their nations. The Spanish contribution, about an old Spanish widow in the provinces who does nothing but sigh and cross herself, bestows on her an unexpected past: an unusual love story that accounts for her seemingly stereotypical stagnation. If this is allegory, as seems plausible, then the story is also doing a bit of national self-justification. Ditto for the Hungarian story, “Portrait of My Mother in an American Frame.” Here the adult son’s effort to make peace with his once imprisoned, now exiled mother requires making peace with her aristocratic ancestry, which (he adds) “is mine too by the way.” But the story doesn’t let us forget that this family’s embrace of its pre-Soviet aristocratic lineage involves looking with real contempt at those whose table manners differ, however slightly, from their own.

Some American readers may wonder whether complacency like this is merely national or also continental. They will perhaps expect European writers to be somewhat flustered over Europe’s relations with the non-Europeans who are clamoring to get in or, once in, who are made to feel unwelcome. If so, they are likely to be disappointed. It’s true that there is ample representation of the longings at Europe’s periphery in this collection. In the Moldovan story, a folk music rehearsal intended for an audience of Italian Communists turns out to entail preparation for seeking political asylum in Italy. The Armenian story, set at a scholarly conference in the present, flashes back to the Paris of May ’68 as the distant capital of modern desire. In the French story, an Algerian former revolutionary works in Paris as a night watchman in a transvestite brothel. The brothel, like Paris and like the anthology, is a sort of multinational microcosm of Europe as desired object. The same might be said of a pleasantly dizzying Russian fantasy of Marienbad in the 1920s, which is simultaneously a tribute to “Last Year at Marienbad,” to the lives and afterlives of literary figures like Kafka, and, finally, to Europe’s former position as the very tip of the avant-garde.

But actual non-Europeans are thin on the ground. To the extent that their situation in Europe is recognized, it is by the most indirect of abstractions. A good example is the volume’s second story, whose first sentence, through artful editorial arrangement, recalls that of the collection’s first tale: “It was stifling summer outside when everything suddenly stopped.” The event referred to here as “everything” turns out to be a stuck elevator, trapping a small group of unnamed people. Like José Saramago’s Blindness (1995), the tale identifies its characters only by age, gender, profession, or clothing, not by name, and it omits national setting as well. The story is unabashedly allegorical. Its subject, however, is not the nation but social collectivity as such: the willingness to share (water, candy), the eagerness to blame (I can’t find my glasses; therefore, someone must have taken them). The characters’ sense of shared fate, the “invisible and mysterious feeling that their captivity had created,” is ironically interrupted by their rescue, but the note on which the story ends is the glasses, discovered by the cleaning lady where they were dropped. That’s as far as the moral goes: beware the impulse to blame, which is forever seeking a scapegoat.

No one expects fiction to offer an hourly news report, even fiction that’s up-to-date enough to refer to the illness of Christopher Hitchens and to a character’s desire to be Slavoj Žižek. It would be unfair to demand a sighting of the Spanish Indignados or an analysis of the effect of the sovereign debt crisis on youth unemployment. But perhaps we could have had more of Nordic noir, with its coolly disenchanted view of xenophobia and government corruption in Fortress Europe.

A number of stories here seem unreliable because of their will to avoid any possible unpleasantness. Some—for example, about parents who stand there and converse with you although it turns out they died years before—might not have been out of place in Reader’s Digest. Hemon shows no anxiety about being labeled middlebrow. In his recent memoir, he describes as follows his first encounter with the woman he will marry: “When a tall, beautiful woman walked out of the office to meet me, I instantly and unquestionably recognized her as the woman I love.” Emotional laziness like this detracts a bit from his sense of himself as offering “difficult and/or translated works of literature.” It’s true that almost all the stories here are translated. One that isn’t, a story by A. S. Byatt, features rather conventional dolls with rather conventional supernatural powers. Real difficulty, whether experimental in form or content, is not Hemon’s cup of tea.

<i>North African immigrants near Sicily</i> (2006). Photograph by Vito Manzari / Wikimedia Commons

In the story from Liechtenstein, a young lawyer draws a crowd by taking his clothes off and telling the onlookers they’ve been brainwashed by society. “Starting now,” he declares, “I will call myself a refugee.” He’s not a refugee, but his possibly deranged identification with Europe’s outsiders marks a path that some of the more subtly ambitious European fiction has been following. Take the best seller by the Dutch novelist Herman Koch, The Dinner. Two couples have dinner at a posh Amsterdam restaurant. Each course is described in detail. But it’s not about the food.

“We’re going out to dinner,” the narrator tells us in the first sentence. The restaurant is one of those where you have to make reservations “three months in advance—or six, or eight, don’t ask me. Personally, I’d never want to know three months in advance where I’m going to eat on any given evening.” The narrator would have preferred the unpretentious café around the corner, and by the time the appetizers arrive—miniscule delicacies surrounded by a vast emptiness of plate, the exotic origin specified for each still more miniscule ingredient—so would we.

This puncturing of culinary pretention is a trap for unwary democratic locavores—perhaps the word I want is localists. We fall deeper into it as we digest the fact that the reservation has been made by the narrator’s brother, a media-savvy national politician who gets gawked at in restaurants like this and knows it. There’s no doubt which side we’re on. The trap is sprung very gradually: Claire, the narrator’s loving and beloved wife, defends the right of black people to wear reversed baseball caps rather than becoming “a watered-down version of a white man.” Reversed baseball caps turn out to be an affectation of the politicians son, who has been adopted from Africa. A course or two later in the meal, we hear of the death by incineration of a homeless woman in an ATM cubicle. The sons of the two couples turn out to be involved in this hot bit of news, and what to do about their sons’ involvement—how to deal with violence toward the country’s marginal population—turns out to be the gravitational center of the dinner conversation. The novel came out in translation in February and people may already know what happens, but the plot itself is gripping enough to avoid spoiling it for anyone who still hasn’t read to the end. It’s not a spoiler to say that the visceral conviction you had about the chichi restaurant or about smooth celebrity politicians will be somewhat shaken.

Koch is making a backhanded case for European civilization by showing it through the eyes of its crazed but not unintelligent opposition.

The narrator is a history teacher who, we discover, has been suspended from his teaching duties for making belittling comments about the victims of the Holocaust. Extremely unreliable but also quite observant, he registers the look in the principal’s eyes just before a leave of absence is proposed. This look is the look of European civilization. Koch is making a backhanded case for that civilization by showing it through the eyes of its crazed but not unintelligent opposition, a narrator who adores his wife and son and both commits and condones violence against those he does not adore.

As it happens, this is much the same daring gambit chosen by the entertaining Francesco Pacifico in The Story of My Purity. This novel is also narrated by a right-wing fanatic—in this case an extremely reactionary Catholic who is editing a book that argues the Pope is secretly a Jew and belongs to a Jewish conspiracy. It’s a bit depressing to think that in the Europe of the 21st century, Jews can still count as definitive outsiders. Maybe they are easier to identify with than Europe’s Muslims, who vastly outnumber them? Be that as it may, our antihero moves from Rome to Paris, the despised center of Enlightenment secularism, and there gets to know and like a couple of relatively endearing Jews. With the help of one of them, he rekindles his affection for “a mythical European past” and even develops a Jewish alter ego named Rosenzweil. The fun having gone out of his fanaticism, he will have the same choice in the end as the lawyer from Liechtenstein: whether or not to call himself a refugee.

It cannot be simple coincidence that Giorgio Vasta’s Time on My Hands plays much the same game with its unreliable narrative voice, though this time from the left rather than the right. It is Palermo in 1978. Three 11-year-old boys decide to imitate the deeds of the Red Brigades, who have become famous for kidnapping and murdering former Prime Minister Aldo Moro. The boys wish to bring a comparable glory to their middle school. But their targets, a classmate who is a bit slow and a dark-skinned deaf-mute girl from the Antilles, give their kiddy-terrorist campaign a more up-to-date feel. In the loosely allegorical mode that traverses all the works under review, the story seems to be about Italy now, the narrator’s unreliability again marking the immense strain of holding together the scale of the personal and the scale of the national.

The Catholic narrator of The Story of My Purity is in comic revolt against the secular liberalism of his parents. Vasta’s narrator manages to avoid actual laughter, but is also in Dostoyevskian revolt against a liberal empathy he sees as characteristic of the flabby, clueless older generation. It begins: “I was eleven years old and lived among cats ravaged by rhinotracheitis and mange. They were warped skeletons with a bit of skin on them; infected: if you touched them you could die.” The narrator accompanies his mother every afternoon as she magnanimously feeds them. When her back is turned, he tortures one of them with a piece of rusty barbed wire that becomes his fetish object. Later he kills this cat, “a natural cripple.” His act has allegorical resonance with both Italy’s resilient fascist past and its present, where borders are being reinforced to keep out those who don’t naturally belong and who would otherwise make excessive withdrawals from scarce resources, financial and emotional.

<i>Aldo Moro during his detention by the Red Brigades</i> (1978). Fabioriuni.eu / Wikimedia Commons

Empathy for the poor has nothing to do with the children’s version of left militancy. They speak standard Italian and feel acutely superior to the Sicilian dialect speakers around them. A conversation with the maid is as alien to the narrator as a conversation (he has them) with a pigeon and a mosquito. In each case, he seems to be doing both voices himself. There is never the slightest idea that the friends’ actions might be intended in any way to benefit their neighbors. Aloof and hostile, they seek only to distinguish themselves and to break out of “the inertia that governed our family life.” Does this stand for the inertia with which Italy is governed? Perhaps. Well into their copycat plot, one of the boys asks, “Who says we want to win?” They dream of becoming “inevitably defeated but proudly defeated, and therefore invincible even in our own defeat.” It’s exactly what they diagnosed in their nation.

Which is not to say that this is where the plot is fated to go. Aside from the crippled cat, the narrator’s other object of fascination is the dark-skinned, deaf and mute fellow middle-schooler whom he calls “the Creole girl.” Is she too a “natural cripple”? What the boys do to or with this vulnerable outsider is the question on which the plot will turn. The narrator suddenly recognizes a new impulse in himself: “to guard the helpless, to take care of the vulnerable.” Will the Creole girl be taken care of in the benevolent sense, or taken care of in the sinister colloquial one? The ending is much less interesting as a judgment on 1978 terrorism than as an allegory of European unity in 2013: how will Europe deal with its outsiders? Perhaps the topic is too large to be dealt with except in the mode of madness, which pervades the final pages. It’s as if the unreliability of the child-narrator had finally registered on his own consciousness, or as if the world had to be tilted by madness in order to be seen as a whole.