Monday, February 22, 2010

Greek Fiction: Is it European?

As often happens when I go into a bookstore, I emerge with more books than I planned to buy. Or with entirely different books than I planned to buy. Frequently, I go into a bookstore vowing that I will only scan the titles—the way you might take in familiar paintings in a museum—and not buy any more books until the pile on my nightstand, desk, dresser, windowseat (you get the picture) is read. I invariably fail.

Just last week, I went into my local independent to buy Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project. I had read an essay by Hemon, or an article about him, several months ago and had been interested to find out more about his Balkan viewpoint. I ended up ordering a copy of The Lazarus Project, but did leave with another Hemon creation: his edition of Best European Fiction 2010, published by Dalkey Archive Press and with a preface by Zadie Smith. The boldly designed cover and the feel of the book in my hand were compelling enough. The content was, I felt confident, sure to intrigue.

I have yet to verify that assumption. But I do have a question. The table of contents is organized by country, beginning with Albania and ending with the United Kingdom. As a testament to the multiplicity of Europe’s nations—and perhaps a reminder that that whole Euro Zone thing might have been an idea against the cultural trend?—there are double entries from Spain, Ireland, and Belgium, covering the main languages spoken in those countries. There are three entries from the UK, recognizing the distinct literary aesthetics of England, Scotland, and Wales. The volume brings together between its yellow and black covers former foes and former countrymen, from within the former Yugoslavia and beyond. Interestingly, the cover manages to evade allusion to any national color scheme. Yellow and black evoke road signs more than anyone’s flag.

As for that question: Where is Greece? (Or the Czech Republic, for that matter, to balance out Slovakia?) Sure, we now know that Greece fudged the numbers to get into the Euro Zone, but I doubt Hemon was onto this information back when the book went to press. And even if you feel like kicking Greece out of the Union now, you have to admit that its geography puts it this side of Europe’s eastern edge.

I ask about Greece’s literary absence only in small part out of ethnic loyalty (as a first-generation Greek/American). I recognize that being the cradle of western civilization doesn’t give a country a lifetime pass on further achievements. If Greece wants to be included in a collection of European fiction in 2010, they should earn that spot.

So what was it that kept them from the roster? Was it a lack of good short work in 2009, leading up to publication? Or was it—as I almost suspect—something to do with the Greek narrative aesthetic and what I’ve found to be its reliance on broad melodrama?

Greeks whose taste in painting, design, architecture, and music I trust often recommend this novel or that as a book I must read in order to appreciate the merits of contemporary Greek literature. And I invariably find these books overwritten and obvious. They can’t hold a candle, in my view, to such writers as Venezis, Hatzis, Mirivillis, or Kazantzakis. These older writers—especially the first two—wrote with a surprising economy, finding their power in the inherently evocative nature of the Greek language. There was no need for over-writing, because they understood the strength of the tool they were using.

I confess to wondering if Hemon wasn’t right to leave Greece out at least for now. I cringe a bit at the thought that today’s Greek writers couldn’t make the cut, and I wonder if that's true.

If you're Greek, what's your thought on contemporary Greek fiction? Greek or not: is there such a thing as a national literary aesthetic?

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