Best Fiction of 2011: a Central and Eastern European roundup

A selection of fiction from the Czech Republic to Russia noted by critics in the year’s “Best of” lists

The “Best of” lists that come out at the end of the year tend to confirm received opinion for the most part and so it is not a big surprise that translated fiction does not make up a big part of either the US or UK Best Book lists, and that novels from Central and Eastern Europe only get the occasional mention. But mentions there were, some for new books published the past year, others for new translations of older works and others for books that this or that critic just happened to have come upon in 2011.

Parallel Stories by Péter Nádas made it onto at least a couple of lists – among them, the New York Times 100 Notable Books and January Magazine, in spite of both publications having had significant reservations towards the novel. Croatian novelist Slavenka Drakulić’s A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism is another of January Magazine’s best novels of the year.

Continuing with the trend of stories dealing with the traumatic history of the eastern half of Europe, Russian novelist Vasily Grossman received some notice this year as well. The Road, a book of his short fiction and essays, was published in the UK in September. In The Guardian, English writer Helen Simpson wrote that the title story of the collection “can be read as a 4,000-word distillation of his epic novel Life and Fate, written the year following the confiscation of that novel’s typescript by the Soviet authorities.” In the Wall Street Journal Best Books of 2011, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid cited his discovery of Grossman’s work, also mentioning the novel Everything Flows.

Speaking of classic works about dark periods of the 20th century, Garth Risk Hallberg at The Millions mentioned Imre Kertesz’s Holocaust novel Fatelessness as one of his best reads of the year. Another of Hallberg’s selections was the lesser known but likewise classic Czech novel The Guinea Pigs by Ludvík Vaculík. Kača Poláčková’s English translation of the 1970 novel was recently published by Open Letter Books. The 2010 translation of Hungarian novelist Dezső Kosztolányi’s Skylark was another of his best reads.

Another writer for The Millions “A Year in Reading” series, novelist Kevin Brockmeier, noted his discovery of another Czech writer, Michal Ajvaz, whose novels The Golden Age and The Other City came out in English in 2010 and 2009 respectively. “Ajvaz’s sentences are filled with unexpected slues and inversions, and you sense that he could try writing a work of suburban domestic realism, and it would still brim with uncanny meanings, oceans of the bizarre and the mysterious expressing their way through the dishes and the wallpaper, the throw pillows and the neckties,” Brockmeier writes.

Polish writer Wiesław Myśliwski’s Stone Upon Stone made it onto The New Yorker’s best books list while in Salon’s best books of the year novelist Arthur Phillips picked The Adventures of Sindbad by Hungarian Gyula Krúdy. “Krúdy is the best writer you’ve never heard of … Come for the atmosphere, the Central European mist, the fin-de-siècle eroticism and above all, the bursts of language,” Phillips writes.

Coming next: Best CEE non-fiction 2011 roundup

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Categories: Best Reads, Book Reviews


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One Comment on “Best Fiction of 2011: a Central and Eastern European roundup”

  1. 27/12/2011 at 2:07 am #

    Thanks for all of this info. I’m glad that NYRB is putting out a lot of Central/Eastern European writers in translation for English language readers.

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