Short Story Review – Jean Back – European Clouds (trans. Sandra Schmit)

At some point I am going to realise that these stories exist to celebrate or critique the EU, and not necessarily because they possess independent literary merit.  At some point.

Our narrator is off to the supermarket to buy some provisions for a barbecue.  He accidentally locks his keys in his car on the way out, listen to accordion music, hears a racist conversation, then goes home.  This is told in a style that is a mix of onomatopoeia, stream of consciousness, associative thoughts, descriptions.  It’s quick, sharp, short, effective but a bit grating.  The narrator gets on your nerves even though there really isn’t much personality to speak of.  And then there are bits like this –

Two minutes from home with the car. Ordinary, but practical,
that supermarket. Good. It is a clear autumn day. Just like on
9/11 in Manhattan, at eight o’clock in the morning. The sun
had been shining just before. Like now, bright, but not warm.

Yikes, where did that reference come from?  It isn’t brought up again, and nothing in the story itself seems in any way related to 9/11.  I was actually shocked to read it and my mind kind of tumbled over it, tripped.  What’s it doing there?

Out of sheer laziness I stay next to the lamppost, looking and waiting and listening to the man playing the accordion, because I like accordion music, because that kind of music reminds me of René de Bernardi, at the erstwhile dancing club Beim Heuertz: dance parties, thé dansant, smootch slow and English Waltz. And also reminds me of Astor Piazzolla.

Some references are more neatly placed into the text, but as we can see from the above, and the next two quoted paragraphs, what is happening here is the narrator inserting the cosmopolitan nature of the EU into the story.  Back is adding worldliness without putting in the hard work, as these concepts aren’t engaged with, just written down.  I could do it, you could do it – throw in five musicians/writers/cheeses/wine varieties/chemists from around the world.  Five anything.  Are you sophisticated now?  Probably not.  It takes a touch more.  you need to do something with these words.

Don’t do this

What nationality are the clouds? Are they French, when they’re hovering over the Elysée? Spanish, when they’re hanging over Seville? What does a Swiss cloud look like? A Belgian one? Are the clouds
Portuguese when they drift over Dudelange? Luxembourgish,
when they arrive in Porto?

I mean like, maybe they are?  Maybe clouds have a nationality and maybe they are clouds and the idea is a human construct and it is ridiculous to place such an idea on to a non-human aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The above is the kind of thought I would hope a sixteen year old stoner would have, but an eighteen year old stoner would not.  They should have moved on by then to like, how, you know, death affects us all and everyone you can see is a walking corpse.  Man.

Also on today’s barbecue menu: three bottles of Chianti, two
packs of olives from Portugal, one Romanian brandy and at
five o’clock there’s Barça playing against Red Bull Salzburg.
Olé!

Perhaps I am being unfair.  I wouldn’t mind so much if there was more to the story, but the above paragraphs represent about a fifth of the total story.  There’s not much here, so why this?  What is it adding to the discourse of what it means to be European?  It is true, no doubt, that any one country is unable or unwilling to meet the entirety of its citizen’s needs, and that there are significant benefits to free trade and the movement of good, ideas, peoples.  This is something to explore.

But listing items and attaching a nationality isn’t doing that.  There isn’t enough here for this story.  The clouds aren’t impressed, man – they’re crying.

European Clouds is a short story by Luxembourger writer Jean Back, translated by Sandra Schmit.  

Author Jean Back
Title European Clouds
Translator Sandra Schmit
Nationality Luxembourger
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

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