Book review: Flash Fiction International

Flash Fiction International
Flash Fiction International
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FRAGMENTED and rather fine, Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around The World is no flash in the pan, finds Roger Cox

Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around The World

Eds. James Thomas, Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill

Norton, 277pp, £9.99

In their introduction to this truly global collection of 83 very short stories – typically just two or three pages in length – the three American editors list some of the many names given to the form around the world. In Denmark it’s known as “kortprosa,” in Bulgaria it’s “mikro razkaz” and in Latin America it’s simply “micro”. In China, meanwhile, there are several different terms for it, but the most evocative is the one that translates as “Smoke-Long Story” – because you can savour a piece of flash fiction for about the same length of time as it might take to smoke a single cigarette.

Whatever you call it, flash feels very much like a phenomenon whose time has come. In the United States alone, anthologies and collections have now sold about a million copies, while world flash fiction congresses have been held in Argentina, Spain and Switzerland. More pertinently, perhaps, commentators have noted that flash fiction is easy to share online, on almost any platform and on any device, making it both democratic and difficult to censor. It has even been described as “the writing of the new millennium” although that may be taking things a little far. After all, one of the most perfectly realised short-shorts in this book comes from Petronius, writing about a grieving widow a couple of millennia back in Ancient Rome who – spoiler alert – finds a novel use for her husband’s corpse. Flash fiction may be having bit of a moment just now, but it’s by no means a new invention.

Other past masters of the form feature here too, notably W Somerset Maugham and Franz Kafka. Hemingway, in spite of his famously economical style, is perhaps a surprising omission (you’d have thought his haunting very short story, A Very Short Story, might have got a look-in) but he does at least feature in the concluding chapter on “Flash Theory” which contains suitably pithy reflections either regarding or somehow relevant to the flash format. Hemingway notes: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them.” That is certainly a good yardstick by which to gauge the quality of the writing here: the best stories are the ones that manage to conjure up whole worlds in just a couple of pages.

Perhaps the most successful in this regard is Prisoner of War by Muna Fadhil of Iraq. Understated in style, verging on the matter-of-fact, it nevertheless plunges you deep into the troubled existence of Saleh, an Iraqi POW released by the Iranians almost two decades after being captured during the Iran-Iraq War, and only able to cope with the infinite possibilities thrown up by his sudden, unexpected freedom by focusing on the minute inner workings of a radio he has dismantled on his daughter’s kitchen table. In The Attraction of Asphalt, meanwhile, German writer Stefani Nellen achieves a similar sense of immersion with her description of a mother driving her daughter too fast up a winding mountain road and priming her to leap out of the moving vehicle. It’s a vivid, richly detailed canvas, created with just a few carefully judged brushstrokes.

Elsewhere, Italy’s Giorgio Manganelli and Scotland’s Kirsty Logan (see next page) create intriguing magic realist parables, while Ari Behn of Norway and Maria Negroni of Argentina focus on recreating single, luminous moments in time, the latter venturing very close to the fine line between flash fiction and poetry without quite stepping over it.

Stylistic experiments are surprisingly few and far between, but Tony Eprile makes a powerful point by having two people – abuser and abused – speak with the same voice, switching perspectives again and again mid-sentence until it’s impossible to make out which is which.

Flash fiction might not be the writing of the new millennium, but it is certainly a form well-suited to our fragmented, globally interconnected age.