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Brazil vs. Cameroon [World Cup of Literature: First Round]

This match was judged by Jeffrey Zuckerman. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The last time I watched a soccer game was in the last World Cup, in July of 2010. I had just graduated and moved off campus with my roommate from college. Down the block, a bar was packed with fans, and we forked over a few dollars for a pitcher of Heineken. Neither of us was sure whether the orange shirts were the Dutch or the Spanish—but we were pretty sure the orange shirts were the ones to cheer for. My roommate liked the team from the Netherlands because he was a linguist and preferred Dutch to Spanish. And I was cheering for Gerbrand Bakker’s team because I had just read and loved The Twin.

Four years later, I’ve settled into another city. And yet I live down the street from another bar which, because it specializes in imported beers, promises drink specials for the entirety of the World Cup. Plus ça change . . .

. . . plus c’est la meme chose. I’m being asked to pick the better country based on books I’m reading. Today is the first day of the World Cup in Brazil, so Cameroon has the honor of facing off against the host country. Meaning I have to judge a title from each nation—Cameroon represented by Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, and Brazil represented by Chico Buarque’s Budapest.

I’ll be “that judge” and crush your readerly hopes right now: this wasn’t much of a match-up. There was no special home-field advantage or dark horse in the running here. One book crashed and burned and made me think about why it had even been translated; the other was so radiant and fresh that I wanted to translate it anew.

A quick and clinical overview, first, so you know what we’re talking about here. Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night is the story of Ayané, and the village to which she returns despite having escaped to a cosmopolitan life, and a mass of rebels who bring ruination upon the village. It is a harrowing book, viscerally painful, and told in the distant, knowing voice of a local oral storyteller. Chico Buarque’s Budapest, in contrast, is a meandering and phantasmagoric fever dream that shuttles back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and, yes, Budapest as a ghostwriter composes texts, finds himself replaced by near-perfect copies of himself, and falls in love with Hungary’s singular language and even more singular denizens.

Dark Heart of the Night is shackled by many factors that work against its success. Its title is an unfortunately liberal translation of the original title, L’intérieur de la nuit—the Heart of Darkness allusion hurts more than helps the book—even as the cover plays off the design clichés that i>Africa Is Not a Country rightfully condemns. Despite the careful and insightful translation, however, the narrative voice driving Miano’s entire book made it nearly impossible for me to move from sympathy to full-hearted empathy. Perhaps this narrative style was intended to make the horrors of the story less immediate; the effect, with so many explanatory asides and all its descriptions at a remove, made the story feel like a copy of a copy of a copy of a story I had once been told about “Africa,” writ large. The country is a nameless one (not Cameroon); the rebellion is a vague one (not like any of the civil wars or unrest in recent history); and the village’s primitiveness is so stark as to feel unreal. Cameroon is, in reality, far more complicated and modern than we might be led to believe from this novel. To give just one example: for all the abject poverty suffered throughout the continent, cell phone usage is extraordinarily high because of its advantages for communication and even for finances. I hoped for a novel that would give me a clearer picture of Cameroon (or even Africa) as it is now, and I was disappointed to read a novel that told me, at a remove, about an idea of Africa. Ultimately, I found myself scratching my head: what was different or special about this novel that the French Voices committee had seen fit to grant money toward its publication in English? The only answer I can plausibly think of is that it is a historical document of sorts. Its explanations and descriptions may provide a certain context to readers scarcely aware of Central Africa. But that hardly seems like reason enough to publish and share a book.

In contrast, Budapest continued to shock me and amaze me as I turned its pages toward its end. It seems odd that it should have surprised me: I had read most of it about six years ago after being given an excerpt, in French, to translate into English. It was an assignment from my French teacher, who had discovered the book while abroad with her husband over break. The two of them knew French and English and, preferring not to privilege one translation over another, had bought the two versions of Chico Buarque’s original. (To this day, when somebody mentions their knowledge of Buarque as a famous musician, I have to mentally square that with my image of him as a solitary author.) The whole book itself centers on doubles and replacements and, yes, repetitions: a phrase at the beginning recurs in the book’s final pages; the two cities and the narrator’s two lives seem to parallel each other with the same struggles and challenges, even as the narrator becomes a copy of himself, replicating in Hungary the same ghostwriting work he had done in Brazil, until he surpasses the master for which he has ghostwritten—an appropriate parallel to the moment when he realizes, in Brazil, that his boss has trained many young employees to write as perfectly, as precisely as he does, to the point that he worries he cannot even think a thought without their having already set it down on paper. As he finally writes a poem of his own, he realizes that “The words were mine, but they had a different weight. I wrote as if I were walking through my own house, but in water.” The clarity and beauty of this image is not atypical of the entire book; each page glides with a musical fluidity fully enabled by Alison Entrekin’s keen translation—one that manages to portray in English the grammatical quirks of (at times) Hungarian-flavored Portuguese or a Portuguese that reflects a Portuguese-fractured phrase in Hungarian. I could remember the process of carefully converting each sentence from the French my professor had given me to English; even accounting for the fact that I was translating a translation, Entrekin’s work outstripped mine entirely. I closed the book, and images came unbidden of Rio de Janeiro’s narrow alleyways and quarrelsome relationships, and the ever-yellow (or is it ever-gray?) of Buda and Pest seen from the air, the two halves of the city split by the Danube.

I did say this wasn’t much of a matchup. On the soccer field (or, ahem, football field for all you non-Americans reading my embarrassingly provincial commentary), Cameroon has been a frontrunner among the many teams hailing from the African continent, but its literary entry into the Tournament of Books can’t even get a single goal past Brazil’s writers—especially not when that team includes Chico Buarque and Budapest.

The score’s a pretty clear-cut one: 4-0 Brazil.

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Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Best European Fiction, and The Quarterly Conversation. In his free time, he does not listen to music.

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