Chile vs. Netherlands [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
The record for the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup match belongs to Hakan Sukur of Turkey. Eleven seconds into the 2002 match against South Korea, Sukur capitalized on a mistake in the backfield and with a left-footed shove put the ball in the back of the net. The South Koreans were stunned and so was Sakur, who could think of no better celebration than to sit his ass down in the middle of the field.
That was the fastest World Cup goal, until now.
In this contemporary literary skirmish, Chile scored so quickly anyone observing or playing in the game didn’t have time to question what happened. As if by magic—before the whistle even blew—Chile was awarded a 1-0 lead. Nobody questioned this advantageous start, not the coaches (authors), not the referee (me), and not even the fans (readers). It just was, a fact however strange, accepted just as Clara del Valle Trueba’s family readily accepts her telekinetic and clairvoyant powers in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
Not even the Dutch players (the narrative) questioned Chile’s pre-game’s goal. Here’s Herman Koch’s striker (the narrator) caught on tape during the warm-up (page 7, that is):
No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking—in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1-0.
But it was neither magical intervention nor Dutch defeatism that gave Bolaño the edge. Those in the stands with sharp eyes might have seen near the scoreboard a dark figure operating on behalf of the mafia group known as the Literati. Television cameras panned the crowd looking for baying fans and paused on the visages of Jonathan Lethem, Susan Sontag, Colm Tóibín, and James Wood, all of whose blurbs appear on the cover of By Night in Chile.1
So there it is. Ninety minutes on the clock, By Night in Chile with its foot firmly on the ball ready to kick off, starts with a one-goal advantage.
So who is this superstar team? By Night in Chile, the first of Roberto Bolaño’s stories to be published in English, is the deathbed confession of poet, priest, and literary critic Father Urrutia. Propped up on one elbow, Urrutia recalls the life of a respected, but not central, figure of Chilean intellectual life, a priest and man of letters who did little to stand up to the despotism of Augusto Pinochet. The audience—the priest to this priest—is treated to an ambling narrative that includes a journey across European to visit priests engaged in falconry, a stint teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his lieutenants, and a warm friendship with a critic with the literary name of Farewell. (There is very little discussion of Urrutia’s priestly duties in the Opus Dei sect.) Neruda makes an appearance here and there; the first time he appears Urrutia finds the poet-god staring at the moon, “murmuring words I could not understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment.” Several other literary figures are mentioned, but the theme remains firmly fixed on Urrutia’s atonement before he slips into the darkest of nights.
On the other side of the pitch is Koch’s sixth novel, The Dinner, which also takes place over a single evening, told from the perspective of one of the husbands, Paul Lohman. Two married couples meet at a one-percenter’s kind of restaurant in what appears to be a routine, privileged performance of dining, conversation, witticism, and maybe the exchange of an actual good idea, before wiping dessert from the corners of their mouths, paying an exorbitant check, and heading back to the safety of a home in a well-to-do neighborhood. Appearances are deceiving, though, for we soon discover something more sinister is afoot, that there is a very troubling matter to be discussed. A deadly matter, in fact. Turns out—spoiler alert—that the sons of the married couples are involved in a murder in which the whole country, having seen the grainy footage caught by a security camera, is lamenting the downfall of social democratic society and the wasted lives of the youth. Of interest to the diners is not the chef’s special, but rather how to handle the situation. One of the fathers, it turns out, is a soon-to-be elected prime minister.
FOUL! Why the hell would you discuss such grave matters in such a very public place? This ref issues the World Cup of Literature’s second yellow card. Koch’s striker is booked for negligence.
Action resumes . . .
By Night in Chile is lean, with no fat, like a well-hewed body of a professional soccer player. Chile plays consistently from page one to the closing line. As expectant spectators we become increasingly convinced victory is in reach, though often just out of reach. Next drive. Next shot! Bolaño’s prose methodically drives forward, building an offense from the back, searching for the opponent’s weak points, and willing to take the time do so. Chile entices with dazzling tales of forgotten popes of yesteryear, priests with falcons, and a dictator’s studious mien. These short plays accomplished with solid teamwork promise a big payoff. And is there any better literary sendoff than “And then the storm of shit begins”? This book wants it.
Contrast Chile’s steady pace with that of The Dinner’s, whose ball play looks more like pinball than futbol. The Dutch team passes the ball around, one side to the other, lots of crosses and middle-field possession and even the groan-inducing pass-backs to the goalie. This makes for lengthy possession but limited progress. Occasionally the midfielders and fullbacks boot the ball into the penalty area, but with little aim. It’s as if the strategy is to get a goal by force (at best) or by a lucky deflection (at least!). Back stories, flashbacks, and tangents seem to exist to kill time rather than further the plot. By page 50 I just wanted Koch to get on it with it already.
Moreover, despite the fact Koch is fielding at least four star players with another couple potential stand-outs on the pitch, there is very little character development. The narrator receives the most attention, but it is of the self-flattering kind. There’s no teamwork here and the play looks a little sloppy.
Hail to the translators! Both By Night in Chile and The Dinner are ably translated by Chris Andrews and Sam Garrett, respectively. Chile’s pacing is a steady march to a politically damning climax, and its Andrews who keeps us on track. Garrett, too, maintains a consistency of voice, ensuring that the matter-of-fact prose mirrors the matter-of-fact thought process of the troubled narrator.
In the second half of the game it’s as if neither team left the field for a break. The strategies remain consistent into the backend of each narrative, though the Dutch team plays with more aggression. The narrator—Lohman—reveals a darker, violent past, which always seem to somehow involve his son. A visit to suspected child molester in which “the curtains, I noted, were already drawn.” The threatening of a store clerk with a bicycle pump. The bloodying of one of his son’s teachers:
Then I punched him squarely in the nose. Right away there was blood, lots of blood: it sprayed from his nostrils and spattered across his shirt and the desktop, and then on the fingers with which he pawed at his nose.
Lohman’s violent tendencies are made apparent with these flashbacks, served in bite-sized portions over the course of The Dinner. This is the only character development the audience will see, and it’s thin gruel.
It is Chile who scores in the 79th minute and it is a beautiful goal. Upper ninety, one of those near-impossible shots. Though the Dutch goalie can see the shot from where it’s launched 25 yards out, he doesn’t even bother to jump. We’ve all seen this shot coming; it was just a matter of time before it was revealed.
Here Urrutia is visited by men who very easily convince the intellectual to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so he can better know his enemies.
What do you understand? asked Mr. Raef, with a frank and friendly smile. That you require me to be absolutely discreet, I said. More than that, said Mr. Raef, much more, we require ultra-absolute discretion, extraordinarily absolute discretion and secrecy. I was itching to correct him but restrained myself, because I wanted to know what they were proposing. Do you know anything about Marxism? asked Mr. Etah, after wiping his lips with a napkin.
. . . Who are my pupils? I asked. General Pinochet, said Mr. Etah. My breath caught in my throat. And the others? General Leigh, Admiral Merino and General Mendoza, of course, who else? said Mr. Raef, lowering his voice. I’ll have to prepare myself, I said, this is not something to be taken lightly.
No, not lightly at all, but still taken. Bolaño’s coaching strategy shines.
In the end, the play by The Dinner is inconsistent and lacks finesse. Not even a flying Dutchman — that is, an attempt at a clever closing — can give Netherlands a consolation goal. Koch’s closing is too quick, too clean, too simple. The most important loose end is handled so far off the field it’s in the locker room, and this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the spectators. Sure the ball pops over the Chilean goalie’s head in the final minute of play, but it’s a half-hearted trick shot that glances off the post and bounces out of bounds.
From the 79th minute on, Chile is relentless against its opponent. The strategy toward which they have been playing all along is coming to a head, for By Night in Chile is a fierce, blistering argument against Chile’s intellectuals who were meek in the face of the atrocities committed by Pinochet’s regime. Coach Bolaño sends a very clear message not just to the other team, but to all of his compatriots who refuse to play with such courage: shame on you.
In Chile, Maria Canales, married to an American (Jimmy), hosts soirees for Chile’s intellectual and cultural elite. In her home is hidden a dark secret, to which every guest has stumbled on at least once and said nothing. They return, instead, to the party again and again, feigning ignorance, remaining mute.
. . . he opened doors and even started whistling, and finally he came to the very last room at the end of the basement’s narrowest corridor, lit by a single, feeble light bulb, and he opened the door and saw the main tied to the metal bed, blindfolded, and he knew the man was alive because he could hear him breathing, although he wasn’t in good shape, for in spite of the dim light he saw the wounds, the raw patches, like eczema, but it wasn’t eczema, the battered parts of his anatomy, the swollen parts, as if more than one bone had been broken, but he was breathing, he certainly didn’t look like he was about to die, and then the theorist of avant-garde theater shut the door delicately, without making a noise, and started to make his way back to the sitting room, carefully switching off as he went each of the lights he had previously switched on. And months later, or maybe years later, another regular guest at those gatherings told me the same story. And then I heard it from another and another and another. And then democracy returned, the moment came for national reconciliation . . .
Here is the final and damning goal.
1 The Dinner’s best blurb comes from The Wall Street Journal: “A European Gone Girl . . . A sly psychological thriller.” If that’s true, then I have no desire to read Gone Girl.