Greece vs. Ivory Coast [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
Artist-activist Maria is on the playing field of her current job when the sudden appearance of the daughter of her ex-best friend, Anna, sends her on a fragmented journey through her life and their friendship, never without political context:
The day PASOK wins the election, I lose my virginity. Now that’s what I call a “rendezvous with history.”
The trite humor is a bit disconcerting. Is this maybe just an intellectual romance novel after all? But the bad pass is forgotten with the description of the act that follows.
Fifteen-year-olds who want to have sex and at least try to enjoy it. Who smoke and discuss Barthes and go to demonstrations in passages that unabashedly use words like “freedom” and “revolution.” Amanda Michalopoulou scores a goal for completely believable 1970s teenagers.
Still, the political contextualization often slows down the game. No station in post-dictatorship, pre-crisis Greece is missing. Not to mention World Economic Forum protests in Geneva, oil company protests in Nigeria and, of course, Seattle, where “Kayo and I vomited side by side at the barricades.” Kayo, the good best friend taken off the bench to replace bad best friend, Anna. This is Maria and Kayo’s first meeting:
“Kayo you smell like Africa” He shoves me away. “No you don’t understand! I was born in Nigeria.” I hug him, sink my nose into his neck and breathe in the smell of Gwendolyn, grilled suya, soil after a tropical rain. Kayo’s eyes tear up—he must be pretty drunk too. Then he bends down and kisses my hand.
Now I’m perfectly willing to believe Maria thinks she’s not racist because she loves Gwendolyn, her childhood nanny. After all, she’s a weak-willed, naive, romantic idealist, although I’m not sure this is what I was supposed to take away from that paragraph. But that this reassures a twenty-something left black gay man? Suspension of belief only goes so far—this is realism after all. Penalty kick for the Ivory Coast.
But when we finally get the replay of the incident that turned Anna into an ex-friend, Michalopoulou scores again. Not so much for the event itself, and certainly not for the cave–subconsciousness metaphor that runs throughout the novel, but for the way in which it triggers Maria’s memory of the childhood trauma that led to her exile from Africa. For at least trying to acknowledge the specter of colonialism that haunts the global left. In a novel, you can kill your annoying best friend. What we will do with all the annoyance in the world no one knows.
But two goals don‘t make up for the fact that for most of Why I Killed My Best Friend, Michalopoulou is to-ing and fro-ing in midfield (‘to and fro’, according to Merriam Webster, is an adjective, noun, or adverb, but I am not obliged to use American English, so suck my dick).
That last convention is lifted from Allah Is Not Obliged. The ten-year-old narrator of Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Birahima, “the fearless, blameless street kid, the child soldier,” also uses a lot of dictionaries to tell the story of his time as a child-soldier in Liberia.
I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French.
So you never get further than a couple of paragraphs without the intrusion of a definition. These interruptions are often infuriating, there’s no possibility of escaping into characters or narrative, but suddenly the Ivory Coast is scoring goals left and right. After all, child soldiers are always on drugs, maybe this is just the running commentary of a hash high. Or the dissociation necessary to retain sanity, a paean to the resilience of so many former child soldiers. Either way, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea that allows for one the most clear-headed explorations of atrocity I’ve ever read. And certainly one of the funniest.
A country is a fucked-up mess when you get warlords dividing it up between them like in Liberia, but when you’ve got political parties and democrats on top of the warlords it’s a big-time fucked-up mess.
Ivory Coast 4–Greece 2
Laura Radosh feels like she’s violated a FIFA rule for not letting an Open Letter book win. She’s also a translator living in Berlin who would have called a tie if she’d been judging the brilliant translations.