Germany vs. Ghana [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
It’s an alliterative pair of nations facing off in the final match of the first round, as Ghana takes on Germany. On grass this is a bit of a mismatch, with the European squad ranked second in the world heading into the tournament, 35 spots higher than its African counterpart. But things may play out differently on paper.
Ghana’s entry, Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing, takes the field in impressive fashion, wearing a resplendent gold and green kit with red trim. (Seriously, this is a beautiful book, with nary an acacia tree to be seen on the cover. That in itself has to be seen as a small victory for Africa.) Germany, represented by W.G. Sebald’s austere, monochromatic Austerlitz looks positively meek in comparison.
There’s the kick-off, and right away we see Ghana starting strong with an unexpected style of attack. Search Sweet Country is a metropolitan novel, set not in some stereotypical rural village but in the capital city of Accra. It’s the 1970s, and most of the high hopes ushered in with independence have faded as a new era of corruption and dictatorship has begun. Multiple characters, including the intriguingly named 1/2-Allotey, rattle around this novel like pachinko balls, scheming and hustling to achieve their various goals and pontificating all the while.
Laing, who writes in English, made his bones as a poet, and he’s besotted by words in his prose as well. Why use one when several will do? A semi-randomly chosen bit of dialogue:
Now look, we are talking about the reality of Ghana politics . . . whoever told you that morality and subtlety are the moving passions? Surely a professor does not need to be told the difference between what is and what ought to be. I am for life, and you are for the ivory tower, which makes you a member of the tall elephant brigade, Hahaha! And I am the grasscutter down low in the earth, with the burrowers and worms! I am the norm and you are the normative!
Search Sweet Country is showy, vibrant, and full, a novel to sink into for a good long while, and it looks set to dominate the action throughout the match. Germany, led by coach and erstwhile fifth Beatle Joachim Low, will have to play quite a game to have any hope of countering.
At first blush, Austerlitz seems far too subdued to compete, almost passionless, in fact. It quietly tells of an eponymous character, a Czechoslovakian evacuated to England on the Kindertransport and raised by foster parents, who spends his adult years researching his family’s experiences during World War II in dusty archives scattered across Europe. Where Search Sweet Country is brash, Austerlitz is sober; where Laing swaggers, Sebald is scholarly and dry. The only thing the two authors share is a taste for packing as many words as possible between their periods:
No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, réduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan: a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.
Phew. Under this lexical onslaught, abetted by translator Anthea Bell, Ghana begins to tire slightly. And it isn’t just relentlessness they’re facing, it’s deception. Austerlitz is only superficially the story of a sedate academic—between the lines it’s an excoriating indictment against Nazism and the institutional mentality that systematized horror and produced it more efficiently than anyone ever had before. Sebald very calmly paints an unforgettable picture of Europe as half factory, half charnel house, and Germany takes control of the game by exposing the rot in its own cultural roots. Nicely played. As the clock winds down to the 90th minute, the crowd is silent, dwelling on its own mortality and awestruck by Sebald’s dominance. By masterfully marshaling facts and mixing them with fiction, he’s godfathered a hybrid form that’s going to freshen literature for decades. Just ask David Shields.
Time expires in the match (as it will for all of us someday) and chiaroscuro has overcome color completely. It’s a devastating win for Germany, and Austerlitz has established itself as the prohibitive favorite to take home the Cup of Lit. Might as well start hanging the black crepe and playing a dirge now.
Germany 5 – 1 Ghana
James Crossley is a bookseller at a venerable institution just outside of Seattle, Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s blog, “Message in a Bottle,” and is also a contributing writer for Book Riot and Northwest Book Lovers. In 1976 he saw Pelé play for the New York Cosmos in a friendly against George Best and the Los Angeles Aztecs at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. They tied nil-nil.