Uruguay vs. Costa Rica [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
One of my personal concerns going into the World Cup of Literature was ending up with a book I had already read—something that quickly became not an issue at all, since out of the 32 representing titles I’d read a whopping one of them. ONE. So, unlike many of my fellow judges, I entered this with zero biases (unlike the Real World Cup, where GERMANY ALL THE WAY! You done got jawohled, USA) or existing knowledge. Which definitely made this a partly disconnected and partly ridiculous—but wholly entertaining—experience.
Representing Costa Rica in this literary matchup is Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon, which is based on the first known serial killer of Costa Rica, and is pretty much the only book written in that country, ever1. Among other things, it’s filled with chauvinism, smoking, and a lot of sultry women with huge racks who just don’t seem to get laid enough or at the right time. It’s also filled with some of the weirdest, non-standard narrative descriptors I have ever, ever read. (More on that later.)
To put the structure of Cadence of the Moon simply, think All the President’s Men, but with crappy journalism, better hair, ritualistic violence, and if Watergate had ended with everyone saying “So do we know who our culprit is? No? Oh, okay. Well . . . Hey look at how cool the moon is!”
And in case you want to know what Costa Rica was like in the mid 1990s, serial killings aside, Cadence lays on the sexism: Maricruz, our Journalist Extraordinaire and one of the main protagonists, barters with her editor, Juan José Montero, for the right to cover the story of the Psycopath murders for—any guesses?—a kiss:
“If you want to cover [the story], I’ll give it to you but the price is a little taste of those goodies.” He indicated her lips by pursing his own, musty, nicotine-stained ones.
Even though this disgusting display of, well, everything, ends up being more of a “friendly” teasing tactic the editor uses to rev up his employees, it’s apparently entirely normal; Maricruz proceeds to tells off her boss, who laughs, then they exchange a few more comments on the case, and then he gives her the assignment. No one gets slapped, no one gets fired. Same old, same old in Costa Rica. Then Maricruz is advised by her colleages to cozy up to the cop working the case, Gustavo . . . And no they don’t bang. Poor, curvy Maricruz. The plot is stilted, the characters frustratingly simple—and this is a novel sparked by a serial killer. Nixon’s shady doings dropped a far more interesting plot-brick than this. And what kind of gets me about this is that Núñez Olivas himself is a journalist. There’s even an ironic section later on, in which the newspaper’s owner, Mr. Grey, is insulting Juan José Montero’s staff, and Montero comes to his employee’s aid, saying something along the lines of “What do you think this is, the Washington Post?” . . .
Within the first 40 pages of this book, Cadence has scored an embarrassing, slow-rolling self-goal, putting Costa Rica up 1-0 before anything really even happens. And oh, by the way, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. At this point I’m begging for someone to get bitten. But oh no, Uruguay keeps its mouth shut as Cadence continues to make things worse for itself, progressing from being Woodword and Bernstein’s Aspergersy, Canadian second-cousin to Dan Brown’s Post-it covered, Montessori-bound lovechild. I once listened to The Lost Symbol on a two-day drive from New York to Minnesota, and 10 hours into my drive I was about to lose my shit because no one had died, nothing major had happened, the plot hadn’t gone anywhere, I was in Indiana, by myself, and with a guaranteed twelve more hours left of that awful, awful book. GAH!
Clearly, lots of PTSD cropping up while working through Cadence. But then, out of completely nowhere, Costa Rica whips out its shiny bits. This otherwise boring, sluggish, based-on-real-events novel with a cover that smacks of self-publishing, suddenly started spitting out some of the most curious, awkward, brilliant sentences like:
“What?” Maricruz lit up with the brilliance that is seen in the faces of adventurers, archeologists and taxonomists.
(Whatever taxonomy Núñez Olivas has researched, it must be goddamn glorious. Classify these samples, you say? Sure thing—just give me a second in the bathroom alone with this spreadsheet . . .)
[Camila] is twisting like a snake, gyrating, licking her lips. She lifts a breast with her right hand and offers it to me. “Suck it!” her half-open lips seem to say, although she says nothing, she just offers the large, dark breast, whose formidable hardness is a last glory amid so much ruin.
(Sweet Jesus. Is this guy about to get pistol-whipped by some cougar’s fake tit as she trashes epileptically on top of him like a charmed cobra? For his sake, I’m hoping Núñez Olivas is either a virgin, or gay, because no sexually active straight man should ever have to experience this, or know how to describe it so vividly.)
“You’ve got a date!” Gustavo exclaimed in the voice of someone announcing the arrival of aliens.
(This sentence both baffles and tickles me. What does it sound like when you announce the arrival of aliens? Fear? Surprise? Arousal? All of the above? I’m going to use this tone the to announce to someone I won’t be paying back their $20.)
There’s just such a wacky brand of specificity to the writing at times that does seem journalistic in its descriptive nature, but is so, so entirely off in terms of human behavior and real-life situations. No book should read like this, no sentences this entertaining should be embedded in something so blah. And yet, I kind of love it.
Costa Rica points to the sky and then flicks Uruguay in their dongles while the ref isn’t looking, and equalizes during the commotion. The score is now 1-1.
Uruguay’s representative, Mario Benedetti, ends up being somewhat of a dark horse. It’s not often that I’m compelled to sit and read a 300-page book of short stories in one go, but Benedetti manages to keep things relatively interesting, very smooth, fairly metered, and overall well-trained. The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories is a fair opponent, blending various narrative voices with various themes—political, social, gender roles—and even though the text itself isn’t that mind-blowing, the stories roll at a steady and clean pace.
What Uruguay had in this case that Costa Rica didn’t was presence. It can be hard to pit a historical-type novel against short stories, but short story collections can so often work against themselves. The Rest Is Jungle is a collection that knows what it’s doing, where it’s going, where it’s from. (Unlike Benedetti, apparently, who writes in an epigraph: “We are a small nook of America which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, nor even an army dedicated to coups. We are a small country of short stories.” Oh honey. America? You’re Argentina’s fanny-pack at best.)
From the very first story, Benedetti establishes his abilities to switch narrative voice. His narrators move from a precocious cleaning lady who decides to marry her way into the rich family she once worked for, to a dog observing its owners argue, to two boys sneaking into a ceiling passageway over a sports or youth club to spy on girls in the showers. The stories alternate from amusing to disturbing, from familiar to uncomfortable.
One of the most poignant stories was “The Cups,” in which a woman, her husband, and his brother are sitting in the living room about to have coffee. The husband has some kind of disease that has rendered him blind. At the time of the story, the three are sitting around, talking, trying to convince the husband to go to the doctor for a check-up, which he refuses to do. The three make conversation, and then we learn—and see—that the brother-in-law has been recently comforting the wife; we see him silently massaging her neck, cupping the back of her head in his hand, simple touches that give her strength and compassion where her husband has started to lose his. (And no, they don’t bang. At least not in this scene.) They have their “routine” down pat, conducting every calculated, dead-quiet caress right there on the sofa in front of the blind husband coordinated and dead quiet. The story gets emotional for the wife, how she’s had to learn to deal, etc. etc. Then the story closes with the coffee being ready to serve, and as the wife sets down the coffee cups, which she rotates each week so each person is drinking from a different color, the husband mumbles something that sounds like “No, dear. Today I want to drink from the red cup.” End scene.
Not all the stories captured my attention, but I do appreciate the experimentation Benedetti employs to get his words across.
“The Big Switch,” for example, is written in a format that is very non-standard compared to the rest of the pieces. In it, a police officer is swearing (“Shit on the holy whore.”) about all the arrest warrants he has to sign, his broken pen, and the idiots working around him. But the paragraph breaks and shifts to the other story line, where a singer named Lito Suárez BITES EVERYONE IN SIGHT AND THEN THE WHOLE BOOK IS DONE. Kidding. But if only . . .
A singer named Lito Suárez announces to TV viewers that he’s come up with a new song, a kind of song-game, called the “Big Switch,” in which everyone watching will learn the four verses/lines of the song, the proceed to sing these lyrics all day, every day, for the whole week. At the end of the week, Lito will reconvene on TV and announce a change to the first line. Suggestions are welcome from the audience, but only if they follow certain guidelines. Interesting paragraph breaks, drawn out and mashed-up words . . . It’s visually exciting as well:
Lito Suárez is going to announce how “The Big Switch” sounds after the first transformation. “or one week we’ve all sung the song I taght you last Sunday. . . . I’ received 5,473 suggestions to change the first verse. In the end, I selected this one: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen.’ Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, says the channel’s young audience. . . . Disappointed, Julita stops eating her nails. Her brilliant suggestion ended up among the 5,472 rejects. “Within a week, we’ll replace the second verse. Agreed?” Yesssssss, scream the audience
the colonel displays his teeth. “Yes, Fresnedo, I’m with you. The new songs are idiotic. But what’s wrong with that? . . . What does it sound like? Wait, wait. Even I know it by heart: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen, so thatyourl ooooooooove awaken, foryouI render myv ooooooooice, formeo oooooooonly loving you.’
So even though The Rest Is Jungle doesn’t wow me, doesn’t make me want to snake-dance on top of people and slap them with my anatomy, Uruguay puts in a far more solid performance via Benedetti’s work. Uruguay scores another point, putting the game at 2-1 in their favor, and Costa Rica would scream in frustration, but their mouths are taped over by serial-killer-grade newspaper tape (what is that stuff on the cover, anyway??).
But then again . . . Maybe Costa Rica has one more shot on goal? One more approach from Cadence:
[Camila] entered the office and spoke in the authoritarian tone that had worked infallibly during 22 years of marriage
“Home!” she said. “You have to rest.”
Bill Grey did not even lift his eyes from the keyboard. He barely arched an eyebrow and replied with astonishing lucidity.
“Why don’t you take one of your sometimes lovers? I am busy.”
It was the first time that he had reproached his wife for her sexual adventures, which she had supposed he was ignorant of. Disconcerted by his response, Camila set off for her office without saying a word, afflicted by a sudden onset of diarrhoea.
And on that note . . . Costa Rica literarily-literally shits the bed in its final shot on goal, before tucking its tail and turning to head home—giving the game to Uruguay, 2-1, and leaving a wake of streak marks behind it.
1 It’s actually more like the only Costa Rican book to be translated into English, which should be remedied because OH MY GOD.
Kaija Straumanis is the editorial director at Open Letter, and translates from both Latvian and German.