Japan vs. Italy [World Cup of Literature: Second Round]
One of the first games of the second round finds Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment pitted against the Japanese juggernaut 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.
Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment is written from the perspective of Olga, a forty-something mother of two whose husband leaves her in the opening pages for a much younger woman. With the first line, the reader is hit with a palatable shock as Olga is abandoned, seemingly without reason, after fifteen years of marriage.
Score one for Italy, 15 seconds in!
Ferrante’s opening is clean and direct, easily remained as a crisp pass from a wing to a perfectly timed cut from a striker, who drives the ball confidently into the high corner. However, as the novel progresses, Olga becomes increasingly helpless in her own rage and fury. In a scene where she encounters her husband and new lover on the street, Olga attacks him, attempting to punish him but succeeding only in making matters worse for herself. Although this begins as a brilliant second scoring attempt, it’s ultimately an untimely yellow card for the Italians, and as Olga loses her grip, the Italian team loses control of the game.
And that’s when Japan takes over. Murakami immediately makes the reader wonder at the creativity of his own world, as Ayomame, his brilliant and enigmatic assassin, escapes a traffic jam and makes the windy descent from a crowded highway. Ayomame experiences a strange feeling, and her usual ability to recall important dates becomes scrambled—but so is the readers’ ability to stay ahead of her. She deftly defies our defenses—a breakaway chance that makes you hold your breath to watch the outcome.
When she emerges past the last line of defenders, she is surprised to see a police officer dressed in a different uniform than usual, carrying a more dangerous gun than usual—she’s wide open, but it’s almost as if the game is a completely different one than she started in. Still, she’s a professional. She performs her assassination, but can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on.
At the same time, her teammate Tengo is also attempting to rewrite the playbook—but in this case, by literally rewriting an incredible novel to dupe the literary world into believing this is worthy of a prestigious prize. With this sort of misdirection and intense plotting, it’s no problem for Japan to score the equalizer. Despite her ferocity, Ferrante’s Olga is slipping, and Murakami’s set up is pretty solid—sexy female assassin, alternate realities, literary mystery, and plenty of moral conflict for both narrators. It’s quickly 1-1.
Olga continues to slip into a pitiable state of desperation— she spends hours examining her face in the mirror, trying to divine the reason her husband left her. She has a failed sexual encounter with her downstairs neighbor. She starts to forget to pick her children up for school, becomes unable to feed them. She cannot escape the prison of her own sorrow. Poor Olga can’t do anything right—leaving the Italians flopping around the field like crazy, grabbing their barely-bruised shins. It doesn’t work— they don’t get any calls their way. The Italian team suffers a self-inflicted wound: a devastating own goal. The Italian fans go silent. The Japanese fans go wild.
Thank goodness for half time. Japan leads 2-1, and the Italian morale is undeniably low. It’s clear Olga has basically stopped trying to get herself out of her misery. Yet, all isn’t completely rosy in the Japanese camp, either. Tengo feels increasingly conflicted about re-writing Air Chrysalis, and Ayomame is struggling with with her own feelings of loneliness and regret as well. If I was coaching either team I’d probably make them to watch the scene from Miracle when Kurt Russell fires up the team during the Sweden game (“a bruise on the leg is a hell of a long way from the heart, candy ass!”) But sadly, I’m not the coach here, and also, I’m not so sure the reference would translate.
Anyway. Italy begins the second half with more of the same, as Olga is doing worse than ever. Her apartment is infested by ants. Her son is suffering from a mysterious fever, and her dog, Otto, is acting sick. She realizes that they are all locked into their apartment, as she simply can’t figure out how to turn the key in the front door. If she doesn’t get some help, and quickly, her whole life will fall apart. Despite not being the greatest team-player, she employs her daughter, Ilaria, to stab her in the leg when she notices her mother staring off into space.
Now, sometimes you need a kick in the ass to jump-start a stagnant offense, and yet no real scoring chances come from it: her son is still sick, she’s still locked in the apartment, and the dog is dying. If you’re a fan of the Italians, you probably feel like crying right now…I am a neutral judge, but I admit I shed many tears watching poor Otto’s suffering.
This would be the perfect time for Japan to take advantage and the offensive, and really put this contest away . . . but 1Q84 is just such a damn slow read. While Olga is focused and determine to solve the essential problem behind her misery, Ayomame’s and Tengo’s story lines meander through past and present, taking their time to unwind. It’s a graceful performance, but time is ticking down. Although Japan has maintained possession, they haven’t managed to execute any effective scoring opportunities.
Finally, Italy takes a chance. Olga has seen her life collapse around her, and has hit rock-bottom, and that realization is the water break she needs. She finds herself feeling strangely calm. The door opens without a problem. The dog is laid to rest, and she calls a doctor for the children. More importantly, Olga realizes she is no longer in love with her scumbag husband. Like the mighty phoenix, Italy rises from the ashes and takes possession of the ball, and quickly scores not once, but twice! Olga has overcome her abandonment and has learned what she needs to to do become a courageous, wise women.
However, Olga is exhausted, and there’s still about 500 pages of 1Q84 left to go. It’s as if the refs have added an addition 30 minutes of stoppage time—it’s almost impossibly long, and you have to think Murakami’s got enough talent on his side to at least get a tie. And they are able to come off with a few nail-biting offensive chances, but Italy’s play is just too solid in the end. Shaky in the middle, but a little more dynamic than the slow-and-steady 1Q84. Just when it starts to look dire for Italy, the buzzer sounds—time really wasn’t on Ayomame and Tengo’s side after all.
ITALY WINS 3-2.
Rhea Lyons is a former Open Letter intern (and University of Rochester grad) who is now a literary scout at Franklin & Siegal.