Côte d'Ivoire vs. Norway [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]

This match was judged by Hal Hlavinka, bookseller and events coordinator at Community Bookstore in Park Slope.

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I’ll be up front and say that this match is a bit one-sided, and was something of a surprise for this judge: Veronique Tadjo’s agile book Queen Pokou (Côte d’Ivoire) managed to handily rout Linn Ullmann’s brooding novel The Cold Song (Norway). So what happened to the Norwegians?

The Cold Song stumbles out vicious and sloppy from the start. Somewhere between thriller and family drama, but with the conviction of neither, Ullmann’s novel is humorlessly peopled by people one would rather not spend time with. There’s Siri, the mother and shrew, overworked and undersexed, spread too thin as narrative glue but the narrative’s glue nonetheless. There’s Jon, the father and blocked novelist (there’s a specter haunting Norwegian literature), who simply cannot seem to write a word or stop constantly cheating on his wife. Then there’s Jenny, the drunken grandmother; and Alma, the disgruntled teen; and her sister Liv, who lives a life in fifty words or less. Oh, and of course, don’t forget Milla, the au pair whose brutal rape and murder at the hands of the sociopath K.B. occasions this whole ordeal. More on Milla in a bit.

As a thriller, The Cold Song relies on the smallest suspicion that a family member may have snuffed out the babysitter. Did Siri uncover an affair? Is Jon covering one up? Did Jenny get soused and commit a hit-and-run? When, halfway through, we learn that’s not the case, and that an Evil Villain is at the heart of Milla’s disappearance, everything falls back on the shoulders of the family drama. The floodgates open, and these banal voices yell and fuck and drink, revisiting their own pasts’ traumas and indiscretions without ever really coming into emotional contact. Great novels are built on less, but Ullmann never takes these relationships into dangerous waters—nothing is real or unreal, challenging or exciting or terrifying enough. All seems static and half-sketched and grey. What some have called nuanced, I’m calling flat.

And then there’s the rape and murder at the center of it all. Given the Scandinavian crime genre’s fascination with the brutalization of women’s bodies, one might read Ullmann’s take as a kind of critique, and I don’t think that’s wrong; yet it’s tired, tiring, to trudge through one more rape-as-narrative-engine novel, hell bent on having us act as witness while, at the same time, flattening the act’s social and political and cultural machinations. Furthermore, Milla spends much of the book missing, her rape and murder disclosed only to the reader, leaving the cast to dwell in their petty, simple miseries. One wonders if any of it was really necessary, the extremity wedged inside such a timid story, and, at the conclusion, Ullmann sacrifices complexity for a simple Bad Things Happen tact.

Queen Pokou plays a different, smarter game altogether. Of course the general caveat: it’s hard to compare the two books, considering their drastically different approaches to narrative. But follow Tadjo’s epic-in-miniature close enough, and it’s clear, at least to this judge, who the winner is.

Queen Pokou adapts a sweeping, legendary tone to recast the story of Queen Pokou’s sacrifice of her child, a foundation myth for the Baoule, the largest tribe in modern Côte d’Ivoire. In the story, Pokou escapes assassination from the invading Ashanti Confederacy and flees slavery with her people, making the long journey west to the Komoe River. At the river’s edge, with no way to cross and troops closing in, a priest proclaims that a sacrifice is required for the tribe’s survival. Pokou throws her infant into the dangerous waters, screaming, “Ba-ou-li: the child is dead!,” after which a giant tree crashes down to form a bridge. The tribe passes into safety, settling to farm in exile and taking the name Baoule in honor of the queen’s sacrifice. This is the basis for the legend, and the first story that appears in Tadjo’s narrative.

Here, it’s important to note Queen Pokou’s subtitle: Concerto for a Sacrifice. The lead voice in the orchestra, Pokou’s story is not a static note, held indefinitely unto silence, but has melody, rhythm, and counterpoint. For Tadjo, the foundation myth is just that: a foundation upon which to construct something new. In the novel’s second part, “The Time of Questioning,” the narrative begins teasing apart the emotional and ethical dimensions of such a sacrifice; suddenly we’re in the realm of speculation. One variation of the story sees Pokou sparing her infant only to throw herself to the waters to become an ocean goddess; in another, the queen refuses a sacrifice altogether, and the tribe is brutally captured and shipped across the Atlantic Passage into new world slavery; yet another variation reframes the sacrifice as a rejection of motherhood and a bid for power.

By turns fantastical and terrifying and chilling, each new variation looks at the foundation myth from a new vantage point, testing the Queen’s decisions and motives by shifting the variables. Tadjo’s language finds rhythms and repetitions that build in force, turning her mythic tone into something more terrestrial. Indeed, the real power of Queen Pokou is in the way that this tonal shift occurs, in how, variation after variation, Tadjo invokes the traumas of the African eighteenth century—slavery, colonization, and civil war—to deconstruct and humanize the legend. I’m not sure how many of my fellow judges in this tournament will be so affected by Veronique Tadjo’s Queen Pokou, but I, for one, wish the Côte d’Ivoire luck.

Côte d’Ivoire: 3
Norway: 0


Next up, Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou will face off against either The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky (Germany) or The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva (Thailand) on Tuesday, June 23rd.

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Florian Duijsens and is a big one, featuring China’s The Last Lover by Can Xue (recent winner of the Best Translated Book Award) against New Zealand’s much praised The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.

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