Canada vs. Netherlands [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Hannah Chute, recent recipient of her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester.
Oryx & Crake vs. The Ministry of Pain winds up being one of the stranger match-ups in terms of national identities. On the one hand, we have a novel set in a dystopian, post-Canadian future, while on the other we have an ostensibly Dutch novel about exiles that is really more Yugoslavian than anything.
I’ll start with Dubravka Ugrešić’s strange and lovely tale of Tanja Lucić, a Croatian teacher of a “servo-kroatisch” course at a university in Amsterdam, and of her complex relationships with her students, her homeland, and her language.
One of the most memorable sections is when Tanja has her students—all of whom speak Serbo-Croatian perfectly well, and who have almost exclusively come to Amsterdam from the former Yugoslavia—bring in memories of that country. Until this point it can be difficult as a reader to keep track of which student is which, but here each character’s way of speaking and choice of subject matter emerge as so distinctive that their various personalities leap off the page. The most memorable presentation is Igor’s, which details his friend Mikac’s reaction to an anthology of Yugoslav poetry. Mikac appears to be channeling Holden Caulfield in his goofy but acerbic commentary: “They’re a bunch of sickos, our poets,” he says, and “‘I know not what thou art: art thou woman or hyena?’ Shit! Did that guy get my goat!”
The narration moves smoothly between moments of syrupy intimacy between Lucić and her students (when they meet they exchange “sweet verbal saliva” and engage in “aural fondling”) and biting, bitter anger over what has become of the former Yugoslavia (Lucić expresses her disdain for “the prepacked retrofuture of the newly minted states”). This constant shifting makes the characters’ shaky and ever-changing position as exiles and émigrés all the more poignant.
Ugrešić also inserts into her narrative moments of reflection on the role of language, especially in times of war and turmoil. As she describes the breaking up of Serbo-Croatian into various regional languages: “It was a divorce full of sound and fury . . . Croats would eat their kruh, while Serbs would eat their hleb, Bosnians their hljeb: the word for bread in the three languages was different. Smrt, the word for death, was the same.” Lucić has a love-hate relationship with her native tongue; she treasures it but wonders if it is real, she loses her grip on it even as she tries to cling tighter and tighter.
Overall, Ugrešić’s novel is everything it should be: funny, tragic, strange, and thought-provoking.
Oryx & Crake is remarkable in very different ways. It is a thrilling mystery, a work of speculative fiction set in the not-so-distant future, when humanity has been all but wiped out by terrible events that gradually come to light as Snowman, the novel’s protagonist, digs back through his dark past.
Breathtaking in its scope, frightening in its ever-more-looming feasibility, Oryx & Crake is, however, no mere cautionary fable. Atwood does not just show us a frightening future in which corporate greed and the heady lure of consequence-free living have brought humanity to the brink of extinction; I can think of any number of writers who could accomplish that much. But Atwood skillfully walks the fine line between making her point effectively and hammering it into her reader’s head so hard that she forgets to write a story. Luckily for her readers, she is far too talented to make such an error.
The plot is structured with sublime pacing that compels you to keep turning the pages. Atwood moves effortlessly between Snowman’s ruined, miserable present and the past that seemed so full of promise, even if cracks were starting to show around the edges. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Atwood has not felt the need to overexplain her world. Snowman’s past is set at some point in our near-ish future, when the world as we know it has been divided into small Compounds of the intellectual and economic elite surrounded by vast “pleeblands” where anything goes. How did humanity get here? Atwood leaves it to your imagination, which I think it quite refreshing.
The beauty of Oryx & Crake’s language is particularly striking because of its contrast with the bleak realities of the novel. “A breeze riffles the leaves overhead; insects rasp and trill; red light from the setting sun hits the tower blocks in the water, illuminating an unbroken pane here and there, as if a scattering of lamps has been turned on;” Snowman’s seaside lair would almost sound paradisiacal, were it not for the devastated shell of a city strewn with bodies that surrounds him. The beauty of language becomes crucial to Snowman; he has not had human contact for some time now, and holding onto obsolete words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant”) becomes a way to keep himself whole, if not quite sane.
This is a challenging match to judge, simply because it seems to me that Atwood and Ugrešić are playing two different games. If Ugrešić is playing at something vaguely resembling soccer—down and dirty, though perhaps without enough flashiness to attract a large American audience—Atwood is more likely working through a round of chess: she is precise, prescient, and highly imaginative. Also, while the scope and inventiveness of Oryx & Crake are unparalleled, The Ministry of Pain decidedly takes home the award for humor. Both novels are, in a sense, about important current events, but Atwood is painting a picture of a looming and oft-discussed future while Ugrešić is shedding light on the lives of people who have already suffered, but who have generally been shoved out of sight.
Another point in Ugrešić’s favor is that Michael Henry Heim’s translation is just about flawless. Who else would have thought to describe a bathroom remodel as “transfiguring the looscape”? And have it sound perfectly natural in context? Though with nothing to compare it with on Atwood’s end, I’m once again left feeling a little unbalanced.
It’s a rough choice, but ultimately it comes down to this: one point each for gorgeous language. Ugrešić’s humor and delightful strangeness earn her another goal. But Oryx & Crake is so provocative, so downright thrilling, that it scores two final goals, bringing it a victory over The Ministry of Pain, 3-2.
Next up, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will face off against New Zealand’s The Luminaries on Monday, June 22nd in what promises to be a huge second-round match.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rhea Lyons, and features England’s Life after Life by Kate Atkinson up against Colombia’s Delirium by Laura Restrepo.