Brazil vs. Costa Rica [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]
This match was judged by Meredith Miller, a Foreign Rights Agent at Trident Media Group. You can follow her on Twitter at @merofthemillers.
Assault on Paradise vs. Crow Blue pits two very different books from the Americas against one another in a David vs. Goliath match-up. Geographically speaking, Costa Rica is a mere .6% of the total landmass of Brazil, and its population 2.2% of its much larger cousin. Harder, if not impossible to measure is the significance of each country’s respective cultural histories replete with bloody colonization, uprisings, and political upheaval.
At their root, Assault on Paradise and Crow Blue are both stories of exodus—one propelled by the historical events that directly shape and forever alter one man’s life and the other a portrait of a young woman’s life indirectly shaped by the reverberations of a time and place she never knew. Through disparate means, both books achieve what I seek to gain reading literature in translation. Both stories place you directly in a time, with a people, either previously unknown or little-known, shrinking the world just a little bit more to better comprehend our shared collective experience.
In Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue (trans. Alison Entrekin), thirteen-year-old Vanja leaves her home in Rio de Janeiro for the suburbs of Denver in search of her biological father and her identity after the untimely death of her mother. Guiding Vanja on her search and assuming the role of de facto father is Fernando, an early ex-husband of Vanja’s mother with a violent past as a guerilla fighter. Multilayered, Crow Blue is also an exploration of Brazil’s sordid political history. The narrative deftly leaps from Vanja’s present day search in the Southwest, which brings together an unlikely family of three displaced souls; to Vanja’s carefree childhood on the idyllic Copacabana Beach with her mother; to the occupied portions of the Amazon in the 1970s with Fernando witness to the atrocities carried out by the Brazilian government. This is a novel that very much belongs to its characters, with prose lush and metaphorical, about the compelling need that we humans have to know who we are and from where we came.
Lisboa secures the first point for Brazil through Vanja’s keen and astute observations—well beyond her years—of migration, assimilation, family, and whether it is “possible for the people and culture of a place not to be enmeshed in the fabric of time and history.” Like many immigrants, Vanja feels the burden of being without a sense of place, observing that “after you have been away from home too long, you become an intersection between the two groups.” Like a Venn Diagram, you come to occupy the space in between. The adults in Vanja’s life have a penchant for entrusting her with their own personal histories. She, by turn, is adept at ferreting out the missing pieces of the story and filling in what is not readily offered.
In the second half, Tatiana Lobo scores successive points for Costa Rica with Assault on Paradise (trans. Asa Zatz) for its tragicomic wit, punchy, modern language in spite of its eighteenth century setting, and its unapologetic indictment of the Spanish colonization of Central America. This ambitious, sweeping historical novel follows the misadventures of Pedro Albarán, an escaped prisoner of the Inquisition who has made it to the new world in search of his own personal freedom. Unsure of the crime for which he was arrested, Pedro adopts the philosophy of “play dead dog; be all ears” and “undercover efficiency” to keep a low profile in this strange new world.
Despite his best efforts to lay low, Pedro cannot help himself from pontificating about the hypocrisies of the Church and government and from his obsessive admiration of the opposite sex, escalating his status at one point to living legend. On an expedition to atone for the governor’s transgressions, Pedro falls madly in love with a mute native woman without ever understanding her or the culture his countrymen aim to destroy. Lobo breathes a touch of Mayan mystique and mythology into the mounting tension and ensuing conflict. Though tedious at times to keep track of the many settlers’ names and back stories, Lobo has crafted an engrossing, swashbuckling tale of the tumultuous makings of Central America.
Lobo succeeds in giving a wag of the finger to the bloodthirsty Conquistadors while maintaining a smart sense of humor securing one goal for Brazil, slipping in phrases such as “crotch-transgressions” when the narrative moment calls for it. She scores a second goal for the win with the pace at which she is able to maintain throughout the story, spanning nine years and two continents.
Costa Rica: 2
Next up, Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise will face off against either South Korea’s Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah or Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro on Friday, June 26th.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Sal Robinson, and features America’s Toni Morrison going up against Nigeria’s Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when Home faces off against Americanah.