Japan vs. Ecuador [Women's World Cup of Literature: First Round]

This match was judged by M. Lynx Qualey, who runs the Arabic Literature website, and can be found on Twitter at @arablit.

For more information on the Women’s World Cup of Literature, click here or here. Also, be sure to follow our Twitter account and like our Facebook page. And check back here daily!

Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales, translated by Stephen Snyder, and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands, translated by Amalia Gladhart, take two very different stylistic approaches. The first is spare, light, and beautiful, while the second bounces along wildly, piling words on top of words (on top of words). But both are collections of linked stories that confuse magic and reality. One takes us around Japan and the other around the Galapagos.

Ogawa scores first with her tidily crafted tales that give us strange, miniature portraits of rejection, with perfectly tended sentences ably re-crafted by Snyder. Each of Ogawa’s creepy story-portraits is linked to the next, sometimes through a character, but more often through a single image. The stories aren’t linked organically, but through their recurring images: a strawberry shortcake, a torture device, apartment number 508.

She scores again as the stories go off-kilter. Each tale of revenge isn’t much in itself: a man won’t leave his wife for his lover, a father doesn’t properly look after his daughter, a woman kills and buries her husband. In the course of them, we hear about violence, but we don’t feel its impact. Instead, the camera cuts away just as a human tongue rolls semi-comically out of a pocket. It soon becomes clear that the violence has been staged for us, and are we to enjoy it? A character’s boyfriend asks, “Do you find it amusing that someone died?”

The echoes grow stranger as they move from one story to the next: kiwis, tomatoes, hand-shaped carrots, torture devices, a dying tiger. As the stories progress, the earlier tales reappear curled up inside the later ones. The women in the stories grow older, clutching their manuscripts, or their reams of blank paper.

None of the individual stories is particularly memorable. Instead, what fascinates about the collection is the echoes that move from one story and the next, often pointing back at the reader. These aren’t really dark tales. They’re light and creepy, twisted in their reflection of the reader looking at the strange violence of rejection, in a mirror that includes a look at ourselves.

Alicia Yanez Cossio’s playful, satiric Beyond the Islands is also a collection of short tales, each chapter focusing on a character who’s at the edge of the world, on the Galapagos Islands. The characters are wonderfully storybook: the pirate with buried treasure, the poet who’s lost his muse, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the narcissistic scientist, the spinster schoolmarm, the grieving mother, the witch-healer, and the baker with the blow-up baroness.

All of them are migrants in some way, and all have come to live among the strange animals on the beautiful, forbidding islands. Each is pushed to his or her outer limits in this place where land shifts its location and the rules of life and death are different than they are elsewhere. Many of the sections—particularly the poet and the scientist—are told with such over-the-top joie de vivre that the reader, thanks to Amalia Gladhart’s translation, goes bouncing over the sentences, with humor and exaggeration.

Everyone is pushed to absurdity here, as for instance the scientist who hijacks a plane in his self-important eagerness to get to the Galapagos (and to his lover), and the spinster schoolmarm who whips up the entire island in the cause of greeting Princess Anne.

This novel scores again and again with its bouncy sentences, its exaggerated marginal characters, the exploration of place beyond place, and the pure joy of its delivery.
Both books have their own strange wit, but Beyond the Islands is a thrill, even steering the reader in to a ridiculous, moving finish. Beyond the Islands definitively beats Revenge 4-2.


And that does it for the first round of the inaugural Women’s World Cup of Literature!

For Ecuador, Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands will next face off against Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano on Wednesday, June 24t.

The second round will kick off on Monday with Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood (Canada) taking on The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (New Zealand). That’s a huge match! Experience against youth. A book about the future versus one set in the past. A reasonably sized novel compared with a giant. This should be interesting . . .

Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rachel Crawford, and features Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent against Sweden’s The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg.

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