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

This match was judged by Kalah McCaffrey, a Young Adult literary scout at Franklin & Siegal. You can follow her on Twitter at @moheganscout.

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As Ivory Coast and Germany lined up for kick-off in the second round of matches, I wasn’t sure what to expect: that powerhouse Germany had trounced underdog Thailand came as no surprise, but Côte d’Ivoire ousting stoic Norway was a nice twist. Côte d’Ivoire won the toss and first possession and their offensive attacks were wild and breathtaking, but ultimately the strategy was repetitive and short-winded, so endurance flagged. Germany’s steady, relentless advance quickly overwhelmed the defense and left the competition eating turf.

Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou showed its strengths early in the game—the rich mythology, nuance of language, and vibrant characters were instantly powerful. Queen Abraha Pokou’s tale, the origin story of the Baoule people, captivated with wild magical twists, and Pokou fulfilled the role of de facto goalkeeper/savior of her people with real chutzpah. Our heroine is born the niece of the respected king of the Ashanti Kingdom. An early outcrop of wild hair destines her for greatness, a prophecy fulfilled when her brother succeeds her uncle as king and she develops an instinct for leadership. While the king is far from home, Pokou faces an invasion by sending her people to hide in the woods while she herself remains behind to protect the weak. She gets kidnapped, but the king returns in time to rescue her, she becomes a trusted advisor to the throne, and later marries (one of many husbands) and finally gives birth to a son. Her brother king falls ill and names their half-brother his successor, but a treacherous uncle challenges his claim, so Pokou leads the loyal subjects into exile to protect them from a ruthless rash of murders. While trekking through the wilderness, faced with an impassable river and the advancing army looming behind them, the high priest instructs Pokou to sacrifice her royal-blooded infant son in order to calm the waters. She does so without hesitating, saves her people, and her cry of grief—Ba-ou-li (“the child is dead”)—becomes the name of their new community. This moment marks a goal of singular flair just before halftime, a bicycle kick that rockets the ball to the top left corner. In the second half, despite mesmerizing imagery, the story arc becomes muddled and repetitive. The defensive line interferes with its own keeper, offense keeps forfeiting possession, and chaos generally reigns. Some chapters repeat portions of the previous events but from a different angle, while others pick up at scattered points and progress in any number of directions. In one, Queen Pokou herself gives in to the river and becomes a water-dwelling goddess. In another, the tale imagines what the Baoule’s fate would have been had Pokou not sacrificed her son: instead her people stage an ambush and challenge the advancing army long enough to retreat and seek refuge in a nearby village. But in the night the army rallies and slaughters Pokou’s people and their innocent hosts. The language is undeniably rich, even decadent and visceral. The images and spontaneous magical developments are intoxicating as well, but I was left feeling bemused and dyspeptic, as if I’d overindulged in a heavy meal. And while the distilled nature of this very brief text might have proven more challenging to other opponents, Côte d’Ivoire just didn’t have the stamina to maintain pressure against Germany’s stiff, and highly entertaining, attack.

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine started off with a bang and the hits just kept coming. The self-involved, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing protagonist Rosalinda charmed the referees as she bullied her way through life, a true striker through and through. Of Tartar descent and living in Russia, Rosa is determined to lead a comfortable life, and her homely, stupid daughter Sulfia and pushover husband are no match for her ambition. Rosa’s plotting carries the whole match, even through her own downfall. The first challenges she faces are when Sulfia comes home pregnant at seventeen, claiming to be a virgin. Rosa cares for the resulting granddaughter, Aminat, as her own and is pleased when the young girl grows beautiful and smart, if ill-tempered. Next up is locking down a man for Sulfia, most easily accomplished by using her daughter’s job as a nurse to gain access to men’s affections. The first conquest has a roving eye and defects quickly. The second prospect, though Jewish (to Rosa’s chagrin), proves a decent man even though he knocks Sulfia up and only agrees to marry her after Rosa orchestrates it (tie game). Just when it seems settled—Sulfia has a decent man, ugly baby Lena arrives, and Rosa keeps Aminat nearby (fortunate, since the girl goes feral any time Rosa spends much time away from her)—Sulfia’s husband announces plans to emigrate to Israel with his family. The day before they’re set to leave, Rosa tries to kill herself. When she wakes, she finds Sulfia and Aminat have stayed behind (Germany scores again, if in a dirty penalty kick; the first half closes at 2-1). Sulfia is crushed and Aminat resents Rosa, but the matriarch won’t be deterred. She finds a third husband for her daughter, and this time it’s a German (Rosa wants out of Russia and into Europe). But Dieter is a bit . . . off. He takes an outsized interest in Aminat and merely tolerates Sulfia. Dieter is, however, the ticket to Germany, and relocates all three ladies in order to keep Aminat. The teenager grows sullen, withdrawn, acne-prone. Rosa is aware of the subtext, but loves her new life and will not give it up. Sulfia goes back to Russia to settle affairs so she can marry Dieter, but she falls ill (cancer perhaps) and also gets stuck looking after her ailing father. Back in Germany, Rosa gets a job as a cleaning lady in which she takes great pride and satisfaction. With her own income she feels empowered, and learns to ride a bike, then to drive a car. She even pursues a medical career (a surprise goal from nearly mid-field!; 3-1), though her self-taught education and under-the-table medical advice get her promptly fired (yellow card). In rapid succession, Sulfia dies, Rosa begins to hallucinate her daughter’s presence, Rosa gets taken in by an odd, wealthy Englishman, Rosa’s former husband comes to Germany, a grown-up Lena appears from Israel, and Aminat runs away (second yellow card; Rosa is thrown out of the game). The final chapters show Rosa drifting listlessly through life until she discovers Aminat is a contestant on a TV competition to find star singers. Aminat wins the entire competition, bringing the final score to a thrilling 4-1.

By the second half, the outcome of the match was evident. I appreciated the matchup of the ruthlessly pragmatic heroines who will do anything—including sacrifice their children to disturbing or even tragic fates—to achieve a better life; powerful women faced with impossible circumstances they refuse to let best them. But Rosa’s colorful obstinacy and wildly implausible trajectory (without even the aid of magical realism) carry the game and thrust Germany to the top.


Yesterday I commented on how strong Canada looked in the competition. But then, German and Bronsky! Over two matches, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has won by a combined score of 9-2. That’s some serious domination. This part of the bracket could come down to Atwood versus Bronsky . . . But I am getting ahead of myself.

Tomorrow’s match features Ecuador’s Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío up against Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano.

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