Spain vs. Costa Rica [Women's World Cup of Literature: Second Round]

This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, blog editor at Asymptote. You can follow her on Twitter at @kojensen.

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This match between Tatiana Lobo’s Assault on Paradise (translated by Asa Zatz) and Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is really a battle between the epic and the subtle. Representing Costa Rica we have a novel depicting the Conquistadores and the Church invading Central America in the early 1700s, and may I just say that I’ve rarely encountered such a larger-than-life opening (entitled “Pa-brú Presbere dreams of Surá, Lord of the Nether World”!!)

Here’s a random sentence from the very first page, which is almost written as if God herself were the narrator:

The fire slowly expired and the shadows fell, the darkness good for thinking and meditation but not about the external things that anguish us in the officious light of day, rather about the secrets of the womb.

In contrast to this opening from “above,” The Happy City—a novel in two separate yet connected sections, representing Spain—begins very much from below, with the first pre-adolescent main character, Chi-Huei, spying on his father and his aunt from a garden (yes, this boy is witnessing something in a garden; need I say more about where the story is going?):

From the bushes, a chorus of crickets rose up, monotonous and precise, drowning out the hum of the traffic and the neighbors’ voices issuing from open windows. The sultry summer atmosphere oozed with the sweet, acidic scent of the loquats, and Chi-Huei liked to stand beneath the tree, breathing in the strangeness of the night, although he was not aware of its mute vibration just now.

As mentioned, The Happy City consists of two sections, and both of them follow a pre-teen (in the first section it’s Chi-Huei, while the second section is dedicated to his friend Sara) discovering the disturbing complexities of the adult world. This novel is written with a sharp clarity, which Assault on Paradise at times fails to achieve. The “epic” nature of the latter almost forced me to keep a notebook in order to remember certain characters and events—which some readers like, I just happen to not like it—and that earns Spain a goal during the first half of this match.


In the second half, however, Costa Rica takes revenge. Although The Happy City covers some steps towards sexuality, it doesn’t stand a chance against the intriguing misadventures of main character and admirer of women Pedro Albarán from Assault on Paradise. Just take a look at this opening sentence for chapter two, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book:

Bárbare Lorenzana and Pedro Albarán arrived at the city of Cartago at the same time, slept under the same roof, made love to the same woman, and had not spoken to one another for the past ten long years.

Pedro’s encounters include—but are not limited to—La Chamberga the innkeeper; a local prostitute called The Mother of Travelers; Agueda, wife of an officer in the army; and finally, a mute native woman who embodies the culture that Pedro Albarán’s compatriots seek to terminate. Well done, Pedro. You’ve scored a goal for Costa Rica.
With a score of 1-1, here comes the divine FIFA-like corruption scandal: I’ve decided to leak an out-of-context quote from an email sent to me by fellow judge Meredith Miller, who scandalously allowed Costa Rica to win over Brazil last week. Here’s what she wrote about Assault on Paradise:

Don’t get bogged down by all of the names or disoriented with the mythology in the opening pages.

Well said, Miller. The truth is, Assault on Paradise is epically ambitious in many ways, but it also manages to enthrall the reader with its clever use of low-brow humor combined with an elevated language when the story calls for it. Costa Rica scores the final goal of this match, because reading Assault on Paradise is an utterly entertaining and unique experience.

Costa Rica 2, Spain 1


With only one match left to come, we can speculate a bit on what the quarterfinals will look like. Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has clinched a bye, and unless Texas wins by 5, or Delirium by 4, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will automatically advance to the semi-finals as well. The rest of the seedings are still a bit in flux, with the current standings being Australia (+3), Costa Rica (+2), and Cameroon (+1). Tomorrow’s winner could finish anywhere in there . . .

Speaking of tomorrow, the last match of the second round will be judged by Hilary Plum and feature Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (Mexico) against Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia). And following that, we’ll be able to specify who faces who in the quarter- and semi-finals.

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