Mexico vs. Colombia [Women's World Cup of Literature: Second Round]
This match was judged by Hilary Plum—you can learn more about her writing and editing at her website or on Twitter at @ClockrootBooks.
The stands are packed on both sides, tension palpable. Mexico’s entry into this year’s tournament: Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft, in Samantha Schnee’s endlessly sly translation. The novel kicks off in 1859, in a lightly fictionalized version of the Mexican/Texas border, along the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande (depending on where you’re sitting) and in the twin cities—or, a Mexican city and a sad Texan excuse for one—of Matasánchez and Bruneville. As the title reminds us and the novel renders in profound detail, this border was drawn in bloodshed and greed: land that is now the state of Texas had first belonged to Mexico, until the Republic of Texas was declared in 1835, for among other reasons the desire to legalize slavery, which was counter to Mexican law. In 1846, Texas joined the U.S., resulting in the war of 1848 that our textbooks know as the Mexican-American War, but which could just be called a U.S. invasion. The US declared a new, more southerly border and land north of it was redirected into American hands—i.e.: stolen. Amid all this, the conflicts with and among the American Indians who were either of or had been relocated to the region continued. If this sounds like a highly complex geopolitical moment in which to set what seems to be a comic novel, you’re right on.
On one dusty high noon in July in Bruneville, the sheriff/mediocre carpenter of Bruneville insults Don Nepomuceno, son of a prominent Mexican family. Shots are fired, conflict ensues—an intricate and bloody chain of consequences that our narrator relates with relentless Pynchonian inventiveness. The pace is fast, the tone witty, the speed may be manic but this novel won’t lose its cool. When I picture this team, its game is soccer as spectacle: moves showy as hell, hairstyles unprecedented. Each short passage in Texas zips into the next, into and out of the lives of a massive cast of characters, ever precise but never not flip. Boullasa’s form of procedural improvisation is her own, though one thinks too of Aira and Bolaño: this is art along the high-tide line, style poised, glittering, mid-crash, before exhausting itself. Through the snap and pizazz of the prose, the horrors of this conflict surface; we recall how close we are to the landscape through which Cormac McCarthy’s Judge raged, the kid with his mindless taste for violence.
Daring, even absurd, Mexico’s game starts strong: Boullosa’s nonstop stand-up routines, winking and shapeshifting, take us to halftime with a 2–1 Mexican lead.
We turn then to the Colombian side, where Laura Restrepo’s Delirium sets a quite different pace: a fluid elegance, a taut lyricism that, we’ll come to see, can both give and take real devastation. The achievements of Restrepo’s novel—in Natasha Wimmer’s translation—are curiously hard to describe. Its structure is more conventional than Texas’s, without really being conventional; setting the two novels side by side illuminates how Restrepo, too, is playing with genre, though more quietly, so that the reader may almost not notice. The novel is centered on Agustina, a young Colombian woman of upper-class background who is deep in an episode of—one could call it delirium, or madness, or mania: in any case she is far from reality. She has spent her life, as we’ll learn, in and out of such episodes, while also believing herself, perhaps being believed by others, to possess visionary powers. Agustina is a sort of absent center, then—even though she is one of the novel’s four narrators, sometimes referring to herself in the first person, sometimes in the third, she also constitutes its vital mystery. What has caused the new and terrible instance of madness in which we discover her in the novel’s opening scene? This is the question her lover, Aguilar—former professor of literature; current dog-food salesman—sets out to answer, and which seems to drive the book’s plot, against the background of 1980s Bogotá. Aguilar narrates the course of this search, while Agustina’s sections are set during her childhood, amid the layers of secrecy and oppression that make up her deeply patriarchal family. Agustina’s grandfather, a German musician obsessed with a young student, occupies the third, haunting narrative strand; the fourth belongs to the propulsive voice of Midas McAlister, Agustina’s one-time boyfriend and a money launderer who may have just run dangerously afoul of cocaine king Pablo Escobar.
The novel seems, then, to be driven by suspense, infused by noir: a madwoman, a mystery, a detective on the hunt. Yet gradually—no spoilers here—Restrepo sets aside the simplifying logic of cause and effect and refuses any expectation of easy resolution. One narrator yields to the next, ongoingly, and the instability of each character’s story reflects a greater instability, a vulnerability intimate to each voice and yet which also belongs to the societal and political moment—drug traffickers running the nation, guerrillas claiming the highways, bombs detonating downtown—in which they live. In Wimmer’s translation, Restrepo’s syntax is capable of swift architectural feats (you may think of Sebald), suddenly building a world that is half-reality, half-dream, and just as quickly replacing it with another, each creation given life by a vivid sensual glimmer or an offhand flash of her intelligence.
The match is a tense one; both teams play at the top of their games. In the stands you all should have Texas in one hand, Delirium in the other, not able even to pick up your beer till you’ve finished reading. It could go either way, but today, since I’m the judge, I see Colombia pull away in the game’s second half, a greater range of moves at its disposal. Texas is so insistently various and vaudevillian that it becomes, in its way, consistent, and loses a bit of momentum: all short fast passes, less chance of the long desperate lob toward goal, of sinking to one’s knees on the field. We end with a hard-fought 3–2, victory Delirium, in what has surely been another incarnation of the beautiful game.
There we go! All six countries in the quarter- and semi-finals have been decided: Germany, Canada, Cameroon, Australia, Costa Rica, and Colombia. (Very much different from the actual semifinals!)
In terms of pairings, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine gets the top bye and will play the winner of Assault on Paradise vs. Delirium. Oryx & Crake gets the other bye and will face off against the winner of Burial Rites vs. Dark Heart of the Night.
More info soon about these final match-ups. For now, enjoy today’s actual Women’s World Cup quarterfinals . . .