This match was judged by Florian Duijsens, a senior editor at Asymptote, fiction editor at SAND Journal, and teacher at Bard College Berlin. You can follow him on Twitter at @neonres.
Today’s match pits two trophy winners against each other; in 2013, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries snagged both the Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Award for English-language fiction. Can Xue’s The Last Lover and its translator Annalise Finnegan Wasmoen, meanwhile, captured the hotly contested Best Translated Book Award Cup just last month. As for your referee today, I read Catton’s book when it came out, eager to lose myself in the brick-sized book after its buzz made it all the way over to Berlin from New Zealand. Before being assigned this match-up, I’d not read Can Xue’s work, though Dylan Suher’s wonderful interview with her (sample quote, from Can Xue herself: “China has more than a few Can Xue fans, but overall, Can Xue’s era still hasn’t arrived, because her works are too ahead of the curve, and don’t conform to commonplace, habitual aesthetics.”), and the recent BTBA honor certainly made me stoked to read her “radiantly original” novel.
The singular voice Can Xue and her translator chose for The Last Lover is radically different from most fiction I encounter: the sentences are pointedly gawky, the dialogue stilted, and emotions change as quickly as chameleons lost in a book of paisley wallpaper samples. This is entirely intentional (and remarkably consistent), as I learned from Daniel Medin’s interview with Annelise Finegan Wasmoen:
Since it was important to follow [Can Xue’s] associative logic that relates certain words or images to each other, I chose a translation style that kept as much consistency as possible, retaining correlations instead of attempting to achieve a natural flow [. . .] translate everything; explain nothing.
All this also means that synopsizing The Last Lover is entirely beside the point: generically named characters live in an unnamed and barely detailed Western country. They obsess over their boss, employee, wife, husband, son, or lover, each of them equally volatile in their emotional and geographical states, popping up now here, then there, now crying, then shouting. The book makes a point of all of them being on a “long march,” a somewhat allegorical reference to the Long March of the 1930s that here seems to translate to our unending journey of self-discovery and, not least, our acceptance of others’ similarly unending travails of the soul.
Joe, the novel’s quasi-protagonist, may work at a clothing manufacturing company, but he really is a professional reader at heart, constantly dipping in and out of books hidden among his papers at work and in the higgledy-piggledy library cum bedroom he keeps for himself at home. Joe’s way of reading is how I can best interpret the way Can Xue would like her books to be read. “Wrongly,” that is: Joe is constantly mixing up the stories in different books (Kafka’s stories seem particularly ripe for his plundering) or performing more radical readings by tackling them in pitch dark or by putting his ear to their covers. Books are as untrustworthy and inconstant as memory, we are told, and we should not expect them to make any more sense.
The Luminaries, to address the massive tome on the other side of the field today, is an entirely different kettle of verbs and nouns: a historical murder mystery that would not seem outré to readers of either Henry James or Wilkie Collins. Imagine TV’s Deadwood, but scripted and directed by Jane Campion and her astrologer AD. Over the course of its 800+ pages, Catton slowly reveals how a suicidal prostitute, a dead prospector, a villainous captain, and a fortune sown into a dress are all connected to, and intertwined with, the lives and fates of a varied troupe of characters in a New Zealand town during the 1860s Otago Gold Rush. Precisely plotted and charted to the movement of the stars, each chapter perches on a cliffhanger, with the reader helplessly leaping ever onward until the whole thing comes twisting back together. (I couldn’t help but wonder what the critics’ response would have been had the name on the cover been that of a man—would Catton have been showered in yet more awards, not to mention shouts of “Genius”?)
True, I was exhausted when I was done, and the book is so long and intricately structured that it includes (and practically requires) its own recap in the middle, but the language is enchanting, evocative in its conjuring of time and place, and vivid in its depiction of villains and heroes alike. Although its astronomical underpinnings largely went over my head on my first reading (each of the characters is associated with a heavenly body, coming together and apart with the orbits of the stars; the chapters slowly wane with the moon), it makes for a gripping experience that is as much about plot as it is about who killed the prospecting Crosbie Wells, perhaps more so.
Back in 2008, film critic Roger Ebert called out the critics who remained unmoved by Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, noting that having a woman move into a house that is perennially on fire is not “unrealistic” at all: “Don’t unhappy homes always seem like that? Aren’t people always trying to ignore it?” (In fact, Wikipedia tells me Tennessee Williams said something similar: “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.”)
I wonder if critics would have embraced Kaufman’s masterpiece more had it come from Italy or Iran, as we tend to give outsiders in world cinema (or literature, for that matter) a touch more leeway; if the names are big enough (or the country of origin exotic enough), we are more likely to waive the otherwise required elements of plot, character, and dialogue. Often this is an entirely good thing: how else to first approach the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Tsai Ming-liang? Of Elfriede Jelinek or even James Joyce? Yet this can become a rusty reflex too, recommending books because they won a bunch of awards or because Susan Sontag (no stranger to enjoying difficulty for difficulty’s sake) once said she liked them, so they must be good, right?
In The Last Lover, Joe’s boss, Vincent, at some point ends up at the house of his in-laws, who can’t stop talking to their parrot:
Vincent couldn’t understand their conversation. It seemed they were debating the question of putting power lines on the stone mountains. It also seemed like they were analyzing methods of tracking down criminals on the run. No matter what the old couple said, the old parrot always said, “Very good! Very good! A work of genius! A work of genius!”
In today’s verdict, I cannot parrot the esteemed critics and friends who’ve already praised Can Xue. Reading The Last Lover was non-stop torture for me. Not a page went by that I wasn’t entirely lost at sea, that didn’t make me want to violently toss the book out of whichever room or vehicle I was in, whereas Catton’s was a wonderful slog that I now—almost two years later—fell right back into with equal measures of delight and intrigue.
Of course people flit between emotions like demented hummingbirds, faces can change quicker than a paragraph can break, and places suddenly can feel farther or closer apart. Can Xue is right: life in no way functions like the celestial clockwork of The Luminaries. Yet, to me, the best books do. However precise or pointillist their construction, my favorite books pay tribute to the intricate designs the human mind is capable of, and is capable of conveying to others through the medium of the book. I know reality is a complex muddle of emotion, politics, etc. but I hope books can somehow convince me otherwise, or—in absence of such syntactic solace—comfort me instead: with their skill, their beauty, their truth.
We all live in a house on fire, so best buy yourself a stack of the biggest, smartest books you can find and build yourself a bonfire. New Zealand for the win.
New Zealand: 4
Next up, New Zealand’s The Luminaries will face off against either Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (Canada) or The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic (Netherlands) on Monday, June 22nd.
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.
To pitch anyone against W. G. Sebald is a cruel exercise, even within the high-stakes tournament that is the World Cup of Literature. More so even than Bolaño, whose fame in the English-speaking world has also grown exponentially after his death, Sebald’s posthumous stature is gargantuan, and his presence in this tournament is that of a towering flâneur facing teams of tiny tots in soccer shoes and diapers.
Still, the game has begun and a winner can and must officially be declared only after this second-round match has been played. To introduce our players then: On our left, playing for the former French colony of Algeria, there’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane, translated by Alison Anderson, on our right, sauntering about the field and peering at the crypto-fascist stadium architecture is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, translated from the German by Anthea Bell.
A cursory glance at these books’ stats suggests several points in common: occasional footnotes, a playful approach to fact and fiction, an authorial narrator who was told the story by a restless third party, that third party being the bearer of two names and two identities. Yet this reader found one book almost infinitely stronger when the last pages had been turned and the final whistle blown.
Set in Paris, Marouane’s novel, her fifth, has at its center Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, a man of Algerian descent who, at the age of 40, though very successful at his only sketchily described job in finance, still lives with his mother and still is a virgin. He describes how, early on in his career, he legally had his name changed to Basile Toquard, lightening his skin and straightening his hair, all in order to ‘pass’ among the French more easily. His impulse purchase of an expensive flat at the beginning of the novel, however, forces him to renegotiate this split identity, especially once (in a very Hollywood move) he promises his devastated mother he will marry before he and his still devout brother leave on their haj to Mecca in a few months time. Though he tries to pop his cherry and find a suitable mate, his clock soon is running out as the women he courts turn out to be quite unlike the vixens his lustful gaze had suggested. The joke is on Mohamed as the plot derails amidst authorial interventions and that move most deserving of a literary red card, the ‘dream sequence’. In a silly take on Kafka’s The Judgment, these bits see the previously overprotective mother suddenly turned into a freethinking feminist artist, rendering poor Mohamed’s hard-won independence from her meaningless; who is he without his mother?
If this indeed sounds like a trippy Muslim take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you should know that Marouane adds a metafictional frisson by inserting both herself into the narrative (under the pseudonym of feminist Algerian author Loubna Minbar), as well as the female protagonists of her previous novels. This does not, however, get us any closer to any of the characters (or, really, the vagaries of post-colonial identity), instead often drawing us further away while the actors turn into warring stereotypes performing an increasingly bizarre allegorical romcom of letters.
Austerlitz, on the other hand, uses its central and titular character’s quest to learn more about his unknown heritage to simultaneously illuminate the way the 20th century has scarred us all. When young Dafydd Elias learns his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and later finds out that he came to Wales alone as a child on a Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe, this sets him on a course that will lead him, both consciously and subconsciously, to learn more about his family and the horror that tore it apart.
As played out in hotel lobbies and train station waiting rooms, the story of both Jacques Austerlitz and Austerlitz the novel is one born from the Sebaldian belief that:
we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time
Though endlessly and fascinatingly digressive, all the digressions Austerlitz leads the narrator on have a bearing on both his past and on the way history is still unspooling all around and underneath us. From casual mentions of the “murderous town of Bacharach” and Schumann’s descent into madness, to longer essayistic reportage on Fort Breendonk outside of Antwerp or the concentration camp at Terezín, Sebald’s book bears witness to a past that is barely buried. As James Wood points out in his foreword to the 10th anniversary edition, it is impossible for a contemporary reader to make her way through the book without time and time again misreading the protagonist’s name as Auschwitz, a cursed name pointedly not mentioned anywhere in the book. The interspersed and unattributed photography, meanwhile, at once reminds us that this fiction is rooted in fact, these pictured places at some point having existed somewhere real, and nags at us as we realize that surely the boy in costume on the cover cannot be the fictional character Austerlitz; relics of the past they may be, but photographs in no way can offer us conclusive proof (or comfort).
All this to say that on the metaphorical soccer field this tournament calls home, Marouane may have conjured up a shape shifting team of conflicted French Algerians dressed in outfits that range from the traditionally Muslim to high-priced finance casual, a glance at Sebald’s side of the field reveals it to be deserted, the grass rolled up to uncover the foundations of the fortified encampment that once stood in the stadium’s stead. Outside, in the dilapidated and dark little bakery where you can only hear muted honks of the echoing vuvuzelas, is a man telling another man the story of our lives, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on”.
In the end, then, the result is the expected one: the Algerian team defeated, the stands and goals empty, the ref’s whistles always already forgotten.
Germany’s victory: 1-0.
Florian Duijsens is a freelance writer/editor/translator, senior editor of Asymptote Journal, and fiction editor at Sand. He lives in Berlin.
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