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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