This match was judged by Lizzy Siddal. You can keep up with her literary adventures at Lizzy’s Literary Life or on Twitter at @LizzySiddal.
The first second round match pits survival in a post-apocalyptic future against adventure during the 1860’s West Coast Gold Rush; Canada’s living legend against the brightest star in New Zealand’s literary firmament. This promises to be an epic fixture, not simply because Catton’s UK hardback is a whopping 832 pages long.
There’s no sense of the youngster being fazed by the reputation of her illustrious opponent. After all, New Zealand has lifted the trophies (Booker Prize, Canadian Governor’s General Award for English Language Fiction) that Canada failed to secure. This is a squad large enough to populate an astrological cosmogram and all the planets besides. It positions itself into an unorthodox golden spiral and opens with a leisurely 360 page section told by an omniscient narrator. This is an elegant homage to the 19th century greats with enough blackmail, theft, fraud, drugs, sex and murder to satisfy a modern audience. Though when the omniscient one twice refuses to let differentiating voices be heard, it’s like watching a promising team settle for possession in midfield. So confusing are the unvarying tone and the never-ending circling round of key moments that the need for a narrative recap—admittedly, a welcome respite to this reader who by then felt as though Anna Wetherell’s opium-induced haze was her own—is not only a weakness. It’s an own goal.
Atwood fields a more traditional formation; a narrative alternating between present and past. Her back passes serve only to drive the story forward and solve the mysteries established in the first 12 pages. Within a page count only 18 pages more than the first section of The Luminaries, Atwood’s precision creates two worlds (pre- and post-apocalypse), complete histories and psychologies for her main characters, a plethora of animal splicings (snats, rakunks, pigoons), and a genetically engineered species of homo not so sapiens. The story entertains and alarms in equal measure. The crime at its centre and the warning apropos rogue scientists have depths and purpose that The Luminaries cannot match.
Halftime score: Canada 2, New Zealand 0
Catton’s structural strategy, however, pays dividends during the second half. As the spiral takes shape, each section halves in length, and the text becomes less verbose. There’s more dialogue. The forward momentum gathers pace even as the timeline travels backwards to the start. As a set piece, this is neat and definitely on target.
But then another slip-up when Catton kills off the only character I actually felt for. Fortunately the appearance of Emery Staines prevents a second own goal. This injection of fresh energy is sorely needed as many of the subsidiary characters just aren’t that interesting.
Atwood, on the other hand, delivers an object lesson in intensity. Crake can teach Carver a lesson or two in villainy. Oryx can teach Anna a trick or two in the oldest profession. The dynamics of the pre-apocalypse Oryx-Crake-Jimmy triangle are, to mix my metaphors, screwed. Yet these relationships are destined to become the stuff of myth and the making of Snowman (a.k.a. Jimmy, the sole human survivor). Emotionally blackmailed into accepting a responsibility he does not desire, he nevertheless gives it his all. He may limp off the field sorely wounded, but he is, without doubt, the man of the match.
Final score: Canada 3, New Zealand 1
Canada, behind the strength of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, moves on to at least the quarterfinals. (As soon as the draw for the next round takes place, I’ll post an update.)
Tomorrow’s match features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky going up against Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo. Another big match!
This match was judged by Hannah Chute, recent recipient of her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester.
Oryx & Crake vs. The Ministry of Pain winds up being one of the stranger match-ups in terms of national identities. On the one hand, we have a novel set in a dystopian, post-Canadian future, while on the other we have an ostensibly Dutch novel about exiles that is really more Yugoslavian than anything.
I’ll start with Dubravka Ugrešić’s strange and lovely tale of Tanja Lucić, a Croatian teacher of a “servo-kroatisch” course at a university in Amsterdam, and of her complex relationships with her students, her homeland, and her language.
One of the most memorable sections is when Tanja has her students—all of whom speak Serbo-Croatian perfectly well, and who have almost exclusively come to Amsterdam from the former Yugoslavia—bring in memories of that country. Until this point it can be difficult as a reader to keep track of which student is which, but here each character’s way of speaking and choice of subject matter emerge as so distinctive that their various personalities leap off the page. The most memorable presentation is Igor’s, which details his friend Mikac’s reaction to an anthology of Yugoslav poetry. Mikac appears to be channeling Holden Caulfield in his goofy but acerbic commentary: “They’re a bunch of sickos, our poets,” he says, and “‘I know not what thou art: art thou woman or hyena?’ Shit! Did that guy get my goat!”
The narration moves smoothly between moments of syrupy intimacy between Lucić and her students (when they meet they exchange “sweet verbal saliva” and engage in “aural fondling”) and biting, bitter anger over what has become of the former Yugoslavia (Lucić expresses her disdain for “the prepacked retrofuture of the newly minted states”). This constant shifting makes the characters’ shaky and ever-changing position as exiles and émigrés all the more poignant.
Ugrešić also inserts into her narrative moments of reflection on the role of language, especially in times of war and turmoil. As she describes the breaking up of Serbo-Croatian into various regional languages: “It was a divorce full of sound and fury . . . Croats would eat their kruh, while Serbs would eat their hleb, Bosnians their hljeb: the word for bread in the three languages was different. Smrt, the word for death, was the same.” Lucić has a love-hate relationship with her native tongue; she treasures it but wonders if it is real, she loses her grip on it even as she tries to cling tighter and tighter.
Overall, Ugrešić’s novel is everything it should be: funny, tragic, strange, and thought-provoking.
Oryx & Crake is remarkable in very different ways. It is a thrilling mystery, a work of speculative fiction set in the not-so-distant future, when humanity has been all but wiped out by terrible events that gradually come to light as Snowman, the novel’s protagonist, digs back through his dark past.
Breathtaking in its scope, frightening in its ever-more-looming feasibility, Oryx & Crake is, however, no mere cautionary fable. Atwood does not just show us a frightening future in which corporate greed and the heady lure of consequence-free living have brought humanity to the brink of extinction; I can think of any number of writers who could accomplish that much. But Atwood skillfully walks the fine line between making her point effectively and hammering it into her reader’s head so hard that she forgets to write a story. Luckily for her readers, she is far too talented to make such an error.
The plot is structured with sublime pacing that compels you to keep turning the pages. Atwood moves effortlessly between Snowman’s ruined, miserable present and the past that seemed so full of promise, even if cracks were starting to show around the edges. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Atwood has not felt the need to overexplain her world. Snowman’s past is set at some point in our near-ish future, when the world as we know it has been divided into small Compounds of the intellectual and economic elite surrounded by vast “pleeblands” where anything goes. How did humanity get here? Atwood leaves it to your imagination, which I think it quite refreshing.
The beauty of Oryx & Crake’s language is particularly striking because of its contrast with the bleak realities of the novel. “A breeze riffles the leaves overhead; insects rasp and trill; red light from the setting sun hits the tower blocks in the water, illuminating an unbroken pane here and there, as if a scattering of lamps has been turned on;” Snowman’s seaside lair would almost sound paradisiacal, were it not for the devastated shell of a city strewn with bodies that surrounds him. The beauty of language becomes crucial to Snowman; he has not had human contact for some time now, and holding onto obsolete words (“wheelwright, lodestone, saturnine, adamant”) becomes a way to keep himself whole, if not quite sane.
This is a challenging match to judge, simply because it seems to me that Atwood and Ugrešić are playing two different games. If Ugrešić is playing at something vaguely resembling soccer—down and dirty, though perhaps without enough flashiness to attract a large American audience—Atwood is more likely working through a round of chess: she is precise, prescient, and highly imaginative. Also, while the scope and inventiveness of Oryx & Crake are unparalleled, The Ministry of Pain decidedly takes home the award for humor. Both novels are, in a sense, about important current events, but Atwood is painting a picture of a looming and oft-discussed future while Ugrešić is shedding light on the lives of people who have already suffered, but who have generally been shoved out of sight.
Another point in Ugrešić’s favor is that Michael Henry Heim’s translation is just about flawless. Who else would have thought to describe a bathroom remodel as “transfiguring the looscape”? And have it sound perfectly natural in context? Though with nothing to compare it with on Atwood’s end, I’m once again left feeling a little unbalanced.
It’s a rough choice, but ultimately it comes down to this: one point each for gorgeous language. Ugrešić’s humor and delightful strangeness earn her another goal. But Oryx & Crake is so provocative, so downright thrilling, that it scores two final goals, bringing it a victory over The Ministry of Pain, 3-2.
Next up, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will face off against New Zealand’s The Luminaries on Monday, June 22nd in what promises to be a huge second-round match.
Tomorrow’s match will be judged by Rhea Lyons, and features England’s Life after Life by Kate Atkinson up against Colombia’s Delirium by Laura Restrepo.
Last summer, to coincide with the Real Life World Cup, we hosted the World Cup of Literature, an incredible competition featuring 32 books from 32 countries, and ending with Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) triumphing over Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd (Mexico). It was glorious.
Since the Women’s World Cup is kicking off in Canada next week, it’s time to do this all over again. Except that this time, only living female authors are allowed to participate. (And, as much as possible, the books included were published within the last ten years.)
Before announcing the participating titles, I have to announce that we’re still looking for judges. And, unlike last year, we want at least two-thirds of the eighteen judges to be females. So, if you’re interested—as a judge you read two books, write up the result of that “match” complete with soccer-esque score, then chime in on the final—just email me at chad.post[at]rochester.edu. You’ll have to do this fast though. The competition launches next week . . .
Tomorrow (or later today) we’ll post the new graphics and bracket so that you can see the first round competitions and debate which book has the easiest path to the final four, but for now, here’s a listing of all the titles that we’re including. (These are alphabetical in order of the country each is representing.)
Australia: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Brazil: Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa, translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin
Cameroon: Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Tamsin Black
Canada: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
China: The Last Lover by Can Xue, translated from the Chinese by Annelise Finegan Wasmoen
Colombia: Delirium by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Costa Rica: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo, translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz
Cote d’Ivoire: Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo, translated from the French by Amy Baram Reid
Ecuador: Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío, translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart
England: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
France: Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Sîan Reynolds
Germany: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Japan: Revenge by Yoko Ogawa, translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
Mexico: Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa, translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Netherlands: The Ministry of Pain by Dubravka Ugresic, translated from the Croatian by Michael Henry Heim
New Zealand: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
Nigeria: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Norway: The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland
South Korea: Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
Spain: The Happy City by Elvira Navarro, translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey
Sweden: The Stranger by Camilla Läckberg, translated from the Swedish by Steven Murray
Switzerland: With the Animals by Noëlle Revas, translated from the French by W. Donald Wilson
Thailand: The Happiness of Kati by Ngarmpun (Jane) Vejjajiva, translated from the Thai by Prudence Borthwick
USA: Home by Toni Morrison
The Rochester Institute of Technology’s conference on The Future of Reading kicks off tonight at 7pm with a presentation (and book signing) by Margaret Atwood. I’ll try and write this up thoughtfully tomorrow (the conference starts up again at 8:30 though, so don’t hold your breath), but since I recently decided to try and learn how to use Twitter (im)properly, I think I’m going to try and “tweet” the speech via my personal (chadwpost) Twitter account.
And every time she mentions the Long Pen everyone following has to do a shot.
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .