Artist-activist Maria is on the playing field of her current job when the sudden appearance of the daughter of her ex-best friend, Anna, sends her on a fragmented journey through her life and their friendship, never without political context:
The day PASOK wins the election, I lose my virginity. Now that’s what I call a “rendezvous with history.”
The trite humor is a bit disconcerting. Is this maybe just an intellectual romance novel after all? But the bad pass is forgotten with the description of the act that follows.
Fifteen-year-olds who want to have sex and at least try to enjoy it. Who smoke and discuss Barthes and go to demonstrations in passages that unabashedly use words like “freedom” and “revolution.” Amanda Michalopoulou scores a goal for completely believable 1970s teenagers.
Still, the political contextualization often slows down the game. No station in post-dictatorship, pre-crisis Greece is missing. Not to mention World Economic Forum protests in Geneva, oil company protests in Nigeria and, of course, Seattle, where “Kayo and I vomited side by side at the barricades.” Kayo, the good best friend taken off the bench to replace bad best friend, Anna. This is Maria and Kayo’s first meeting:
“Kayo you smell like Africa” He shoves me away. “No you don’t understand! I was born in Nigeria.” I hug him, sink my nose into his neck and breathe in the smell of Gwendolyn, grilled suya, soil after a tropical rain. Kayo’s eyes tear up—he must be pretty drunk too. Then he bends down and kisses my hand.
Now I’m perfectly willing to believe Maria thinks she’s not racist because she loves Gwendolyn, her childhood nanny. After all, she’s a weak-willed, naive, romantic idealist, although I’m not sure this is what I was supposed to take away from that paragraph. But that this reassures a twenty-something left black gay man? Suspension of belief only goes so far—this is realism after all. Penalty kick for the Ivory Coast.
But when we finally get the replay of the incident that turned Anna into an ex-friend, Michalopoulou scores again. Not so much for the event itself, and certainly not for the cave–subconsciousness metaphor that runs throughout the novel, but for the way in which it triggers Maria’s memory of the childhood trauma that led to her exile from Africa. For at least trying to acknowledge the specter of colonialism that haunts the global left. In a novel, you can kill your annoying best friend. What we will do with all the annoyance in the world no one knows.
But two goals don‘t make up for the fact that for most of Why I Killed My Best Friend, Michalopoulou is to-ing and fro-ing in midfield (‘to and fro’, according to Merriam Webster, is an adjective, noun, or adverb, but I am not obliged to use American English, so suck my dick).
That last convention is lifted from Allah Is Not Obliged. The ten-year-old narrator of Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Birahima, “the fearless, blameless street kid, the child soldier,” also uses a lot of dictionaries to tell the story of his time as a child-soldier in Liberia.
I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French.
So you never get further than a couple of paragraphs without the intrusion of a definition. These interruptions are often infuriating, there’s no possibility of escaping into characters or narrative, but suddenly the Ivory Coast is scoring goals left and right. After all, child soldiers are always on drugs, maybe this is just the running commentary of a hash high. Or the dissociation necessary to retain sanity, a paean to the resilience of so many former child soldiers. Either way, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea that allows for one the most clear-headed explorations of atrocity I’ve ever read. And certainly one of the funniest.
A country is a fucked-up mess when you get warlords dividing it up between them like in Liberia, but when you’ve got political parties and democrats on top of the warlords it’s a big-time fucked-up mess.
Ivory Coast 4–Greece 2
Laura Radosh feels like she’s violated a FIFA rule for not letting an Open Letter book win. She’s also a translator living in Berlin who would have called a tie if she’d been judging the brilliant translations.
Amanda Michalopoulou’s second novel to appear in English, the brilliantly titled Why I Killed My Best Friend, doesn’t officially come out until May 20th, but we released it a couple months early for her cross-country tour.
The book details the lifelong ups-and-downs of two best friends who meet in grade school when they both move back to Greece from other countries. (The narrator longs for her beloved Africa, Anna has been growing up in the refined atmosphere of Paris.) Like any best friends, they are also intimate rivals, a rivalry that is reignited years later when Anna reenter’s Maria’s life and basically takes over Maria’s radical political group. This mixture of Greek politics and the emotional turmoil that comes along with best friendship make this an incredible book that really does end with with a death . . .
If you’re not sold yet, here’s Gary Shteyngart’s blurb: “Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”
Now the tour:
Exhibit X Reading Series
Thursday, April 10th, 7pm
341 Delaware Ave.
Buffalo, NY 14202
Reading the World Conversation Series: Radical Politics and BFFs
Tuesday, April 15th, 6pm
University of Rochester
Rochester, NY 14627
Amanda Michalopoulou with Translator Karen Emmerich
Wednesday, April 16th, 7:30pm
Powell’s Books on Hawthorne
3723 SE Hawthorne Blvd.
Portland, OR 97214
Center for the Art of Translation: An Evening with Amanda Michalopoulou
Friday, April 18th, 6pm
The Book Club of California
312 Sutter St
San Francisco, CA 94108
Reading at City Lit Books
Sunday, April 20th, 3pm
City Lit Books
2523 North Kedzie Blvd.
Chicago, IL 60647
There are also events in the works at Brown University and Princeton. As soon as we have the details confirmed, I’ll post about them here and will put them in our recently resuscitated Translation Events Calendar. (If you have an event you want to add to this, simply email kaija.straumanis [at] rochester.edu.)
Our latest GoodReads Giveaway is for Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend, which may well win the prize for the best Open Letter title ever. And, along with Navidad & Matanza, it’s in the running for one of the best blurbs:
“Flawlessly translated, Amanda Michalopolou’s WIKMBF uses the backdrop of Greek politics, radical protests, and the art world to explore the dangers and joys that come with BFFs. Or, as the narrator puts it, ‘odiodsamato,’ which translates roughly as ‘frienemies.’”—Gary Shteyngart
This novel, which is coming out in May, is the second book of Michalopoulou’s to come out in the U.S., the first being I’d Like, which Dalkey brought out a few years back. (And both of which are translated by Karen Emmerich.) It’s a book about two women—Maria who relocates to Greece from Africa, and Anna who moved to Greece from Paris—and their lifelong “friendship” that is filled with both unquestioned support and bitter competition.
The structure of the novel, and the way it fills in the details of their present day relationship (which is reignited when Anna’s daughter ends up in Maria’s art class) with flashbacks to the tumultuous events of growing up in Greece in 70s works incredibly well, and provides and interesting look into the impact politics can have on friendships and life in general.
We’re giving away 20 copies, so if you’re a GoodReads user, be sure and sign up below.
Also, we’re in the final stages of planning a reading tour for Amanda that will take place in April. More information about that in the near future.
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