14 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Our thirty-first match of the first ever World Cup of Literature features two amazing books written in Spanish: one by a revered, now dead author, the other by a young upstart; one by a man, one by a woman; one from Chile, the other from Mexico; one focused on a singular narrative voice, the other featuring a few storylines that mingle and merge; both published by high-minded, well-respected independent presses (New Directions and Coffee House).

Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile made it to the finals by beating the Netherlands, Brazil, Italy, and Germany.

Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd made it here by beating Croatia, Australia, Uruguay, and the USA.

Rather than go on about these books, or the competition itself, I’ll just say that we’re probably going to replicate this for the Women’s World Cup next summer, but featuring only women writers. So stay tuned!

But for now, let’s get it on: Bolaño vs. Luiselli!

George Carroll: Mexico

Yedlin, Green, James, Neymar, Besler. I’m going with youth. The future of the sport. The future of literature. Put me in the Luiselli column.


Chile 0 – Mexico 1


Chad W. Post: Mexico

Because Bolaño would’ve won in 2002, 2006, 2010, will likely win this match, and has already received enough accolades. Because Luiselli is living. Because more people need to read Faces in the Crowd and Sidewalks. And because I have a neurotic love for looking forward and supporting the things that I’m in love with now. Bolaño was one of the greatest authors ever, but I read all these books a while back and am currently in love with Luiselli’s writing.


Chile 0 – Mexico 2


Nick Long: Mexico

And here we’ve come to a neo-classical World Cup final between the old guard and the fresh-faced promise of the future. A masterpiece by an author dead for over a decade to which the announcers lovingly refer to as “the corpse of Roberto Bolaño” trots out onto to the field to delirious frenzy by the fans—By Night in Chile deserves all the acclaim it’s received. But nothing in the World Cup is ever guaranteed except controversy. And Faces in the Crowd is a more than worthy opponent for this final. Despite restless politicking (isn’t FIFA all about politics and corruption anyway?) and thinly veined satire about the corruption, BNiC kept missing chance after chance. FitC knocked in its sole chance in the match to win in a shocking upset, closing out an era.


Chile 0 – Mexico 3


Hal Hlavinka: Chile


Chile 1 – Mexico 3


Mauro Javier Cardenas: Chile


Chile 2 – Mexico 3


Tom Roberge: Chile


Chile 3 – Mexico 3


Scott Esposito: Chile


Chile 4 – Mexico 3


Stephen Sparks: Chile

By Night in Chile was my introduction to Bolano: I read it on a long flight and, after finishing in mid-air, I reread it immediately. Luiselli is very good: Faces in the Crowd might be the best novel I’ve read this year, but I wouldn’t class it in the same category as BNiC.


Chile 5 – Mexico 3


Rhea Lyons: Chile


Chile 6 – Mexico 3


Jeff Waxman: Chile


Chile 7 – Mexico 3


Jeffrey Zuckerman: Mexico

I don’t understand why anybody’s even bothering to ask me for an unbiased opinion. I interviewed Valeria Luiselli and then wrote an extended profile for the LA Review of Books about how her life and her work have merged into each other, and how wonderful both are. I have voted against Bolaño every single round, and this last one is no exception. Valeria Luiselli’s just so much better. This one goes to “a dense, porous novel. Like a baby’s heart.”


Chile 7 – Mexico 4


James Crossley: Chile

I really liked Faces in the Crowd and urge more people to read it. Remember when Ben Lerner got all that attention for Leaving the Atocha Station? Luiselli’s book is in some ways similar, but loads better. It’s one of the best books to come out this year, in fact. But By Night in Chile is one of the best books of this millennium. Bolaño should win the 2014 Cup, but I have a feeling I’ll be rooting for Luiselli four years from now.


Chile 8 – Mexico 4


P.T. Smith: Chile

By Night in Chile and Faces in the Crowd are a similar length, both books that I eye and think “If I time it right, I can finish this in a sitting.” By Night in Chile, with compelling, prose that pushes on and on, I read in one. Faces in the Crowd, fragmented, yet creative, and bringing those fractures together, took three. I cherish those one-sitting readings, and so want novels that aren’t structured to give me reasons to leave. Faces in the Crowd was my discovery of the tournament, and I’ll read Luiselli again, but By Night was a sitting I remember years later, and Faces seems less likely to do the same.


Chile 9 – Mexico 4


Chris Schaefer: Chile


Chile 10 – Mexico 4


Laura Radosh: Mexico

Stephen’s right, Faces isn’t in the same class as BNiC, but Luiselli shouldn’t go down like Brazil. Another vote for the future of literature.


Chile 10 – Mexico 5


Hannah Chute: Mexico

Bolaño is “one of the greats.” But hell, we all knew that before we started this competition. I’m pretty sure the whole point of this project was to highlight interesting, contemporary world literature, and Bolaño winning this isn’t going to help anyone. Faces in the Crowd is a fantastic book; everyone should go out right now to buy it, read it, and cherish the fuck out of it.


Chile 10 – Mexico 6


Ryan Ries: Chile

There’s an inescapable ad on a local radio station in which the hysterical business owner insists that using his service is “the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind”. This isn’t quite at that level, but, c’mon.


Chile 11 – Mexico 6


Trevor Berrett: Chile


Chile 12 – Mexico 6


Elianna Kan: Chile

Bolaño, nearly no contest, for his unflinching vitality and for passages like this one:

. . . and life went on and on and on, like a necklace of rice grains, on each grain of which a landscape had been painted, tiny grains and microscopic landscapes, and I knew that everyone was putting that necklace on and wearing it, but no one had the patience or the strength or the courage to take it off and look at it closely and decipher each landscape grain by grain, partly because to do so required the vision of a lynx or an eagle, and partly because the landscapes usually turned out to contain unpleasant surprises like coffins, makeshift cemeteries, ghost towns, the void and the horror, the smallness of being and its ridiculous will, people watching television, people going to football matches, boredom navigating the Chilean imagination like an enormous aircraft carrier. And that’s the truth. We were bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and all night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style . . .


Chile 13 – Mexico 6


Will Evans: Mexico

My vote for the final goes to Faces in the Crowd. This is the voice of a master in training. The voice of an author finding herself, creating herself as she goes along. The themes are universal, the text as intertext, the narrative voice is distinct, the exploration of motherhood is profound, and when it comes down to it I just liked reading it more than By Night in Chile, which I also loved, but for different ways. Maybe it was the strength of translator Christina MacSweeney lifting Luiselli to heights in English hard to fathom. And maybe because I want to crush the patriarchy. Even when the odds are stacked against little old Mexico’s team, the shock team in the final, Luiselli’s novel is strong enough to carry the Mexican people the way El Tri couldn’t quite manage this year, though they gave it everything they had and inspired me and millions more in the process. They say Mexico’s national team is the most popular national team in the USA, and Luiselli is soon to be everybody’s favorite author in the USA too. She is amazing, Faces in the Crowd is brilliant. Props to Coffee House for publishing Luiselli!!!!!!


Chile 13 – Mexico 7


Kaija Straumanis: Mexico

Copy paste anything I’ve said in the past being pro-Mexico and insert it here. I also agree with what Will says above, and not only because of his mustache. ¡VIVA MEXICO! (Or not. Bolaño-loving jerks.)


Chile 13 – Mexico 8


Lance Edmonds: Chile


Chile 14 – Mexico 8


Shaun Randol: Chile

Having refereed Chile’s killer first match and silently cheered them on since, I gotta go with fan loyalty on this one.

Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! Viva Chile!


Chile 15 – Mexico 8


Katrine Jensen: Chile

I’ve helped carry Luiselli’s excellent Faces in The Crowd to a well-deserved spot in the finals; but a wise man I know once wrote on Facebook, “Bolaño always wins,” and to this I must say yes. Yes he does.


Chile 16 – Mexico 8


Lori Feathers: Mexico

Faces in the Crowd and By Night in Chile are both smart and provocative. But simply put, Faces in the Crowd is a more interesting read.


Chile 16 – Mexico 9


Florian Duijsens: Chile

What a great surprise, this final battle. I’d imagined it would be a clash of legends, dead authors whose cult has only grown as their posthumous vaults have been methodically cleared these past few years. Ironic, then, that Luiselli’s is a book about ghosts, about seeing literary ghosts and becoming them. Faces in the Crowd is a stunning juggling act of truths and fictions, but ultimately the ghost stories collected in By Night in Chile (also not a very hefty book) weighed heavier on me.


Chile 17 – Mexico 9


And there you have it: Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile wins the 2014 World Cup of Literature in a rout. Buy it, read it, and enjoy it!

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Win the Championship?

Yes
No


10 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Yesterday’s semifinal—which saw Roberto Bolaño secure a place in the WCL Championship with By Night in Chile —is a tough one to top, but I think we did it. Today’s match features upstart Valeria Luiselli from Mexico, whose first novel, Faces in the Crowd, is up against David Foster Wallace and his posthumous book, The Pale King.

Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2, running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0, and cruising past Uruguay and Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle 7-0.

DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but prevailed 3-2. He then took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1, and just got by France’s Michel Houellebecq and The Map and the Territory, 4-3.

Although DFW is a household name, this one could go either way . . .

Scott Esposito: Mexico

An actual book has to beat some notes hewn together by an editor. So Faces takes it.


Mexico 1 – USA 0


Chad W. Post: Mexico

I love DFW, but I think Luiselli deserves a spot in the finals with her incredibly well crafted Faces in the Crowd.


Mexico 2 – USA 0


Lance Edmonds: USA

Before the tournament started, I thought Your Face Tomorrow was a lock for the finals. I guess that’s why you play the games.


Mexico 2 – USA 1


Tom Roberge: USA

I’m just going to plagiarize myself. “The volume of perspectives in the book, the scope of humanness in these characters, is Wallace’s point: that as interesting as war orphans or autodidact artists or amoral professors are, so are paper pushers, if not for the details of their lives then for the substance of them, for the way they cope with a boredom that is as much a part of modern Western life as sex, war, or free trade. And then borrow a famous blurb for DeLillo’s Underworld, from Michael Ondatje, which I think applies here just as aptly: “The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.”


Mexico 2 – USA 2


Lori Feathers: USA

Faces is a smart book with an interesting structure of doubling back on itself. “Horizontal vertigo,” a phrase that Luiselli uses, is a good description of that structure. But somehow I still felt distanced from the characters’ (or is it really just one character’s?) descent into crazy because the book is over-constructed—like seeing more nails sticking out of a wooden frame than are needed. I didn’t feel trapped in a mad mind like, for instance, reading The Yellow Wallpaper, and that made the narrative less compelling than it could have been.


Mexico 2 – USA 3


Laura Radosh: Mexico

After forcing myself to finish Infinite Jest only to find out the joke was on the reader I was sure that another DFW tome would be no match for Faces in the Crowd. But after page 6 of Pale King, I was hooked. That is some fancy footwork. Goal for USA!

But although I appreciate the fact that editor Michael Pietsch resisted cutting out dozens of pages just because his author could no longer object, DFW gets a yellow card for wasting time. Besides, the USA never makes it to the finals in the real World Cup.

Mexico evens the scores for that pretty little book in the last minute of extra time and gets a dramatic win on penalties.


Mexico 3 – USA 3


Will Evans: USA

Dude this is cancer-inducing stress. I love Valeria; Faces in the Crowd is great. But I have to vote for DFW. Faces in the Crowd is like a hello to the world from a brilliant new author, the process of an artist finding her voice; and her voice, the only female voice left in the tournament, one of precious few in the entire World Cup of Literature, scored the opening goal for Mexico against the weak American backline (all hype?!), but the Americans pressed, they’d been honed to a veteran’s precision and quickly countered. The Pale King is the final goodbye for a legend, a fully realized literary idea, a narrative voice that is as powerful as it is precise (which one can’t often say of 550-page “unfinished” final novels). These two books slugged it out for the remainder of the game, and it was in DFW’s philosophical musings on the state of twenty-first-century existence that the game winner was scored. Faces in the Crowd packs a punch far greater than its 150 pages, and I would peg Luiselli’s next novel as the odds-on favorite to reach the finals of the 2018 World Cup of Literature, she has many, many, many more World Cups of Literature ahead of her, and this is the last hurrah for DFW, and he makes it to the final by the skin of his teeth. RIP.


Mexico 3 – USA 4


Ryan Ries: USA

Mexico is certainly the Cinderella story of this tournament, earning a berth in the semifinals against three world-renowned (and, incidentally, dead) literary powerhouses. And, for the most part, its success is justified: Faces in the Crowd is a spare, punchy little book, impressive in construction and economy, but the reader can’t escape the feeling that you’ve read this all before somewhere (shades of Bolaño, Aira, and, to a lesser extent, Moya, to name a few fellow WCOL competitors). The Pale King isn’t without flaws, but it’s an original, mature, occasionally brilliant work, and it wins the match going away.


Mexico 3 – USA 5


P.T. Smith: USA

Faces in the Crowd is a wonderful debut, the discovery of the World Cup of Literature for me, but Pale King scores an early goal with bizarre powers (mind-reading, talking baby, ghosts) of many of its characters without a detachment from reality. Page by page, Faces in the Crowd is more entertaining, rewarding, and rush after rush to the goal is eventually rewarded with an equalizer. The heights of Pale King reach a greater lever though, the tie is preserved and we go to PKs. There, the focus, to attention to detail and ability to accomplish repetitive tasks without fault, serves Pale King and takes it to victory.


Mexico 3 – USA 6


Katrine Øgaard Jensen: Mexico

It’s not that Pale King isn’t interesting. It’s not that the book’s Pulitzer nomination isn’t interesting. It’s just . . . I’m recommending Faces In The Crowd to everyone I know. Maybe it’s because that book is more interesting.


Mexico 4 – USA 6


Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico

Is it because I am not Caucasian American that I don’t light candles to Saint DFW? Probably not. I enjoyed Good Old Neon, parts of Pale King. I can never make it pass page 100 of Infinite Jest due to extreme boredom though. Que le vamos a hacer. Viva Mexico, carajo!


Mexico 5 – USA 6


Kaija Straumanis: Mexico

A year or so ago, I was watching TV and wound up seeing a game played by UANL Tigres, a professional Mexican football club. Their uniforms were bright yellow, emblazoned with the logo of their sponsor, which I read as: BANANAMEX. It seemed appropriate. I then spent the next 60 minutes or so shouting “GO BANANA!” and things like “GET ANOTHER BANANA GOAL!” at the television, before I realized that the logo on their banana-yellow jerseys actually read “BANAMEX.” Which is a bank. Not a tropical fruit. Regardless, that night, UANL Tigres became my default favorite soccer team. They aren’t particularly good, they have absolutely nothing to do with bananas, but they have spirit, and they play with heart.

I’m one of the people who was left depressed after Mexico’s loss in the Real World Cup last week. I don’t want to go into the obnoxiousness of statements on how a team “deserves” to win—but Mexico deserved to have a fair ending to that game. And in our World Cup of Literature, where there are no champion floppers and no tasteless fans chanting “Vir-gin! Vir-gin! Vir-gin!” at the indifferent and unaware refs on the flatscreens overhead, Mexico actually gets a fair chance to represent itself and fight for its place in the finals, and for Faces in the Crowd to even win it all. Admittedly, I haven’t read The Pale King, though I want to, and I know I’ll probably like the book—I just don’t want to leave my favorite in the gathering dust and pick up a new team in the final stretch. Everyone’s entitled to their bias, and I’m going with mine. Mexico all the way!


Mexico 6 – USA 6


Elianna Kan: Mexico

While I tip my hat to DFW for his literary project and though I understand the tremendous undertaking that was the posthumous publication of Pale King, the novel simply does not stand up to his other work and is merely a more garbled, fragmented, inconsistent exploration of the same deeply depressing themes. For the sheer power of these themes and his exploration of them, Team USA earns a couple goals, but for the lack of a consistently impressive narrative framework and for what feels like a lazier deployment of those themes in this as opposed to his previous works, the win goes to team Mexico for never waking me from the dream, for at least making a consistent and lyrical effort to construct the dream with whatever tools were at Luiselli’s disposal.


Mexico 7 – USA 6


Upset! And with that, we have an all-Spanish-language final pitting Chile’s Roberto Bolaño and By Night in Chile against Mexico’s Valeria Luiselli and her Faces in the Crowd.

The winner will be announced at 11am on Monday, July 14th.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Finals?

Yes
No


9 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After 28 matches we’ve finally made it to the World Cup of Literature semifinals, and are only a few days away from crowning the first ever WCL Champion. (If only we had a giant papier-mâché trophy for the winner . . .)

Before that though, we have two semifinal matches that are as intriguing as anything to date, starting with a face-off between two of the most beloved authors of recent times: Robert Bolaño and W.G. Sebald.

Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile (Chile) made it to this point by beating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1, and then upending Italy’s great hope, Elena Ferrante and The Days of Abandonment 4-2.

W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz (Germany) got here by wrecking Ghana and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country 5-1, sliding past Algeria and Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by a score of 1-0, and knocking out Bosnia and Saša Stanišic’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone 4-3.

This is a match that no one really wanted to judge—both books are brilliant and deserve all the accolades they’ve ever received.

That said, this is a competition and only one can move on to the Championship . . .

Shaun Randol: Germany

Both By Night in Chile and Austerlitz have the protagonist confronting demons from a real political past. Amoral authoritarian rulers, institutions, and systems are indicted with barely contained bitterness and rage. And both authors—Bolano and Sebald—mix fact and fiction to get the point across. The teams go into overtime, not even the prose distinguishes one team over the other. In the end, the deployment of photography in the fictional musing gives Austerlitz the artistic edge.


Chile 0 – Germany 1


George Carroll: Chile


Chile 1 – Germany 1


James Crossley: Germany

Sebald’s roll through the tournament—he earned the highest percentage victories from the fans in the first and second rounds—finally slows down. He’s up against a fantastic book, and this matchup feels more like a final than I think the final will. But in the end, I don’t think Chile earns the win. Things might have played out differently with 2666 or The Savage Detectives in the mix, but By Night in Chile just isn’t Bolano’s best novel. Austerlitz is probably Sebald’s, though, and it gets the nod from me.


Chile 1 – Germany 2


Hannah Chute: Chile


Chile 2 – Germany 2


Trevor Berrett: Germany

If you forced me to name my two personal “most important” literary discoveries of the last decade, I’m pretty sure they’d be Bolaño and Sebald. I’m not alone in my esteem; both were awarded posthumous National Book Critics Circle Awards. Putting these two books together like this shows some fascinating overlapping themes, and everyone should read each. Now to decide which of their “life histories” should progress: Sebald’s. Bolaño’s architecture is destroyed by corruption and pigeon droppings; Sebald’s is erased by time, which I find more terrifying.


Chile 2 – Germany 3


Stephen Sparks: Chile

How the fuck is someone supposed to choose either Bolano or Sebald? Since either one of these books could easily defeat the winner of the other bracket, I’m casting my vote in the same way I decide who to root for in the actual world cup: root for the poorer country.


Chile 3 – Germany 3


Nick During: Chile

I’m often a terrible fan. Sometimes I’ll start a game rooting for one team, but then change my mind several times during the course of the 90 minutes. My soccer-watching friends get very frustrated and angry at me, but I feel this fickleness and indecision is part of human nature. Urrutia Laccroix would be like that too if he was a real person.


Chile 4 – Germany 3


Jeffrey Zuckerman: Germany

As I reread Austerlitz and By Night in Chile, a phrase by Alexander Pope kept echoing through my thoughts: “Homer makes us hearers, and Virgil leaves us readers.” It was an apt way to describe the divide between Sebald and Bolaño: while the latter submerges me into words and worlds, the former opens up words to their strange resonances, and opens up the world in which we live to its full brilliance. As I closed By Night in Chile, it settled into my mind as a mere story, albeit better-told than most. But walking out of my apartment after Austerlitz was a shock; every building and tree and passerby burst at the seams with unexpectedly visible significance.


Chile 4 – Germany 4


Rhea Lyons: Chile

I like trippy, dark and reflective more than bleak, atmospheric and reflective.


Chile 5 – Germany 4


Florian Duijsens: Chile

Two stunning books, both about characters trying to make sense of their past, both obsessed with arcane factoids and architecture, both consumed by a survivor’s guilt, yet Bolaño’s story of self-deception is the more visceral of the two. While Austerlitz haunts Sebald’s book in beautiful spectral form, it’s Father Urrutia Lacroix who has haunted me in the years since I first read By Night in Chile, and it’s the dying priest’s voice that ultimately gives Chile’s representative the edge over Germany’s otherwise more than worthy opponent.


Chile 6 – Germany 4


Chris Schaefer: Germany

This is one of those match-ups that really should have occurred in the final and not in the semi-final: Sebald vs. Bolaño, Germany vs. Chile, an architectural historian’s sifting of past trauma vs. a dying priest’s feverish thoughts about literature in a dictatorship. Both books have digressive styles, a blending of fact and fiction, and an overly casual disdain for paragraph breaks. It’s a fight to a draw, but Sebald’s Austerlitz wins on penalties.


Chile 6 – Germany 5


Jeff Waxman: Chile

It never occurred to me that this late in the game, in the games, that I would have to cast a vote for a book I actually liked. And against a book I liked. But I’m calling this one for Bolaño for two reasons: the sheer aggressive drive of this particular narrative and because I drank four margaritas last night while explaining to a friend why Bolaño is good.

Chile, guys. Fucking Chile.


Chile 7 – Germany 5


Hal Hlavinka: Chile

CHILE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 


Chile 8 – Germany 5


And with that, Bolaño moves on. Convincingly. We’ll find out tomorrow who he’ll be up against in the final.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Make it to the Finals?

Yes
No


8 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

And with Germany’s defeat of BiH the semifinals for the World Cup of Literature are all set.

You can download a PDF version here.

Here’s a bit of a breakdown on these two match ups:

Chile

By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño, translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews

Originally published in 2000—making it just barely eligible for our competition—By Night in Chile is best described by Richard Eder of the New York Times as “a 130-page rant—part confession, part justification, part delirium—by a dying man, representative of an intellectual class that the author depicts as alternately tugging its leash and licking it.”

Bolaño is one of the authors that literary hipsters love most, although many seem to prefer 2666 or The Savage Detectives. By Night in Chile is more condensed and precise though (and more about Chile the country Bolaño chose to represent in this competition), and that might help him out against Sebald’s longer, more erudite Austerlitz.

Also worth pointing out that Columbia University Press is brining out Roberto Bolaño’s Fiction: An Expanding Universe by Chris Andrews later this month.

Germany

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Austerlitz came out in German in 2001, literally a month before Sebald’s tragic passing. It went on to win the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 2001 and the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2002. And for her translation, Anthea Bell received the 2002 Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. That’s a lot of prize winning.

Sebald is renowned for his particular style, which combines fact with fiction, images with text, and often revolves around ideas of memory, history, and decay. Here’s a bit from a review of Austerlitz in the Observer:

Sebald describes a universe which is peculiar but recognisable, the way experience of the world can be shaped by a strongly academic and historical intelligence. I can’t really comprehend his prose style, so distinctive in the length of his sentences and the slight archaism of manner, the monotony of its cadences probably due to the fact that it was originally written in German and then translated. But I would strongly recommend anyone who has not experienced his writing to do so, because it succeeds in communicating issues of great importance concerning time, memory and human experience.

Of the remaining four books, Austerlitz is probably the betting man’s favorite.

Mexico

Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

The only living author still in the competition, Luiselli also comes to the competition with the most recently published book—Faces in the Crowd came out in 2011, and was published in the U.S. by Coffee House Press (along with Luiselli’s essay collection _Sidewalks__ earlier this year.

It’s received some great literary praise, mostly for its unique structure and interweaving of various viewpoints, all of which keep readers on their proverbial toes, having to figure out who’s writing and what is (or isn’t) “true.” From the L.A. Times:

Faces in the Crowd is itself a highly original work of many parts—but one that does, in its own unique way, add up to a satisfying “whole.” At the heart of this engaging and often hauntingly strange novel is a wildly original character: Luiselli’s protagonist lies to her boss, commits literary fraud and assorted acts of adultery, all while raising a baby and a toddler son.

Or maybe she doesn’t do all those things — we can’t be certain, since it’s clear Luiselli’s protagonist isn’t just an unreliable employee and spouse, she’s also an unreliable narrator.

DFW is a formidable opponent, but the fact that Faces is a truly finished book, and that this is a first novel (instead of a posthumous one), might help her through to the finals.

USA

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace

By now, I suspect everyone knows the story behind The Pale King: In 2008, after DFW committed suicide, editor Michael Pietsch pieced together the unfinished novel and writings that DFW left behind and produced The Pale King. A novel about boredom and the IRS—the only government agency designed to make money, therefore one that should be efficient in modern corporate ways—The Pale King was widely praised, including by World Cup of Literature judge Tom Roberge, in this review for Deadspin. Over at New York, Garth Risk Hallberg also nailed it:

Under the hood, though, what’s remarkable about The Pale King is its congruity with Wallace’s earlier ambitions. Recent generations of Americans have, with a few notable exceptions, been allergic to what used to be called “the novel of ideas.” Information we love, and the more the better. Memes? By all means. But inquiries into ontology and ethics and epistemology we’ve mostly ceded to the science-fiction, self-help, and Malcolm Gladwell sections of the bookstore. A philosophy-grad-school dropout, Wallace meant to reclaim them. ­_Infinite Jest_ discovered in its unlikely ­milieu of child prodigies and recovering addicts less a source of status details than a window onto (in Wallace’s words) “what it is to be a fucking human being.” And The Pale King treats its central subject—­boredom itself—not as a texture (as in ­Fernando Pessoa), or a symptom (as in Thomas Mann), or an attitude (as in Bret Easton Ellis), but as the leading edge of truths we’re desperate to avoid. It is the mirror beneath entertainment’s smiley mask, and The Pale King aims to do for it what Moby-Dick did for the whale.

David Foster Wallace was one of the greatest writers of the second half of the twentieth century (or the twentieth century as a whole? or of all time?), but the phrase “unfinished novel” will likely discount this in the minds of some judges, so maybe the mighty American isn’t as unbeatable as he seems at first glance.

That’s it. Stay tuned to find out who’s going through to Monday’s Championship.

8 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

In the last of the four quarterfinal match ups, BiH, represented by Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, goes up against one of the World Cup of Literature favorites, Germany and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz.

Stanišic made it here first by bribing a judge and beating Iran’s represntative, The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi 1-0 and then by upsetting Honduras and Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness by a score of 5-3.

Sebald wrecked Ghana and Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country 5-1, then got by Algeria and Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by a score of 1-0.

This one is going to be close . . .

Hal Hlavinka: Germany

Saša’s payment pending, the ghost of Sebald runs ragged.


Bosnia 0 – Germany 1


Stephen Sparks: Germany

Although the exuberance of How the Soldier fared well against Senselessness, the methodical, evenly paced tenor of Austerlitz won the day for me here in the quarterfinals.


Bosnia 0 – Germany 2


James Crossley: Germany

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone has a lot to recommend it where the World Cup of Literature is concerned: quirky chapter titles, some actual soccer content, and a flukish celebrity appearance on the hardcover dust jacket. (The designer used a stock photo—man playing accordion on the beach—without realizing that the subject was author/musician Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket.) Sorry about the tough draw, Stanišić, but that’s not enough. Literary landmark Austerlitz for the win.


Bosnia 0 – Germany 3


Hannah Chute: Bosnia

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone is what Catch-22 would be if Yossarian were an eleven-year-old Bosnian kid. It’s funny, touching, and all-around brilliant.


Bosnia 1 – Germany 3


Nick During: Bosnia

Books, like soccer matches, often hinge on the unexpected. The depth and knowledge and verve of a truly great team can be defeated by the rare moment of creative brilliance at just the right time. Don’t get me wrong, Austerlitz is a truly great book, a Sebald classic that makes the reader search for hidden memories and mysteries in the buildings that surround us, but in the flexible paragraphs and sentences of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone lies the imagination that has gives the reader another look at the past, and in a different way that can free them from the weight of official history.


Bosnia 2 – Germany 3


Florian Duijsens: Bosnia

Every Cup needs at least one slightly partial ref and, having taken both books out into a park today (the closest I could think of coming to the championship field), I will gladly to give my vote to Bosnia, and not just because Saša and I follow each other on Instagram. Where Austerlitz smartly and digressively peers into the past and its oblivion, How The Soldier Repairs The Gramophone brings a version of the not all that distant past to vivid life through the child narrator’s unobstructed observations, which manage to surprise as often as they stun with sudden bursts of painful truth.


Bosnia 3 – Germany 3


Chris Schaefer: Germany

Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone and W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz are both haunting novels about savage twentieth-century European conflicts. Stanišić’s novel elicited more laughter from me than anything else I’ve read recently, but its creative tragicomedy could not compete with Sebald’s innovative and weighty erudition. The known quantity Sebald defends his reputation against the upstart Stanišić, but we can expect great things from the young Bosnian in the future.


Bosnia 3 – Germany 4


And there you have it—the semifinals are set. On one side we have Chile (Bolaño’s By Night in Chile) going up against Germany (Sebald’s Austerlitz), and on the other we have Mexico (Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd) taking on the USA (DFW’s The Pale King).

See you tomorrow for the first of these matches!

——

Did Austerlitz Deserve to Make it to the Semifinals?

Yes
No


8 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

After two exciting quarterfinal match ups yesterday—with Chile and Mexico moving on to the semifinals—we’re back today with two “impossible to call” matches. First up is Michel Houellebecq and the pride of France facing off against America’s David Foster Wallace as The Map and the Territory takes on The Pale King.

Houellebecq’s trek to the quarterfinals started with a 3-2 victory over Ecuador and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin. He then rolled Cesar Aira and An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter 4-1.

DFW started with a tough matchup against Portugal’s Gonçalo Tavares and his novel Jerusalem, but the American prevailed 3-2. Then, he took down Belgium’s The Misfortunates by Dimitry Verhulst by a score of 3-1.

Two heavyweights in today’s first quarterfinal . . .

P.T. Smith: USA

The Map and the Territory may play a flawless game, but it’s a familiar one, and like in soccer, those teams are always at risk against ambitious teams that have moments of glory, hoping their inevitable stumbles don’t cost them. The Pale King made me laugh more than anything in a long while, and created full consciousnesses on a single page. There are flaws, yes, but DFW’s writing is to an unfinished book as Tim Howard is the U.S. defense, and The Pale King holds on. Besides, when, other than WCL and the WC, do I get to root for the U.S. and have it not involve corporate capitalism or the military?


France 0 – USA 1


Lori Feathers: France

The Map and the Territory defeats The Pale King because it contains all the elements of the perfect novel: big ideas (art, death, capitalism), a great narrative with good pacing (this is where Houellebecq smokes DFW), and Houellebecq’s expressive (sometimes great) writing style. Not to mention, inventing his own brutal murder (so few remaining body parts that they fill only a child’s coffin) is original and ballsy enough to advance beyond the quarterfinals.


France 1 – USA 1


Tom Roberge: France

This match makes you painfully aware of the folly in pitting works of art against each other. If I’m forced to choose a winner, then I give the edge to Houellebecq if only because I enjoyed reading The Map and the Territory more, and pure and simple pleasure has to count for something.


France 2 – USA 1


Scott Esposito: France

The Pale King isn’t even actually a book after all . . .


France 3 – USA 1


Lance Edmonds: USA

By a mile.


France 3 – USA 2


Will Evans: USA

How funny to have two powerhouse novels by two brilliant authors who feature caricatures of themselves as characters in these two sloppy but brilliant novels. I preferred The Pale King but it came down to a shoot out for me.


France 3 – USA 3


Ryan Ries: USA

The Map and the Territory is a dark (and darkly funny) novel about death and art, a work that might be deemed a masterpiece if its author hadn’t already written one. The Pale King is shaggy, of course, disjointed and overlong too, but it also contains a few dazzling passages that make your heart ache in recognition of the so-called “human condition.” In a close match, it is these moments of transcendence, despite a consistent and accomplished effort from France, that push USA through to the semifinals.


France 3 – USA 4


And the US World Cup of Literature representative does what the US Men’s National Team just simply can’t: move on to the semifinals where The Pale King will face off against Mexico and Faces in the Crowd.

——

Did The Pale King Deserve to Make it to the Semifinals?

Yes
No


7 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The second quarterfinal matchup today features Mexican author Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd up against Uruguay stalwart Mario Benedetti and his The Rest Is Jungle.

Luiselli got to this match by sliding past the Croatian representative Dubravka Ugresic and her Baba Yaga Laid an Egg 3-2 and then running rampant over Australia and Murnane’s Barley Patch by a score of 3-0.

Benedetti’s first-round matchup was against Costa Rica and Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon. He won by a score of 2-1. In the second round, The Rest Is Jungle triumphed over Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma by a score of 1-0.

Here we go!

Chad W. Post: Mexico

I said all I have to say about this book in my post on the second round. It’s brilliant in any context, and definitely deserves to move on to the semifinals.


Mexico 1 – Uruguay 0


Mauro Javier Cardenas: Mexico

It is exciting when a debut shows so much promise, so much wistfulness written in the kind of Spanish prose I prefer: an admixture of casual and literary, the American English of New York visiting paragraphs every now and again. No fue penal!


Mexico 2 – Uruguay 0


Katrine Jensen: Mexico

Everybody should read Faces in the Crowd. Read it for Luiselli’s language. Read it for the masterly translation by MacSweeney.


Mexico 3 – Uruguay 0


Nick Long: Mexico

Mexico (Faces in the Crowd) wins by its sheer pace, a literary zoetrope filled with allusions distilled into vignettes that dress up this boring match. The breadth and depth of Faces in the Crowd’s references are legion, and literature is just like soccer, in which things are always fluid and bribing the referee is usually the best plan of action. Mexico may not be able to win in Ohio, but calling upon the powers of d.a. levy was sufficient to bring victory to Faces in the Crowd (albeit not Dos a Cero).


Mexico 4 – Uruguay 0


Laura Radosh: Mexico

No match. Does Benedetti write well? Of course he does, he made it this far. Does it hold up to Luiselli’s fragmented wild ride through the (literary) ghosts of two cities? No. Win for Mexico.


Mexico 5 – Uruguay 0


Elianna Kan: Mexico

Mexico! A million times Mexico!


Mexico 6 – Uruguay 0


Kaija Straumanis: Mexico

I enjoyed Benedetti’s short stories—I really did. But not even 10 pages into Faces in the Crowd) I’m already so hooked, so much more interested in what the following pages will hold and what Luiselli will do with her novel that it already outshines most everything done in The Rest Is Jungle. Also, Luiselli is kind of hot and, well, Uruguayans bite people.


Mexico 7 – Uruguay 0


Well, that was rather convincing . . . Mexico annihilates Uruguay and cruised into the semifinals to play either France or America—we’ll find out if it’s Houellebecq or David Foster Wallace tomorrow . . .

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Semifinals?

Yes
No


7 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first quarterfinal matchup features two prominent, stellar authors: Roberto Bolaño represents Chile with his novel By Night in Chile, facing off against Italian author Elena Ferrante and her Days of Abandonment.

Bolaño made it to this point by annihilating the Netherlands and Koch’s The Dinner by a score of 3-0, then taking out Brazil’s Buarque and Budapest by a score of 3-1.

Ferrante got here by knocking off England’s Zadie Smith and NW 5-3 and then getting by Japan’s Haruki Murakami and 1Q84 by a score of 3-2.

So here we go . . .

Trevor Berrett: Chile

Two brutal teams come together today, Italy stern and frowning because for them this is a real fight, Chile smirking because they already know the fight doesn’t matter: it’s after the match that the storm of shit begins.


Chile 1 – Italy 0


Rhea Lyons: Italy

I love By Night in Chile but I identify with Olga. She is close to my heart.


Chile 1 – Italy 1


Jeffrey Zuckerman: Italy

With the first line, Italy scored with a direct, violent kick not even the world’s fastest goalie could have seen coming: “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” And, with a last-minute headbutt, Chile finally scored in the final minute of the game. But it was too late: Italy’s Ferrante played with a fire and a speed that Chile’s Bolaño could never have hoped to match.


Chile 1 – Italy 2


Shaun Randol: Chile

In By Night in Chile, a lucid man abandons his people. In Days of Abandonment, a woman abandoned loses her mind. Chile’s ball-handling is steady and consistent. The bench is deep and there’s a real sense of teamwork. Abandonment’s play is frantic, uneven, and the striker—Olga—is a ball hog.


Chile 2 – Italy 2


George Carroll: Chile

There’s a restaurant in Berkeley, CA called Cafe Gratitude. The entrees are named “I Am Terrific” (Pad Thai), “I Am Magical” (Black Bean Burger), “I Am Great” (Granola), and so on. The last time I was there, the server approached me and, as a greeting, informed me what she was grateful for, then asked me that same. Maybe I had low blood sugar, maybe I thought it was silly, maybe I didn’t want to discuss my wife and dog. But I didn’t answer, didn’t participate in the ordering ritual. Today, I might have said that I’m grateful for book recommendations from my trusted friends.

Paul Yamazaki from City Lights Books suggested that I read The Savage Detectives. Which I did, then more, and more. I’m not one of those I-read-Bolano-back-when fans; I hate those assholes. I get to recommend him to others now, without the cloying pretension.

I’ve got nothing against Ferrante. Reading Story of a New Name for #BTBA2014 was a pleasant experience.

By Night in Chile is the clear winner. If it should lose, I suggest a double WCOL inquiry into this match and, of course, the Marias/Murnane match.


Chile 3 – Italy 2


Jeff Waxman: Chile

Bolaño. Duh.


Chile 4 – Italy 2


And there you have it, Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile moves on to the semifinals to play either How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone or Austerlitz.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Make it to the Semifinals?

Yes
No


7 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that all of the second round matches have been decided, it’s time for an updated bracket.

You can download a PDF version here.

These quarterfinal matches are all pretty tight . . . And, they’ll all be decided over the next two days.

Today, Monday, July 7th, Chile (By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño) and Italy (Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante) face off, and on the other side of the bracket Mexico (Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli) goes up against Uruguay (The Rest Is Jungle by Mario Benedetti).

Tomorrow we find out who the winners will face in the semis, starting with France (The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq) taking on the USA (The Pale King by David Foster Wallace), and ending with Bosnia (How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić) going up against Germany (Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald).

(Interesting note: Anthea Bell translated both the Bosnian and German entries, so she’s already made it to the semifinals.)

On Wednesday we’ll post semifinal match number one, with the second to follow on Thursday. The First Quadrennial World Cup of Literature champion will be named on Monday, July 14th, hours after the Real World Cup has been decided.

Once again, here’s the current bracket in both jpg and PDF forms.

And the PDF version.

3 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Lori Feathers. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

Conventional wisdom pronounced that Team USA would face a quick death in this year’s World Cup: drawing into the “group of death”; no superstar players; Coach Klinsmann’s pessimistic prognosis of his team’s chances. But Team USA survived (just barely) to advance to the “knock-out” stage and so too, The Pale King to face-off Belgium’s, The Misfortunates.

A few years after his death and much later than really serious readers of contemporary American literature, I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I had mixed feelings before starting. I’ve always loved fat, dense novels—tomes of 700 plus pages are, by their very nature, projects, commitments, not something that you undertake on a whim and works that challenge your perseverance. But, experimental fiction left me cold—the effort to do something different (dare I say novel?) was too apparent, overwhelming the characters and the story. When I reached the last of its 980 pages (plus 95 pages of (very small print) endnotes), I admired Infinite Jest. I did not always enjoy reading Infinite Jest. And in any case, I was certain that I had read enough DFW to last my lifetime. Then I drew The Pale King in the 2014 World Cup of Literature . . .

On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up. (I don’t think that Lois Lerner read The Pale King.) But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these “anti-actors” adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure.

I worked for a number of years as a GS-9 and GS-11 (I never got to ride in a government repossessed Gremlin), and as I recall, my federal agency was less grim and more sensible than that depicted in the pages of The Pale King. But when your topic is the IRS, artistic license allows, even demands, some exaggeration. And this is a funny book. The Pale King is every bit as brilliant as Infinite Jest but its focus is the mendacity of office work, a world more familiar than Quebec separatists, elite tennis academies, and movies that inflict mind controlling paralysis and death on unsuspecting viewers. And, this, I think, makes it a better book.

And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty. Obviously The Pale King could (should) have been written with more economy, but the effect would have been diminished. The time and attention given to the characters’ emotions, impressions and thoughts made them mine, as well. Self-doubt, pride, paranoia, hubris and many of the feelings that equate to being human, are acutely felt.

The Misfortunates is a collection of short stories about a very poor, beer-addled family in a small Flemish town, a place that I imagine as similar to the Appalachian village (yes was and still is today, officially, a “village”) where I grew up. Only in Arsendegem, the beer has to be better than Schaefer Light!

The book’s eponymous narrator, Dimitri Verhulst, shares a dozen or so tales from his childhood and early adulthood: misadventures about town, all involving mind-boggling amounts of alcohol, mostly beer. The Verhulst’s are very poor, and when the men of the house take up work from time to time, it is for the single purpose of paying-up their tab at the local pub. Dima’s mother abandons him to his grandmother, father and uncles when he is only ten. Despite the poverty, motherless childhood, and general, non-malicious neglect, Dima’s life is not particularly sad, and his story does not follow the well-trod path of an alcoholic father begetting a damaged son. Instead, Dima is loved by his grandmother and her brood of four sons—he is “our Kid,” and this brings cohesion and a weird normalcy to Dima’s life. It’s refreshing when we see Dima at the end of the book, mostly sober, mostly stable and with a woman that he really loves. The Misfortunates and The Pale King both are very funny. In The Misfortunates, the laughs are copious and frequently ribald, and translator David Colmer deserves kudos for translating Danish humor into sharp, colloquial English. (By contrast, The Pale King’s humor is dry and requires the reader to excavate the text (including the footnotes) carefully in order not to miss some of the funniest bits.) The Misfortunates is good fun, and I encourage you to read it (preferably over a beer or two). I look forward to reading more from Verhulst.

Final score: USA 3 – Belgium 1

The Misfortunates scored some fast, hard laughs, but The Pale King kicked it na gaveta with the undeniable talent of DFW whose fiction reshaped what American literature is and what it can be. Maybe Team USA can do the same for US soccer.

——

Lori Feathers is an attorney who lives in Dallas, Texas with her two, fat English bulldogs and (not-fat) boyfriend. She is a member of the Board of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas.

——

Did The Pale King Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


3 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Tom Roberge. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

I genuinely love the World Cup. And yet every four years I’m reminded why I haven’t picked an English Premier League team to support, why in the end I’m glad it’s over, why I have no trouble understanding some of the more salient arguments put forth by the trolls. It has nothing to do with the game itself, with the low scoring or the simplicity, but rather with the game’s on-the-field stewards: the referees. I’m sure I’ll get plenty of counter arguments suggesting that NFL and NBA refs alter games just as much as soccer refs do (looking at you, 2007 NBA Finals refs who gave the title to Wade and the Heat), but I hate that soccer officials have so much control over the outcomes of the matches. They call offsides and disallow goals. They call penalties in the box that result in PK goals that are practically foregone conclusions. They issues red cards and handicap teams. Or they miss biting incidents (there were teeth marks!) that should have, at the very least, resulted in a red card that might have given Italy the advantage it needed. Maybe I’m biased on that one.

I concede that most of the time these calls are accurate. But sometimes they aren’t, and it gets ugly. Really ugly and frustrating. Instead of the athleticism and strategy and sheer drama of the players and coaches and the action itself being front and center stage, these bad and/or pivotal calls put too much attention on the refs, and entire matches end up hinging on their decisions, which is just awful. I want the referees to fade into the background, to do their (difficult and perennially unappreciated) jobs in anonymity. I don’t want to know what they look like, or have any reason to remember their names.

Which is a way of explaining why I’m ditching the straw man I originally planned on setting up here, namely the notion that this match would be a tough one for me to judge given my employment by the publisher of César Aira and, on the other hand, my slavish devotion to the work of Michel Houellebecq. I’m ditching it because that would force you all to focus on my situation, my context, my imposed narrative. And just like it’s wrong for refs to steal the spotlight from the players, I also think it’s wrong for reviewers to (try to) steal the spotlight from writers and their books. So I’m stepping aside as much as I can and letting the books speak for themselves. It’s a bit difficult because, like in sports, a few highlights in condensed format utterly fail to convey the context in which the highlights occurred, but it’s the best I can do without outright demanding that instead of reading the notes and short selections below, you stop what you’re doing, go find a copy of the books in your local store, and read them without stopping. Wait, that’s a great idea. Go!

Still here? Alright, let’s go straight to the highlights.

* * *

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

A book about, well, a 19th century landscape painter named Johann Moritz Rugendas. Rugendas was real, as was his trip to Argentina, but what Aira describes—Rugendas being struck by lightning in the Pampas—is completely fictional.

We have to begin with a description of Rugendas’s approach to the art of landscape painting:

The artistic geographer had to capture the “physiognomy” of the landscape . . . by picking out its characteristic “physiognomic” traits . . . The precise arrangement of physiognomic elements in the picture would speak volumes to the observer’s sensibility, conveying information not in the form of isolated features but features systematically interrelated so as to be intuitively grasped: climate, history, customs, economy, race, fauna, flora, rainfall, prevailing winds . . .

Got it? It turns out to be the underlying point of the entire book, that something as seemingly benign as a landscape portrait actually speaks volumes about the history of the world and civilization.

Later on in the quasi-defense of sending a German painter to South America to document what he sees in painting, we get a taste of Aira’s tendency towards quirky scene-setting:

Travel and painting were entwined like fibers in a rope. One by one, the dangers and difficulties of a route that was torturous and terrifying at the best of times were transformed and left behind. And it was truly terrifying: it was hard to believe that this was a route used virtually throughout the year by travelers, mule drivers and merchants. Anyone in their right mind would have regarded it as a means of suicide. Near the watershed, at an altitude of two thousand meters, amid peaks disappearing into the clouds, rather than a way of getting from point A to point B, the path seemed to have become quite simply a away of departing from all points at once. Jagged lines, impossible angles, trees growing downwards from ceilings of rock, sheer slopes plunging into mantles of snow under a scorching sun. And shafts of rain into little yellow clouds, agates enveloped in moss, pink hawthorn. The puma, the hare and snake made up a mountain aristocracy. The horses panted, began to stumble, and it was time to stop for a rest; the mules were perpetually grumpy.

Rugendas dwelling on the value of art as compared to the rigors of historical accuracy:

The purpose of storytelling could be better fulfilled by handing down, instead of a set of “tools,” which would enable mankind to reinvent what had happened in the past, with the innocent spontaneity of action. Humanity’s finest accomplishments, everything that deserved to happen again. And the tools would be stylistic. Accord to this theory, then, art was more useful than discourse.

Aira is also fond of mood juxtaposition. To wit: this sentence that appears just before the lengthy, detailed description of the lightning strike:

“At least it will cool off,” he said to himself, and those trivial words marked the end of a phase in his life; with them he formulated the last coherent thought of his youth.

And here he blatantly echoes the lightning strike when describing Rugendas’s condition. I’m not what you’d call a fan of this technique:

Rugendas, who was going through a particularly critical phase, had attacks of vertigo and cerebral short-circuiting all night; he could only withstand them by taking an excessive dose of morphine, and dawn found him sleepwalking, covered in sweat, his face a jig of lightning tics, his pupils shrunk to pinpoints as if her were at the center of the sun.

A dose of quirk combined with mood juxtaposition. This is top-notch Aira:

The morning was truly glorious, perfect for a raid.

Lastly, a prolonged analogy (for, yet again, the art of storytelling) that I think might represent the best passage in the book.

There is analogy that, although far from perfect, may shed some light on the process of reconstruction. Imagine a brilliant police detective summarizing his investigations for the husband of the victim, the widower. Thanks to his subtle deductions he has been able to “reconstruct” how the murder was committed; he does not know the identity of murderer, but he has managed to work out everything else with an almost magical precision, as if he had seen it happen. And his interlocutor, the widower, who is, in fact, the murderer, has to admit that the detective is a genius, because it really did happen exactly as he says; yet at the same time, although of course he actually saw it happen and is the only living eyewitness as well as the culprit, he cannot match what happened with what the policeman is telling him, not because there are errors, large or small, in the account, or details out of place, but because the match is inconceivable, there is such an abyss between one story and the other, or between a story and the lack of a story, between the lived experience and the reconstruction (even when the reconstruction has been executed to perfection) that widower simply cannot see a relation between them; which leads him to conclude that he is innocent, that he did not kill his wife.

* * *

The Map and the Territory

Another book about a painter, the completely fictional Jed Martin. In act one of his career he photographs Michelin maps and then manipulates them dramatically, earning high praise. Several years later, in act two, he paints portraits of celebrities (see below). In an interesting plot element, Michel Houellebecq is a character in his own book; he is asked (and agrees) to write the catalog essay for Martin’s biggest show.

From part one, a description—with quotes—of the critical response of Jed’s very first vernissages. Satirically pretentious and hyperbolic? As if you had to ask:

From the very first lines, he likened the point of view of the map—or of the satellite image—to that of God. ‘With that profound tranquility of the great revolutionaries,’ he wrote, ‘the artist—a man of tender age—moves away, starting with the inaugural piece by which he makes us enter his world, from that naturalist and neo-pagan vision by which our contemporaries exhaust themselves in an attempt to retrieve the image of the Absent One. Not without gallant audacity, he adopts the point of view of a god co-participating, alongside man, in the (re)construction of the world.’

Followed soon thereafter by a potential reason for the works’ popularity, also equally dismissive of a vast swath of French culture:

The growing popularity, across all of France, of cookery classes, the recent appearance of local competitions rewarding new creations in charcuterie or cheese-making, the massive and inexorable spread of hiking . . . combined to bring about this new sociological fact: for the first time in France since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the countryside had become trendy again . . . And the Michelin map, an utterly unnoticed utilitarian object, became in the space of those very weeks the privileged vehicle for initiation into what Libération was to shamelessly call the ‘magic of the terroir.’

Did you think this one was lacking in Houellebecq’s typical despair? Come on. Here you go:

Over the cheese course, Jed’s father got slightly animated and asked him about his projects. Unfortunately, this time it was Jed who risked spoiling the atmosphere, because since his last painting, Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market, he no longer felt much about art. He was going nowhere. There was a sort of force that carried him for a year or two but was now dissipating, crumbling, but what was the point of saying all that to his father, who could do nothing about it. To tell the truth no one could; when faced with such a confession, people could only be slightly sad. They really don’t amount to much, anyway, human relationships.

Houellebecq, a few pages after materializing in his own novel, discussing his life in Shannon, Ireland with Jed. And it’s everything you expect in the best possible way:

“The sunsets are endless and magnificent, it’s like some kind of fucking opera, there are constantly new colors, new flashes of light. I once tried to stay here the whole spring and summer and thought I would die. Every evening, I was on the brink of suicide, with this night that never fell. Since then, at the beginning of April, I go to Thailand and stay there until the end of August. Day starts at six and ends at six, it’s simpler, equatorial and administrative. It’s unbearable hot but the air conditioning works eel and it’s the dead season for tourists. The brothels are empty but they’re still open and that suits me fine; the service remains excellent or very good.”

“Now I have the slight impression you’re playing your own role . . .”

After the overwhelmingly positive (i.e. lucrative) response to Jed’s vernissage featuring the portraits, with the essay by Houellebecq, a discussion between Jed and his gallerist that succinctly, subtly, and perfectly describes the current state of the art market.

“In your view,” Franz went on, “In your view, which painting should’ve got the best offer?”

Jed reflected for a moment. “Maybe Bill Gates and Steve Jobs,” he finally suggested.

“Exactly. It’s gone up to one and a half million euros. From an American broker, who apparently works for Jobs himself.”

“For a long time,” he continued, his voice tense, one the brink of exasperation, “For a long time, the art market has been dominated by the richest businessmen on the planet. And now, for the first time, as well as buying what is most avant-garde in the aesthetic domain, they have the opportunity to buy a painting that portrays themselves. I can’t tell you the number of proposals I’ve received, from businessmen or industrialists, who would like you to paint their portrait. We’ve returned to the time of the Ancien Régime court painting.”

Like all of Houellebecq’s novels, there is violence in The Map and the Territory. It arrives late in the book, but has an incredible impact on both the plot and tone. A description of the crime scene:

The head of the victim was intact, cut off cleanly and placed on one of the armchairs in front of the fireplace. A small pool of blood had formed on the dark green velvet. Facing him on the sofa, the head of a big black dog had also been cleanly cut off. The rest was a massacre, a senseless carnage of strips of flesh scattered across the floor. However, neither the head of the man nor that of the dog were frozen in an expression of horror, but rather one of incredulity and anger.

A passage I have to include because it left me (and, I assume, many others) exhausted and depressed. A rare instance when the context doesn’t matter:

Olga was nice, she was nice and loving, Olga loved him, he repeated to himself with a growing sadness as he also realized that nothing would ever happen between them again; life sometimes offers you a chance, he thought, but when you are too cowardly or too indecisive to seize it life takes the cards away; there is a moment for doing things and entering a possible happiness, and this moment lasts a few days, sometimes a few weeks or even a few months, but it only happens once and one time only, and if you want to return to it later it’s quite simply impossible. There’s no more place for enthusiasm, belief and faith, and there remains just gentle resignation, a sad and reciprocal pity, the useless but correct sensation that something could have happened, that you just simply showed yourself unworthy of this gift you had been offered. He made another coffee, which definitively dispelled the mists of sleep, then thought of leaving Olga a note. “We must think,” he wrote, before crossing that out and scribbling: “You deserve better than me.” He crossed out that sentence again, and wrote, “My father is dying,” then realized that he’d never mentioned his father to Olga, and scrunched up the paper before throwing it in the bin.

And I’ll end with this, which I think represents as much of an artist’s statement as Houellebecq is ever likely to give. Bear in mind that this is a man who loves Balzac and Dickens and Tolstoy:

The question of beauty is secondary in painting: the great painters of the past were considered such when they had developed a world view that was both coherent and innovative, which means that they always painted in the same way, using the same methods and operating procedures to transform the objects of the world into pictorial ones, in a matter that was specific to them and had never been used before.

* * *

My analysis, comparing the two novels, side by side? It seems to me that in this particularly novel, Aira is writing about writing by writing about another art form, painting. He takes a good look at a specific kind of painting, at one specific painter, and at one specific incident in his life in order to spell out his extended metaphor and, ideally, see if anything else can be gleaned from the material. It’s a haphazard approach (he famously writes without aims, and doesn’t edit), and one that can be fun and occasionally transcendently beautiful, but I’m afraid it feels like what it is: narrow in scope.

Houellebecq, on the other hand, takes on big, fundamental questions about life and happiness and our fundamental need for companionship, empathy, and simple understanding. He explores the primal urge to create, and the (often horrific) affects of modern capitalism on the creators and their creations. He doesn’t peddle in metaphors; he strips events down to reveal their piercing emotional power, and, in the process, leaves the reader in that curious state of mind that the best works of art enable: the sneaking suspicion that although it seems like you’ve learned something new about humanity and yourself, you’ve also been reminded that you’ll never truly understand the world, but that asking the questions is nonetheless essential.

Final score, no contest: France 4 – Argentina 1.

——

Tom Roberge works at New Directions and loves Arjen Robben.

——

Did The Map Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


2 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Elianna Kan. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

Costa Rica. Colombia. Ecuador. Greece. These teams have amazed us in this year’s World Cup for having made it as far as they have. They’re teams that have played consistently well over the years but have never quite achieved the rock star status of a Brazil, Italy, or France. They have their moments of greatness—see Costa Rica’s incredible 1-0 win against four-time world champion Italy—but overall, they have little hope of getting beyond the qualifying rounds due to their relatively lackluster performance and generally unchanged style of play over the years.

Segue to our World Cup of Literature, Round Two:

Representing team Ivory Coast, we have the relentless Allah Is Not Obliged by Ahmadou Kourouma. Team Ivory Coast’s opponent for this match comes in the form of The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories by Mario Benedetti representing team Uruguay. The two teams make a rather odd match for one another: the one, an unapologetically graphic, realist novel told from the perspective of a child soldier in Liberia and the other, a collection of short stories spanning more than fifty years in the prolific writing career of one of Latin America’s most esteemed writers.

Allah comes out with guns blazing (literally), expletives flying, glossary definitions interjecting irritatingly in passages on nearly every other page. What at first seems like a clever tactic for representing the voice of the novel’s 10-year-old under-educated hero, quickly becomes uninteresting gimmick and it’s clear early on in this match that Ivory Coast will not be able to keep this up. Sure enough, by the 23’ the referee finally pulls a red card on team Ivory Coast—the crowd groans in exacerbated agreement. This is sheer stereotype reinforcement, pure and simple—cheap tricks and laziness on the part of the author, who neglected to craft a single compelling or nuanced character.

Team Uruguay knows a little something about nuance. In the prologue to his 1979 play, Pedro and the Captain, Benedetti writes:

The work isn’t a confrontation between a monster and a saint, but rather one between two men, two flesh and blood beings who both have their points of vulnerability and resistance. For the most part the distance between the two of them is ideological, and this perhaps holds the key to their other differences—the moral, the spiritual, the sensitivity to human pain, the complex terrain that lies between courage and cowardice, the lesser or greater capacity for sacrifice, the gap between betrayal and loyalty.

Indeed, team Jungle does a much better job navigating this complex terrain of human characterization by juggling various narrative voices and tones but still, many of these stories leave barely a blip on the radar (unfortunately in this case, it seems, in large part due to mediocre translation). In spite of some lovely poetic moments that linger in the imagination as well as the more haunting moods pervading some of these stories, there’s no Maradona ’86 goal against England. Nothing particularly breathtaking. Which is why we watch this stuff in the first place, right? And so with that, once team Uruguay scored a goal in the 62’ with the short story “The Iriarte Family,” I shut the TV off and went to sleep.

Uruguay 1 – Ivory Coast 0

——

Elianna Kan edits literature in translation for The American Reader and translates from Spanish. She’s also a shameless Argentina fan.

——

Did The Rest Is Jungle Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


2 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chad W. Post. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

First off, let it be said that Barley Patch doesn’t even deserve to be playing in this match.

Sure, Mauro had his reasons for choosing Gerald Murnane’s self-conscious masterpiece over Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow, but no matter what YouPoint PowerTube images he tosses out, I would rather read 12,000 pages of this:

‘What Dearlove could not bear,’ obviously I didn’t call him Dearlove, but by his real name, ‘is that his life should end like that; in short, he would find the manner of his death almost unbearable than death itself. He would, of course, be terrified to see his successful existence truncated and to lose his life, as would anyone, even if that life had been a failure; what’s more, I don’t, as I said, believe him to be a brave man, he would be terribly afraid. What most horrifies Dearlove, though, as it does other show-business people (although they may not know it), is that the end of his story should be such that it overshadows and darkens the life he’s lived and accumulated up until now, eclipsing it, almost erasing and cancelling out the rest and, in the end, becoming the only fact that counts and will be recounted.

(You know, like how Michael Hutchence of INXS died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, which is all we really remember him for. Sorry, INXS fan.)

Than even 25 pages of this:

While I was writing the first few sentences of the previous paragraph, I was unable to recall any details of the images of persons and faces that I had had in mind while I read as a child the series of short stories referred to. At some time while I was writing the last two sentences of the previous paragraph, I found myself assigning to the female character under mention the image of a face that I first saw during the early 1990s when I looked into a book that I had recently bought on the subject of horse-racing in New Zealand.

Snoo-motherfucking-ooze.

That said, Spain’s tiki-taka style of play (which, for the uninitiated, can best be summed up in this Los Campesinos! lyric, “we need more post-coital, and less post-rock, feels like the buildup takes forever and you never touch my cock”) went down in flames in the 2014 Real World Cup, so it is kind of fitting that the same happened in the World Cup of Literature.

But, Australia?! A country of poisonous flying spiders, jellyfish that are 100 meters in diameter, snakes that can kill you by looking in your eyes, and shitty Fosters beer? The best thing you ever did for literature was serve as the setting for an episode of The Simpsons.

Then again, you’re playing Mexico here. A country whose players—to steal Kaija Straumanis’s “World Cup Taunt”—hope for a green card every time the ref reaches in their pocket. Your Real World soccer team has never made it past the quarterfinals of a World Cup (failing again in 2014!), making you the least successful Spanish-speaking fútbol country ever. (Verified fact.)

Let’s put aside the actual teams—and random uninformed jokes—for now and look at more of the book itself.

The basic argument for Barley Patch is that it’s “innovative” and “new” and “erudite.” Is Murnane a smart writer? Sure. Is Barley Patch new and innovative? Not in my opinion. Murnane is kind of a poor man’s Gilbert Sorrentino (but without Sorrentino’s sense of humor) mixed with W.G. Sebald (but without Sebald’s universality).

If you haven’t read about Barley Patch before, here’s a basic summary: The narrator of this book has decided to stop writing. For 257 pages he tries to explain why he stopped writing by writing about things that he’s written, writing about his relationship to books that he read in his youth, writing about his family, writing about images that have evolved with him over time, writing about how he’s thinking about his current writing, etc. In between all of this, he asks himself “probing” questions, trying to move his narrative along in the most self-conscious way possible.

Spoiler Alert! This is all boring as shit. It’s also one of the most self-fellating books I’ve ever read.

OK, time to blast away with a few examples, like the way-too-precious opening line, “Must I write?” NO. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS AND FOREVER, NO.

This level of the book—wherein the narrator asks himself questions and answers them dishonestly—is super pretentious, and results in “writing” that is more or less Australian Lorem Ipsum:

Have I answered yet the question why had I written?

I would be willing to admit that I have not yet answered the impending question, but only if my hypothetical questioner would admit that a question can hardly be worth asking if its answer can be delivered in fewer than ten thousand words.

Murnane is the anti-Zen monk of world literature.

But even the straightforward parts of the book are uninspired. In a section that should be interesting since it’s all about orgies and Black Masses:

The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import.

Holy Jesus it should not take that many words to say that! And “a copy each of several issues”? Like, if he had written “owned several issues of Playboy” anyone would’ve assumed he had a bunch of copies of the same one?

The thing is, Barley Patch isn’t even a bad book—it’s just an incredibly boring one.

Let me kill off Australia’s last goal scoring chance with this:

Something that ought to be explained is my having begun again to write fiction only a few years after I had stopped, so I thought, for good.

Four years after I stopped writing fiction, my seventh book of fiction was published. Some of the book consisted of pieces of fiction that had been published previously in so-called literary magazines, but each of the other three pieces I had written in order to explain one or another of three matter that I could have explained by no other means than by writing a piece of fiction. One of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had become tired of reading book after book of supposedly memorable fiction and then being unable to remember, a year or more afterwards, any sentence of the text or any detail of my experience as a reader. Another of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had not been misguided whenever I had struggled from time to time during the previous forty years to devise a set of racing colours in which one or another arrangement of one or another shade of blue or of green explained about me something that could have been explained by no other means than by the appearance of a set of racing colours. The third of the pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had stopped writing fiction several years before (and had presumably stopped again after having written the text that explained this) and to offer to readers of good will a hint as to what sort of project I now preferred to fiction-writing. [. . .]

I find myself now in a strange situation. Nearly sixteen years ago, I stopped writing fiction. A few years later, I wrote a piece of fiction intended to explain why I had so stopped. Now, more than ten years later again, I am trying to compose a passage of fiction that might explain my explanatory piece.

Just stop. Now. Zero goals! You’ve been Ochoa-ed.

*

Given all of that, and the fact that I read Barley Patch first, expecting to have my life altered forever by the brilliance of Murnane’s images, only to be massively under-impressed, Faces in the Crowd simply had to not suck to move on to the quarterfinals.

And not only is it a trillion times more readable, enjoyable, less-pretentious, and interesting, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.

That’s how you write a self-reflexive, intellectual passage without coming off as someone obsessed with proving how brilliant they are.

Faces in the Crowd is a short novel with three storylines: one of a young translator working at a publishing house in New York obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, one of a woman in Mexico City writing a book about ghosts and young translators, and one of Gilberto Owen in Philadelphia dreaming of New York. It’s made up of dozens of short bits that collage, creating a million diverse, beautiful bits, and one complex whole.

Also, Valeria Luiselli gets a goal—or three—for being funnier than Murnane. This is a bit of a lame example, but the “author” in Mexico City writes a lot of suspect things about her husband, who occasionally reads her manuscript and gets annoyed. Like when she pokes fun at his obsession with zombie films.

I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

Or a better example, in relation to Gilberto Owen’s way of defining people:

Owen would’ve said that he spoke with spelling mistakes.

If Barley Patch gets some love for being “new,” for exploring the lines between reality and fiction and how one transforms into the other, Faces in the Crowd gets another goal for this embedded explanation of its structure:

Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.

But the main point: Reading Faces in the Crowd is enjoyable and stimulating. Barley Patch deserves nothing. Unfortunately, a lot of the review outlets that seek out “innovative” literature seem to have given Murnane way more attention than Luiselli. I’ll red card that shit and redeem the Real Mexican team (and Robben’s god awful shitheel flop) by awarding a penalty kick.

Final result: 3-0 Mexico.

——

Chad W. Post makes people angry with his swearing, random insults, and dislike of fans of American soccer. Otherwise, he can usually be found reading or trying to buy rights to untranslated works of literature.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


1 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Florian Duijsens. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

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.

——

Did Austerlitz Dererve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


1 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Stephen Sparks. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

The battle between Honduras and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a contrast in style. This is obvious as the two teams line up for pre-match ceremonies: on one side, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s understated Senselessness, with a few tasteful blurbs—from Roberto Bolaño, Russell Banks, and Francisco Goldman—adorning the back jacket; on the other side is Saša Stanišić’s gaudy How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, with its bold, ALL CAPS, multi-colored blurbs, pages and pages of extravagant praise, and a “Reading Guide,” designed no doubt to help palliate those readers concerned about the accents in the Bosnia author’s name. The packaging of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone feels compensatory, too showy. As it preens and struts, confident of its greatness, Senselessness gets right to work, scoring an early goal with its crisp opening salvo:

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.

Honduras 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina

After these initial maneuvers, the Bosnians marshal their forces, realizing that a nifty kit alone does not a soccer team make, especially not in fevered battle against a righteously angry and caustic opponent. They launch an offensive, with a series of beautifully executed passes, backing the Hondurans into their own end. Stanišić’s use of chapter summaries (reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann) is clever and worthy of appreciation. We learn, for instance, that Chapter Five will explain the following:

When something is an event, when it’s an experience, how many deaths Comrade Tito died, and how the once-famous three-point shooter gets behind the wheel of a Centrotrans bus

And that later, as the novel moves from more or less innocent childhood memories to war and genocide, we’ll understand:

What we play in the cellar, what peas taste like, why silence bares its fangs, who has the right sort of name, what a bridge will bear, why Asija cries, how Asija smiles

This seldom used tactic results in a goal by Stanišić’s side.

Honduras 1 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

This might be the most fevered, high-strung match in the World Cup of Literature, with lulls in play coming few and far between. Each side seems intent on pummeling the other into submission, and goals are scored in bunches: Castellanos Moya’s wicked humor and coiled sentences spring into action, tilting things in Honduras’ favor . . .

Honduras 2 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . and Stanišić’s effective, if occasionally too cute heartstring-tugging getting the Bosnians back into the match . . .

Honduras 2 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . then, Senselessness gets really offensive with an STD, sending the Bosnians scurrying back on defense . . .

Honduras 3 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . after regrouping—nothing a little penicillin can’t cure, boys!—the Soldier and his Gramophone comes back strong, striking two goals in quick succession with a one-legged former soccer player, Kiko, and twenty pages of a No Man’s Land soccer match that involves cowardice, duplicity, a 6’9” tall lethal striker nicknamed Mickey Mouse, land mines, and a miracle comeback for the ages. The Hondurans are reeling, they can’t hold up against this onslaught. With their hyperactive exuberance, the Bosnians take the lead.

Honduras 3 – 4 Bosnia and Herzegovina

What do the Hondurans have left as we near the ninetieth minute? One last charge that falls flat against the nimble-footed Bosnian, who steals the ball, streaks toward the goal and deposits an insurance goal, putting How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone up for good.

Honduras 3 – 5 Bosnia and Herzegovina

You can be sure that a people who “sing even when they’re killed” will be celebrating in style.

——

Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books. He lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories.

——

Did How the Soldier Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Rhea Lyons. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

One of the first games of the second round finds Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment pitted against the Japanese juggernaut 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.

Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment is written from the perspective of Olga, a forty-something mother of two whose husband leaves her in the opening pages for a much younger woman. With the first line, the reader is hit with a palatable shock as Olga is abandoned, seemingly without reason, after fifteen years of marriage.

Score one for Italy, 15 seconds in!

Ferrante’s opening is clean and direct, easily remained as a crisp pass from a wing to a perfectly timed cut from a striker, who drives the ball confidently into the high corner. However, as the novel progresses, Olga becomes increasingly helpless in her own rage and fury. In a scene where she encounters her husband and new lover on the street, Olga attacks him, attempting to punish him but succeeding only in making matters worse for herself. Although this begins as a brilliant second scoring attempt, it’s ultimately an untimely yellow card for the Italians, and as Olga loses her grip, the Italian team loses control of the game.

And that’s when Japan takes over. Murakami immediately makes the reader wonder at the creativity of his own world, as Ayomame, his brilliant and enigmatic assassin, escapes a traffic jam and makes the windy descent from a crowded highway. Ayomame experiences a strange feeling, and her usual ability to recall important dates becomes scrambled—but so is the readers’ ability to stay ahead of her. She deftly defies our defenses—a breakaway chance that makes you hold your breath to watch the outcome.

When she emerges past the last line of defenders, she is surprised to see a police officer dressed in a different uniform than usual, carrying a more dangerous gun than usual—she’s wide open, but it’s almost as if the game is a completely different one than she started in. Still, she’s a professional. She performs her assassination, but can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on.

At the same time, her teammate Tengo is also attempting to rewrite the playbook—but in this case, by literally rewriting an incredible novel to dupe the literary world into believing this is worthy of a prestigious prize. With this sort of misdirection and intense plotting, it’s no problem for Japan to score the equalizer. Despite her ferocity, Ferrante’s Olga is slipping, and Murakami’s set up is pretty solid—sexy female assassin, alternate realities, literary mystery, and plenty of moral conflict for both narrators. It’s quickly 1-1.

Olga continues to slip into a pitiable state of desperation— she spends hours examining her face in the mirror, trying to divine the reason her husband left her. She has a failed sexual encounter with her downstairs neighbor. She starts to forget to pick her children up for school, becomes unable to feed them. She cannot escape the prison of her own sorrow. Poor Olga can’t do anything right—leaving the Italians flopping around the field like crazy, grabbing their barely-bruised shins. It doesn’t work— they don’t get any calls their way. The Italian team suffers a self-inflicted wound: a devastating own goal. The Italian fans go silent. The Japanese fans go wild.

Thank goodness for half time. Japan leads 2-1, and the Italian morale is undeniably low. It’s clear Olga has basically stopped trying to get herself out of her misery. Yet, all isn’t completely rosy in the Japanese camp, either. Tengo feels increasingly conflicted about re-writing Air Chrysalis, and Ayomame is struggling with with her own feelings of loneliness and regret as well. If I was coaching either team I’d probably make them to watch the scene from Miracle when Kurt Russell fires up the team during the Sweden game (“a bruise on the leg is a hell of a long way from the heart, candy ass!”) But sadly, I’m not the coach here, and also, I’m not so sure the reference would translate.

Anyway. Italy begins the second half with more of the same, as Olga is doing worse than ever. Her apartment is infested by ants. Her son is suffering from a mysterious fever, and her dog, Otto, is acting sick. She realizes that they are all locked into their apartment, as she simply can’t figure out how to turn the key in the front door. If she doesn’t get some help, and quickly, her whole life will fall apart. Despite not being the greatest team-player, she employs her daughter, Ilaria, to stab her in the leg when she notices her mother staring off into space.

Now, sometimes you need a kick in the ass to jump-start a stagnant offense, and yet no real scoring chances come from it: her son is still sick, she’s still locked in the apartment, and the dog is dying. If you’re a fan of the Italians, you probably feel like crying right now…I am a neutral judge, but I admit I shed many tears watching poor Otto’s suffering.

This would be the perfect time for Japan to take advantage and the offensive, and really put this contest away . . . but 1Q84 is just such a damn slow read. While Olga is focused and determine to solve the essential problem behind her misery, Ayomame’s and Tengo’s story lines meander through past and present, taking their time to unwind. It’s a graceful performance, but time is ticking down. Although Japan has maintained possession, they haven’t managed to execute any effective scoring opportunities.

Finally, Italy takes a chance. Olga has seen her life collapse around her, and has hit rock-bottom, and that realization is the water break she needs. She finds herself feeling strangely calm. The door opens without a problem. The dog is laid to rest, and she calls a doctor for the children. More importantly, Olga realizes she is no longer in love with her scumbag husband. Like the mighty phoenix, Italy rises from the ashes and takes possession of the ball, and quickly scores not once, but twice! Olga has overcome her abandonment and has learned what she needs to to do become a courageous, wise women.

However, Olga is exhausted, and there’s still about 500 pages of 1Q84 left to go. It’s as if the refs have added an addition 30 minutes of stoppage time—it’s almost impossibly long, and you have to think Murakami’s got enough talent on his side to at least get a tie. And they are able to come off with a few nail-biting offensive chances, but Italy’s play is just too solid in the end. Shaky in the middle, but a little more dynamic than the slow-and-steady 1Q84. Just when it starts to look dire for Italy, the buzzer sounds—time really wasn’t on Ayomame and Tengo’s side after all.

ITALY WINS 3-2.

——

Rhea Lyons is a former Open Letter intern (and University of Rochester grad) who is now a literary scout at Franklin & Siegal.

——

Did Days of Abandonment Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Jeff Waxman. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

It’s hard watching the first round, shoulder to shoulder with other sweating fans at wobbling tables that would sacrifice the first inch of your beer if you ever set it down. It’s hard watching your team bite it. I read The Dinner, and it might’ve even had a shot against any one of the other novels in the running. But not against By Night in Chile, one of the bookiest books in Bolaño’s sainted oeuvre. Even with officials like ours—as loathsome, venal, half-blind, and hateful as a Herman Koch antihero—Bolaño couldn’t fall. “The fix is in!” they’d shriek. And they’d be right. Didja hear about Marias? Damn.

So the better book won. And to read the play-by-play on Budapest/Dark Heart of the Night, Cameroon never really had a chance. What did Jeffrey Zuckerman say? It shocked and amazed him? I was pretty impressed, too. But as Brazil is about to learn, you can only get so far in a tournament like this one with cute jibes at the Hungarian language. And when you’re writing for this reader, you’re liable to get carded for any number of extremely subjective sins.

By Night in Chile has the air of a parable about it: an aged poet and critic (and priest) lies on his deathbed recounting a career that peaked during some of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. You need to hear this plot again like you need a hole in the head—this is the second round after all. But I will emphasize that this isn’t, precisely, a political book or an apolitical book. It’s not a book about body count, even if there are a few bodies. It’s a book about the culture of books and the sometimes ambiguous place in which that culture exists. “And that’s the truth,” Bolaño writes.

We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.

1-0, Chile. Like you had to ask. You were there. You saw it.

As the narrative of a ghostwriter, a man who requires the special cadences of life itself to write and, sometimes, to translate, Budapest is awash with sex and metatextual jokes, with winks and nudges. Buarque is a writer’s writer and his sentences range across the pitch—the page!—passing forward and backward, almost offsides as often as they advance. Buarque writes:

The writing flowed spontaneously, at a pace that was not mine, and it was on Teresa’s calf that I write my first words in the local tongue. At first she kind of liked it and was flattered when I told her I was writing a book on her. Later she took it into her head to get jealous, to refuse me her body, saying I only wanted her to write on . . .

1-1. Buarque knows what he’s doing.

But like I said, Bolaño’s prose here is powerful and written from the backfield—in retrospect, I mean. And from that position, it surges forward, sentence running into sentence, pushing, driving, probing. Paragraphs hardly break. Dialogue is a series of colons (sometimes) without columns. Chile is getting somewhere and they’re getting there fast:

And Farewell: Have you been to Italy? And I: Yes. And Farewell: Everything falls apart, time devours everything, beginning with Chileans. And I: Yes. And Farewell: Do you know the stories of other popes? And I: All of them. And Farewell: What about Hadrian II? And I: Pope from 867 to 872, there’s an interesting story about him, when King Lothair II came to Italy, the pope asked him if he had gone back to sleeping with Waladra . . .

Chile scores again. And again.

There’s a parody of soccer you’ll all remember from The Simpsons:

Buarque writes like that, almost, a passing game with unexpected thrusts and he can shuffle his chapters in just such a way that the reader nods along, saying, “Ah, yes, I see what you did there. You’re skipping from location to location almost by chapter”:

And again, that’s the truth: when reading a good novel, the reader can marvel at the elegance of individual sentences, at the slow building of plot, at the construction of character. When reading a great novel, there are no sentences that aren’t a part of the whole, there’s no plot and there’s no character to admire—there’s a book. A great novel is not a house of cards, it’s a pleasure palace made of motherfucking gold. And while we mortals can aspire to the delicate work of writing something clever and wonderful and cunning, we cannot cause golden fucking palaces to spring into being. Not like Bolaño can. Shit, I’m supposed to be making sports metaphors. Who’s good? Buarque is a world-class writer, a Suárez chomping at the shoulders of great players. Bolaño is fucking Pelé-Beckham-Ronaldinho. He’s the Galloping Ghost, His Airness, the Big Kahuna, the Sultan of Swat, and the Great One all rolled up.

What I’m trying to say is Chile over Brazil, 3-1. Buarque’s Budapest is a book to love. I feel as though it has been written for me, but By Night in Chile was written for the ages.

To quote the last line in Bolaño’s book: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

——

Jeff Waxman recently left Chicago—and 57th Street Books—to work at Other Press. He’s a funny guy.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first round of the inaugural World Cup of Literature is complete! Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen sixteen books eliminated from the competition for a variety of reasons. (Click here to read all of the pieces from the first round.)

The second round starts—and finishes—next week, so for those of you following along at home, here’s an updated bracket:

And you can download a PDF version here.

Looking ahead to next week, here are the match-ups (and judges) for Round Two:

Brazil vs. Chile 6/30 – Jeff Waxman

Japan vs. Italy 6/30 – Rhea Lyons

Honduras vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina 7/1 – Stephen Sparks

Germany vs. Algeria 7/1 – Florian Duijsens

Mexico vs. Australia 7/2 – Chad W. Post

Ivory Coast vs. Uruguay 7/2 – Elianna Kan

France vs. Argentina 7/3 – Tom Roberge

USA vs. Belgium 7/3 – Lori Feathers

And once again, here’s the updated bracket:

Which matches are you most excited about? Bunch of intriguing match-ups this round: Houellebecq vs. Aira is definitely one, but so is Buarque against Bolaño. Ferrante—who has become a Twitter favorite to win it all—is taking on 1Q84. Will upstart Australian entry Barley Patch continue its winning streak? Or will Mexican Valeria Luiselli put a stop to that? No one knows. (Actually, I do, since I’m judging that match.)

Come back on Monday for four days of second round action!

27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by James Crossley. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

It’s an alliterative pair of nations facing off in the final match of the first round, as Ghana takes on Germany. On grass this is a bit of a mismatch, with the European squad ranked second in the world heading into the tournament, 35 spots higher than its African counterpart. But things may play out differently on paper.

Ghana’s entry, Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing, takes the field in impressive fashion, wearing a resplendent gold and green kit with red trim. (Seriously, this is a beautiful book, with nary an acacia tree to be seen on the cover. That in itself has to be seen as a small victory for Africa.) Germany, represented by W.G. Sebald’s austere, monochromatic Austerlitz looks positively meek in comparison.

There’s the kick-off, and right away we see Ghana starting strong with an unexpected style of attack. Search Sweet Country is a metropolitan novel, set not in some stereotypical rural village but in the capital city of Accra. It’s the 1970s, and most of the high hopes ushered in with independence have faded as a new era of corruption and dictatorship has begun. Multiple characters, including the intriguingly named 1/2-Allotey, rattle around this novel like pachinko balls, scheming and hustling to achieve their various goals and pontificating all the while.

Laing, who writes in English, made his bones as a poet, and he’s besotted by words in his prose as well. Why use one when several will do? A semi-randomly chosen bit of dialogue:

Now look, we are talking about the reality of Ghana politics . . . whoever told you that morality and subtlety are the moving passions? Surely a professor does not need to be told the difference between what is and what ought to be. I am for life, and you are for the ivory tower, which makes you a member of the tall elephant brigade, Hahaha! And I am the grasscutter down low in the earth, with the burrowers and worms! I am the norm and you are the normative!

Search Sweet Country is showy, vibrant, and full, a novel to sink into for a good long while, and it looks set to dominate the action throughout the match. Germany, led by coach and erstwhile fifth Beatle Joachim Low, will have to play quite a game to have any hope of countering.

At first blush, Austerlitz seems far too subdued to compete, almost passionless, in fact. It quietly tells of an eponymous character, a Czechoslovakian evacuated to England on the Kindertransport and raised by foster parents, who spends his adult years researching his family’s experiences during World War II in dusty archives scattered across Europe. Where Search Sweet Country is brash, Austerlitz is sober; where Laing swaggers, Sebald is scholarly and dry. The only thing the two authors share is a taste for packing as many words as possible between their periods:

No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, réduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan: a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.

Phew. Under this lexical onslaught, abetted by translator Anthea Bell, Ghana begins to tire slightly. And it isn’t just relentlessness they’re facing, it’s deception. Austerlitz is only superficially the story of a sedate academic—between the lines it’s an excoriating indictment against Nazism and the institutional mentality that systematized horror and produced it more efficiently than anyone ever had before. Sebald very calmly paints an unforgettable picture of Europe as half factory, half charnel house, and Germany takes control of the game by exposing the rot in its own cultural roots. Nicely played. As the clock winds down to the 90th minute, the crowd is silent, dwelling on its own mortality and awestruck by Sebald’s dominance. By masterfully marshaling facts and mixing them with fiction, he’s godfathered a hybrid form that’s going to freshen literature for decades. Just ask David Shields.

Time expires in the match (as it will for all of us someday) and chiaroscuro has overcome color completely. It’s a devastating win for Germany, and Austerlitz has established itself as the prohibitive favorite to take home the Cup of Lit. Might as well start hanging the black crepe and playing a dirge now.

Germany 5 – 1 Ghana

——

James Crossley is a bookseller at a venerable institution just outside of Seattle, Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s blog, “Message in a Bottle,” and is also a contributing writer for Book Riot and Northwest Book Lovers. In 1976 he saw Pelé play for the New York Cosmos in a friendly against George Best and the Los Angeles Aztecs at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. They tied nil-nil.

——

Did Austerlitz Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Kaija Straumanis. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

One of my personal concerns going into the World Cup of Literature was ending up with a book I had already read—something that quickly became not an issue at all, since out of the 32 representing titles I’d read a whopping one of them. ONE. So, unlike many of my fellow judges, I entered this with zero biases (unlike the Real World Cup, where GERMANY ALL THE WAY! You done got jawohled, USA) or existing knowledge. Which definitely made this a partly disconnected and partly ridiculous—but wholly entertaining—experience.

Representing Costa Rica in this literary matchup is Óscar Núñez Olivas’s Cadence of the Moon, which is based on the first known serial killer of Costa Rica, and is pretty much the only book written in that country, ever1. Among other things, it’s filled with chauvinism, smoking, and a lot of sultry women with huge racks who just don’t seem to get laid enough or at the right time. It’s also filled with some of the weirdest, non-standard narrative descriptors I have ever, ever read. (More on that later.)

To put the structure of Cadence of the Moon simply, think All the President’s Men, but with crappy journalism, better hair, ritualistic violence, and if Watergate had ended with everyone saying “So do we know who our culprit is? No? Oh, okay. Well . . . Hey look at how cool the moon is!”

And in case you want to know what Costa Rica was like in the mid 1990s, serial killings aside, Cadence lays on the sexism: Maricruz, our Journalist Extraordinaire and one of the main protagonists, barters with her editor, Juan José Montero, for the right to cover the story of the Psycopath murders for—any guesses?—a kiss:

“If you want to cover [the story], I’ll give it to you but the price is a little taste of those goodies.” He indicated her lips by pursing his own, musty, nicotine-stained ones.

Even though this disgusting display of, well, everything, ends up being more of a “friendly” teasing tactic the editor uses to rev up his employees, it’s apparently entirely normal; Maricruz proceeds to tells off her boss, who laughs, then they exchange a few more comments on the case, and then he gives her the assignment. No one gets slapped, no one gets fired. Same old, same old in Costa Rica. Then Maricruz is advised by her colleages to cozy up to the cop working the case, Gustavo . . . And no they don’t bang. Poor, curvy Maricruz. The plot is stilted, the characters frustratingly simple—and this is a novel sparked by a serial killer. Nixon’s shady doings dropped a far more interesting plot-brick than this. And what kind of gets me about this is that Núñez Olivas himself is a journalist. There’s even an ironic section later on, in which the newspaper’s owner, Mr. Grey, is insulting Juan José Montero’s staff, and Montero comes to his employee’s aid, saying something along the lines of “What do you think this is, the Washington Post?” . . .

Within the first 40 pages of this book, Cadence has scored an embarrassing, slow-rolling self-goal, putting Costa Rica up 1-0 before anything really even happens. And oh, by the way, NOTHING EVER HAPPENS. At this point I’m begging for someone to get bitten. But oh no, Uruguay keeps its mouth shut as Cadence continues to make things worse for itself, progressing from being Woodword and Bernstein’s Aspergersy, Canadian second-cousin to Dan Brown’s Post-it covered, Montessori-bound lovechild. I once listened to The Lost Symbol on a two-day drive from New York to Minnesota, and 10 hours into my drive I was about to lose my shit because no one had died, nothing major had happened, the plot hadn’t gone anywhere, I was in Indiana, by myself, and with a guaranteed twelve more hours left of that awful, awful book. GAH!

Clearly, lots of PTSD cropping up while working through Cadence. But then, out of completely nowhere, Costa Rica whips out its shiny bits. This otherwise boring, sluggish, based-on-real-events novel with a cover that smacks of self-publishing, suddenly started spitting out some of the most curious, awkward, brilliant sentences like:

“What?” Maricruz lit up with the brilliance that is seen in the faces of adventurers, archeologists and taxonomists.

(Whatever taxonomy Núñez Olivas has researched, it must be goddamn glorious. Classify these samples, you say? Sure thing—just give me a second in the bathroom alone with this spreadsheet . . .)

And:

[Camila] is twisting like a snake, gyrating, licking her lips. She lifts a breast with her right hand and offers it to me. “Suck it!” her half-open lips seem to say, although she says nothing, she just offers the large, dark breast, whose formidable hardness is a last glory amid so much ruin.

(Sweet Jesus. Is this guy about to get pistol-whipped by some cougar’s fake tit as she trashes epileptically on top of him like a charmed cobra? For his sake, I’m hoping Núñez Olivas is either a virgin, or gay, because no sexually active straight man should ever have to experience this, or know how to describe it so vividly.)

And:

“You’ve got a date!” Gustavo exclaimed in the voice of someone announcing the arrival of aliens.

(This sentence both baffles and tickles me. What does it sound like when you announce the arrival of aliens? Fear? Surprise? Arousal? All of the above? I’m going to use this tone the to announce to someone I won’t be paying back their $20.)

There’s just such a wacky brand of specificity to the writing at times that does seem journalistic in its descriptive nature, but is so, so entirely off in terms of human behavior and real-life situations. No book should read like this, no sentences this entertaining should be embedded in something so blah. And yet, I kind of love it.

Costa Rica points to the sky and then flicks Uruguay in their dongles while the ref isn’t looking, and equalizes during the commotion. The score is now 1-1.

Uruguay’s representative, Mario Benedetti, ends up being somewhat of a dark horse. It’s not often that I’m compelled to sit and read a 300-page book of short stories in one go, but Benedetti manages to keep things relatively interesting, very smooth, fairly metered, and overall well-trained. The Rest Is Jungle & Other Stories is a fair opponent, blending various narrative voices with various themes—political, social, gender roles—and even though the text itself isn’t that mind-blowing, the stories roll at a steady and clean pace.

What Uruguay had in this case that Costa Rica didn’t was presence. It can be hard to pit a historical-type novel against short stories, but short story collections can so often work against themselves. The Rest Is Jungle is a collection that knows what it’s doing, where it’s going, where it’s from. (Unlike Benedetti, apparently, who writes in an epigraph: “We are a small nook of America which has neither oil, nor Indians, nor minerals, nor volcanoes, nor even an army dedicated to coups. We are a small country of short stories.” Oh honey. America? You’re Argentina’s fanny-pack at best.)

From the very first story, Benedetti establishes his abilities to switch narrative voice. His narrators move from a precocious cleaning lady who decides to marry her way into the rich family she once worked for, to a dog observing its owners argue, to two boys sneaking into a ceiling passageway over a sports or youth club to spy on girls in the showers. The stories alternate from amusing to disturbing, from familiar to uncomfortable.

One of the most poignant stories was “The Cups,” in which a woman, her husband, and his brother are sitting in the living room about to have coffee. The husband has some kind of disease that has rendered him blind. At the time of the story, the three are sitting around, talking, trying to convince the husband to go to the doctor for a check-up, which he refuses to do. The three make conversation, and then we learn—and see—that the brother-in-law has been recently comforting the wife; we see him silently massaging her neck, cupping the back of her head in his hand, simple touches that give her strength and compassion where her husband has started to lose his. (And no, they don’t bang. At least not in this scene.) They have their “routine” down pat, conducting every calculated, dead-quiet caress right there on the sofa in front of the blind husband coordinated and dead quiet. The story gets emotional for the wife, how she’s had to learn to deal, etc. etc. Then the story closes with the coffee being ready to serve, and as the wife sets down the coffee cups, which she rotates each week so each person is drinking from a different color, the husband mumbles something that sounds like “No, dear. Today I want to drink from the red cup.” End scene.

Not all the stories captured my attention, but I do appreciate the experimentation Benedetti employs to get his words across.

“The Big Switch,” for example, is written in a format that is very non-standard compared to the rest of the pieces. In it, a police officer is swearing (“Shit on the holy whore.”) about all the arrest warrants he has to sign, his broken pen, and the idiots working around him. But the paragraph breaks and shifts to the other story line, where a singer named Lito Suárez BITES EVERYONE IN SIGHT AND THEN THE WHOLE BOOK IS DONE. Kidding. But if only . . .

A singer named Lito Suárez announces to TV viewers that he’s come up with a new song, a kind of song-game, called the “Big Switch,” in which everyone watching will learn the four verses/lines of the song, the proceed to sing these lyrics all day, every day, for the whole week. At the end of the week, Lito will reconvene on TV and announce a change to the first line. Suggestions are welcome from the audience, but only if they follow certain guidelines. Interesting paragraph breaks, drawn out and mashed-up words . . . It’s visually exciting as well:

Lito Suárez is going to announce how “The Big Switch” sounds after the first transformation. “or one week we’ve all sung the song I taght you last Sunday. . . . I’ received 5,473 suggestions to change the first verse. In the end, I selected this one: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen.’ Yaaaaaaaaaaaay, says the channel’s young audience. . . . Disappointed, Julita stops eating her nails. Her brilliant suggestion ended up among the 5,472 rejects. “Within a week, we’ll replace the second verse. Agreed?” Yesssssss, scream the audience

the colonel displays his teeth. “Yes, Fresnedo, I’m with you. The new songs are idiotic. But what’s wrong with that? . . . What does it sound like? Wait, wait. Even I know it by heart: ‘Sothat thewoundwill ooooooopen, so thatyourl ooooooooove awaken, foryouI render myv ooooooooice, formeo oooooooonly loving you.’

So even though The Rest Is Jungle doesn’t wow me, doesn’t make me want to snake-dance on top of people and slap them with my anatomy, Uruguay puts in a far more solid performance via Benedetti’s work. Uruguay scores another point, putting the game at 2-1 in their favor, and Costa Rica would scream in frustration, but their mouths are taped over by serial-killer-grade newspaper tape (what is that stuff on the cover, anyway??).

But then again . . . Maybe Costa Rica has one more shot on goal? One more approach from Cadence:

[Camila] entered the office and spoke in the authoritarian tone that had worked infallibly during 22 years of marriage

“Home!” she said. “You have to rest.”

Bill Grey did not even lift his eyes from the keyboard. He barely arched an eyebrow and replied with astonishing lucidity.

“Why don’t you take one of your sometimes lovers? I am busy.”

It was the first time that he had reproached his wife for her sexual adventures, which she had supposed he was ignorant of. Disconcerted by his response, Camila set off for her office without saying a word, afflicted by a sudden onset of diarrhoea.

(Noooooope.)

And on that note . . . Costa Rica literarily-literally shits the bed in its final shot on goal, before tucking its tail and turning to head home—giving the game to Uruguay, 2-1, and leaving a wake of streak marks behind it.

1 It’s actually more like the only Costa Rican book to be translated into English, which should be remedied because OH MY GOD.

——

Kaija Straumanis is the editorial director at Open Letter, and translates from both Latvian and German.

——

Did The Rest Is Jungle Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


26 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Scott Esposito. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

Everybody knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and I’m trying damn hard to resist doing just that, but the fact remains that the cover of the St. Martin’s edition of The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst features a cartoon drawing of several drunk men swimming in a gigantic been stein and about to be overtaken by a huge wave of pilsner.

Against that, Kim Young-Ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You offers two creepy, razor-sharp, stylized eyes, one featuring the North Korean flag for its iris, the other the South Korean flag.

So there’s your match-up right there: Cold War thriller versus drunk louts about to be drowned by their own beer.

Ki-yong, the protagonist of Your Republic, is a North Korean spy who has infiltrated South Korea. He’s been there for 21 years, long enough to start up a perfectly dull marriage and even have a daughter. He’s kinda forgotten that North Korea even exists. Except one day he receives a transmission: liquidate everything and return home ASAP.

Ki-yong doesn’t exactly want to do that. He likes it where he is, and who knows what awaits him back north. Thus begins Kim’s story of spy intrigue and identity.

That’s a clever plot and an interesting way to get at identity. Headed into the net, 1-0.

The protagonist of The Misfortunates is a 13-year-old named Dimmy, who is surrounded on all sides by extremely drunk men. Seriously: these dudes are so drunk and so working class that avoiding cancer, cirrhosis, etc., and reaching 60 years of age is regarded as some sort of unthinkable concession to bourgeois values.

Um, what? There are some damn screwy books in this competition (Senselessness, The Map and the Territory, Day of the Oprichnik) but this book’s just as screwed-up as any you will find here. Equalized, 1-1.

And then, The Misfortunates makes a leitmotif out of pissing. Seriously. Rarely in a work of literature will you encounter urination in so many varieties, fit so snugly and inventively into so many scenes, described with such care and, dare I say—yes, I do—artistry. Lobbed (drunkenly) over the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand and into the goal. 2-1.

And then, as if this were not enough, there is a Tour de France of drinking in The Misfortunates. Yes, a drinking game based on the freaking Tour de France, complete with day-long stages and colored jerseys for the lead drinkers. 3-1.

Your Republic Is Calling You has got some things going for it—interesting characters, a good way to look at the two Koreas, some paranoid intrigue. But overall it’s just outmatched by what Verhulst is doing here. This is the difference between the second division and the first, a textbook example of one team being outclassed by the other. Game Belgium.

——

Scott Esposito reviews for numerous publications, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. He also blogs at Conversational Reading _and you can find his tweets here._

——

Did The Misfortunates Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


26 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Hal Hlavinka. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

“Welcome on this glorious summer evening to another match in the 2014 World Cup of Literature! We’re here in beautiful Brazil, where Bosnia and Herzegovina faces off against Iran. I’m Chaz Flippo, here with the lovely Cindy Mignon on point to call the match for readers tonight.” “That’s right Chaz, we’ll be taking you through the pregame here momentarily as both countries get ready to square off with their strongest recent books: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone for Bosnia and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel for Iran.” “The books are in the tunnel now, getting their covers’ straight, stretching those sentences and phrases and prepping for any and all narrative turns.” “Chaz, what would you say is the goal for each team in this matchup today?” “Well, to put it bluntly, Cindy: goals! Ha ha!” “Ha ha! Indeed, Chaz, and when you get one strong chapter to the back of the net it only takes another to really help conclude the whole thing.” “That’s right Cindy, the key will be control, pacing, and, if we’re lucky, a little twist thrown in for good measure.” “I’ve heard that the Iranian book has a particularly nasty little turn set up for the start of the match, with the Colonel’s wife getting executed by his own—” “Tut tut, Cindy! We don’t want to get ahead of our readers here. That would be like jumping to the Bosnian war section of How the Soldier, where Aleksandar deliberately changes the name of—” “Chaz, please! Look at us here, giving all the spoilers away.” “We’ll be more careful, dear readers! It’s a wonderful day for a match, the field glowing green under the hot jungle sun, beating down on your head like you just spent all night in the jungle talking to god!” “That’s, uhmm, that’s right, Chaz!“And here come the books now! The Colonel is hand in hand with the youth escorts.” “My are those some spritely future football players accompanying The Colonel.” “Yes yes, to be sure, but I have to admit to you, Cindy, the Iranian looks a little old for this match—just a little too wrinkled walking out there hand in hand with the children.” “There was some talk in the WCoL’s Governing Powers about the The Colonel’s age, but apparently it slipped right through. One wonders, with these things, how much of this might have to do with a briefcase or two.” “Tut tut, my girl, let’s not jump to any conclusions. Conclusions make the head pound, and, to be frank, I had quite a long night last night. You see, I had something of and adven—” “Not now, Chaz, not right during coverage.” “Oh and how marvelous! Here comes How the Soldier, walking tall and proud as ever. You know, this Bosnian book really might have what it takes to make it deep into the later rounds. It has the playfulness, the rigor, the complexity to really mix things up here tonight and come out ahead.” “If it can manage to handle The Colonel’s dense, elliptical style, well, sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Iranians are lucky enough to be represented by a book that was banned in their own country, so you can imagine what a feat of writing it must be.” “It’s a dark book, to be sure, but one wonders, watching it warm up before the match, if it’s perhaps a little too relentless, a little too brooding. But really, last night was the most marvelous night of all my years.” “Don’t you think it can wait?” “Tut tut, Cindy! Always business first! Oh, and would you look at that! One of the Bosnian escorts is doing pirouettes right there on the pitch! How fun!” “He’s all hands and feet, isn’t he Chaz? All hands and feet, that one. My what a lovely cultural moment this all is. That’s really the only way you can put it, a lovely cultural moment.” “Cindy, I’ve been milling around the stadiums, and I’ve seen the beaches and the beautiful people and the architecture and all that’s peachy, but last night I saw something more.” “Yes, let’s just say peachy and end it there, Chaz.” “I’ve taken to spending lots of time outside the heavily guarded, fenced off areas of the cities, and Cindy, let me tell you about a friend I made last night named Mr. Huasca.” “Chaz I don’t think that’s very appropriate for our readers.” “No no, that’s alright, everything is alright now. It was all like the dream of the breath from a god playing a flute.” “. . .” “I awoke this morning with birds all a flutter in my head, deep in the jungle, ready for the game, and ready to tell my story.” “Well we’re just a few minutes away from kicking off the next exciting match in the World Cup of Literature, and—” “And, if you’d excuse me for one moment, I can tell you what it feels like to squirm around in football’s primordial soup.” “Chaz, please, not ag—“ “No no no, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s topical. You see, I was staying over at my grandparents house, the ones that grew up right around Kent—this was, say, forty years ago, in the vision of course—and, and this is all in my head, you see, because my grandma and papa are long since dead, but here I found myself, lying on my back under their kitchen table watching all of their feet stir by, their loafers and slippers speeding past, keeping to the rhythm of the music coming from the gramophone, the kind you hear in a dream, sleigh bells and clarinets and French horns—oh yes, the French horns!—filling up the space like a vapor, my grandparent’s making laps around the—” “Chaz, I really thi—” “kitchen shuttling plates from counter to counter, and I can hear my parents in the other room drinking cocktails with my auntie and uncle, prattling on about my marks—or lack thereof ha ha!—in voices that seem almost to well up from inside my own head and pop out and around a little hale from ear to ear and then slip right back inside, breaking apart into a million pieces, these voices, and out of nowhere—and this was really out of nowhere, you see, like out of some void right there at the room’s edge—comes a giant black dog, skulking low and sniffing—” “It’s really not appro—” “at every surface, pushing his giant maw under every shoe, every chair, the table cloth, the placemats, everything, coming closer and closer, the size of a pony, smelling of meat and sweat and garbage, and he’s coming closer and closer, pushing the chairs out the way now to put his giant nose right in front of me, right over my head, and then he’s opening his mouth, he’s baring his teeth, his tongue dangling loosely over my hair like the floppy flaps in a car wash, and I hear a rumbling coming from the pit of his stomach, and then a heaving, a heavy, hollow, heaving pushing right up out of from his belly and through his chest, and my hands are bound by my sides with some invisible force—I was a worm, in fact, my hands and feet were no longer separate dangles but all one body, one worm-body, so I’m totally helpless beneath this table, this music, these people, this dog, and just as I’m sure he’s going to vomit all over my head, what comes out of his mouth, but a giant football. And I knew right then and there just what I had to—” “CHAZ! Chaz, listen to me here. Are you okay? You look faint. Would you like me to get you a doctor?” “I ate it.” “Ate what? You really should drink some water and maybe get some sleep. You look as white as a—” “The vomit football.” “. . .” “In the vision, I wiggled up like a worm and ate it.” “Chaz, this is hardly the time.” “I used my tongue to scoop it up and once it was in my throat it just dissolved—” “We’re just seconds away from the start of this round’s match—” “and I felt a great calm.” “—between the Bosnians and the Iranians for the chance to take on Honduras in the semi—” “I was like a child again.” “—finals, the chance of a lifetime to play for country—” “Like a little boy hiding.” “—people—” “Like a little coward, ha ha!” “—and literature.” “There I was, a worm under a dog beneath a table inside a dream, munching on a football!” “And the match starts, with The Colonel taking possess—“ “Let me just get down here on the ground and replay the scene. Would you kindly hold my pants?” “Chaz, no!”

Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1 — Iran: 0

PAY US.

——

Hal Hlavinka recently moved from Chicago to New York to take over as the events coordinator at Powerhouse Arena. As a result, he sends out approximately 500 email announcements a day.

——

Did How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


25 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Laura Radosh. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

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.

——

Did Allah Is Not Obliged Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


24 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Shaun Randol. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The record for the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup match belongs to Hakan Sukur of Turkey. Eleven seconds into the 2002 match against South Korea, Sukur capitalized on a mistake in the backfield and with a left-footed shove put the ball in the back of the net. The South Koreans were stunned and so was Sakur, who could think of no better celebration than to sit his ass down in the middle of the field.

That was the fastest World Cup goal, until now.

In this contemporary literary skirmish, Chile scored so quickly anyone observing or playing in the game didn’t have time to question what happened. As if by magic—before the whistle even blew—Chile was awarded a 1-0 lead. Nobody questioned this advantageous start, not the coaches (authors), not the referee (me), and not even the fans (readers). It just was, a fact however strange, accepted just as Clara del Valle Trueba’s family readily accepts her telekinetic and clairvoyant powers in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.

Not even the Dutch players (the narrative) questioned Chile’s pre-game’s goal. Here’s Herman Koch’s striker (the narrator) caught on tape during the warm-up (page 7, that is):

No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking—in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1-0.

But it was neither magical intervention nor Dutch defeatism that gave Bolaño the edge. Those in the stands with sharp eyes might have seen near the scoreboard a dark figure operating on behalf of the mafia group known as the Literati. Television cameras panned the crowd looking for baying fans and paused on the visages of Jonathan Lethem, Susan Sontag, Colm Tóibín, and James Wood, all of whose blurbs appear on the cover of By Night in Chile.1

So there it is. Ninety minutes on the clock, By Night in Chile with its foot firmly on the ball ready to kick off, starts with a one-goal advantage.

CHILE: 1 – NETHERLANDS: 0

So who is this superstar team? By Night in Chile, the first of Roberto Bolaño’s stories to be published in English, is the deathbed confession of poet, priest, and literary critic Father Urrutia. Propped up on one elbow, Urrutia recalls the life of a respected, but not central, figure of Chilean intellectual life, a priest and man of letters who did little to stand up to the despotism of Augusto Pinochet. The audience—the priest to this priest—is treated to an ambling narrative that includes a journey across European to visit priests engaged in falconry, a stint teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his lieutenants, and a warm friendship with a critic with the literary name of Farewell. (There is very little discussion of Urrutia’s priestly duties in the Opus Dei sect.) Neruda makes an appearance here and there; the first time he appears Urrutia finds the poet-god staring at the moon, “murmuring words I could not understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment.” Several other literary figures are mentioned, but the theme remains firmly fixed on Urrutia’s atonement before he slips into the darkest of nights.

On the other side of the pitch is Koch’s sixth novel, The Dinner, which also takes place over a single evening, told from the perspective of one of the husbands, Paul Lohman. Two married couples meet at a one-percenter’s kind of restaurant in what appears to be a routine, privileged performance of dining, conversation, witticism, and maybe the exchange of an actual good idea, before wiping dessert from the corners of their mouths, paying an exorbitant check, and heading back to the safety of a home in a well-to-do neighborhood. Appearances are deceiving, though, for we soon discover something more sinister is afoot, that there is a very troubling matter to be discussed. A deadly matter, in fact. Turns out—spoiler alert—that the sons of the married couples are involved in a murder in which the whole country, having seen the grainy footage caught by a security camera, is lamenting the downfall of social democratic society and the wasted lives of the youth. Of interest to the diners is not the chef’s special, but rather how to handle the situation. One of the fathers, it turns out, is a soon-to-be elected prime minister.

FOUL! Why the hell would you discuss such grave matters in such a very public place? This ref issues the World Cup of Literature’s second yellow card. Koch’s striker is booked for negligence.

Flying Dutchman (1887) by Albert Pinkham Ryder

Action resumes . . .

By Night in Chile is lean, with no fat, like a well-hewed body of a professional soccer player. Chile plays consistently from page one to the closing line. As expectant spectators we become increasingly convinced victory is in reach, though often just out of reach. Next drive. Next shot! Bolaño’s prose methodically drives forward, building an offense from the back, searching for the opponent’s weak points, and willing to take the time do so. Chile entices with dazzling tales of forgotten popes of yesteryear, priests with falcons, and a dictator’s studious mien. These short plays accomplished with solid teamwork promise a big payoff. And is there any better literary sendoff than “And then the storm of shit begins”? This book wants it.

Contrast Chile’s steady pace with that of The Dinner’s, whose ball play looks more like pinball than futbol. The Dutch team passes the ball around, one side to the other, lots of crosses and middle-field possession and even the groan-inducing pass-backs to the goalie. This makes for lengthy possession but limited progress. Occasionally the midfielders and fullbacks boot the ball into the penalty area, but with little aim. It’s as if the strategy is to get a goal by force (at best) or by a lucky deflection (at least!). Back stories, flashbacks, and tangents seem to exist to kill time rather than further the plot. By page 50 I just wanted Koch to get on it with it already.

Moreover, despite the fact Koch is fielding at least four star players with another couple potential stand-outs on the pitch, there is very little character development. The narrator receives the most attention, but it is of the self-flattering kind. There’s no teamwork here and the play looks a little sloppy.

HALFTIMECHILE: 1–NETHERLANDS: 0

Hail to the translators! Both By Night in Chile and The Dinner are ably translated by Chris Andrews and Sam Garrett, respectively. Chile’s pacing is a steady march to a politically damning climax, and its Andrews who keeps us on track. Garrett, too, maintains a consistency of voice, ensuring that the matter-of-fact prose mirrors the matter-of-fact thought process of the troubled narrator.

#namethetranslator

BEGIN SECOND HALF

In the second half of the game it’s as if neither team left the field for a break. The strategies remain consistent into the backend of each narrative, though the Dutch team plays with more aggression. The narrator—Lohman—reveals a darker, violent past, which always seem to somehow involve his son. A visit to suspected child molester in which “the curtains, I noted, were already drawn.” The threatening of a store clerk with a bicycle pump. The bloodying of one of his son’s teachers:

Then I punched him squarely in the nose. Right away there was blood, lots of blood: it sprayed from his nostrils and spattered across his shirt and the desktop, and then on the fingers with which he pawed at his nose.

Lohman’s violent tendencies are made apparent with these flashbacks, served in bite-sized portions over the course of The Dinner. This is the only character development the audience will see, and it’s thin gruel.

It is Chile who scores in the 79th minute and it is a beautiful goal. Upper ninety, one of those near-impossible shots. Though the Dutch goalie can see the shot from where it’s launched 25 yards out, he doesn’t even bother to jump. We’ve all seen this shot coming; it was just a matter of time before it was revealed.

Here Urrutia is visited by men who very easily convince the intellectual to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so he can better know his enemies.

What do you understand? asked Mr. Raef, with a frank and friendly smile. That you require me to be absolutely discreet, I said. More than that, said Mr. Raef, much more, we require ultra-absolute discretion, extraordinarily absolute discretion and secrecy. I was itching to correct him but restrained myself, because I wanted to know what they were proposing. Do you know anything about Marxism? asked Mr. Etah, after wiping his lips with a napkin.

. . . Who are my pupils? I asked. General Pinochet, said Mr. Etah. My breath caught in my throat. And the others? General Leigh, Admiral Merino and General Mendoza, of course, who else? said Mr. Raef, lowering his voice. I’ll have to prepare myself, I said, this is not something to be taken lightly.

No, not lightly at all, but still taken. Bolaño’s coaching strategy shines.

CHILE: 2 – NETHERLANDS: 0

In the end, the play by The Dinner is inconsistent and lacks finesse. Not even a flying Dutchman — that is, an attempt at a clever closing — can give Netherlands a consolation goal. Koch’s closing is too quick, too clean, too simple. The most important loose end is handled so far off the field it’s in the locker room, and this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the spectators. Sure the ball pops over the Chilean goalie’s head in the final minute of play, but it’s a half-hearted trick shot that glances off the post and bounces out of bounds.

From the 79th minute on, Chile is relentless against its opponent. The strategy toward which they have been playing all along is coming to a head, for By Night in Chile is a fierce, blistering argument against Chile’s intellectuals who were meek in the face of the atrocities committed by Pinochet’s regime. Coach Bolaño sends a very clear message not just to the other team, but to all of his compatriots who refuse to play with such courage: shame on you.

In Chile, Maria Canales, married to an American (Jimmy), hosts soirees for Chile’s intellectual and cultural elite. In her home is hidden a dark secret, to which every guest has stumbled on at least once and said nothing. They return, instead, to the party again and again, feigning ignorance, remaining mute.

. . . he opened doors and even started whistling, and finally he came to the very last room at the end of the basement’s narrowest corridor, lit by a single, feeble light bulb, and he opened the door and saw the main tied to the metal bed, blindfolded, and he knew the man was alive because he could hear him breathing, although he wasn’t in good shape, for in spite of the dim light he saw the wounds, the raw patches, like eczema, but it wasn’t eczema, the battered parts of his anatomy, the swollen parts, as if more than one bone had been broken, but he was breathing, he certainly didn’t look like he was about to die, and then the theorist of avant-garde theater shut the door delicately, without making a noise, and started to make his way back to the sitting room, carefully switching off as he went each of the lights he had previously switched on. And months later, or maybe years later, another regular guest at those gatherings told me the same story. And then I heard it from another and another and another. And then democracy returned, the moment came for national reconciliation . . .

Here is the final and damning goal.

Untitled (1942) by Roberto Matta

FINAL SCORE: CHILE 3 – NETHERLANDS 0

1 The Dinner’s best blurb comes from The Wall Street Journal: “A European Gone Girl . . . A sly psychological thriller.” If that’s true, then I have no desire to read Gone Girl.

——

Shaun Randol is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing, editor in chief of The Mantle, and an active member of PEN American Center and the National Book Critics Circle.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


23 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by P.T. Smith. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

France and Ecuador take to the pitch in what appears to be a serious mismatch. France, represented by Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq, teamed up with translator Gavin Bowd, puts forth The Map and the Territory. Its first moves on the field show the level it wants to play at: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have posed for a painting, and the protagonist, another artist, this time fictional, is struggling to finish it. Houellebecq’s strategy is clear. He’s going to portray the contemporary world, the high-brow of commercialism, and while his flair and spite is French, he’s speaking to the English, to Americans, to the Western world.

Against the strength of the French side is them oldest contender in the tournament. Pushed into service without another able to take its place representing Ecuador, Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin, aided by Amalia Gladhart’s translation, arrives to the tournament as an outsider. Set in the 60s and often reaching further into the past, living wholly in one small Ecuadorian village, The Potbellied Virgin can’t compete with The Map and the Territory on the same terms, to have any chance of moving on, it must embrace its own style, letting the French be as adventurous in the attack as Houellebecq wants, hoping to keep him from scoring, looking for its own opportunities to counterattack.

Houellebecq is indeed looking to be on the offensive, to strike often and quickly, against art, for art, against commercialism, for commercialism, against himself, and, through Jed, for himself. Yet, at this point he is a veteran, suave and poised on the ball, no overly-ambitious balls or reckless challenges. He understands when to be showy, creative, and why. The passes, towards the goal, away, towards again, are intricate. Of the attitude of French hotels Jed imagines:

a rich young urban couple without children, aesthetically very decorative, still in the first phase of their love affair—and for this reason quick to marvel at everything, in the hope of building up a store of beautiful memories that would come in handy when they reached the difficult year, perhaps enabling them to overcome a crisis in their relationship. They represented, for any professional in the hotel-restaurant trade, the archetype of ideal clients.

Houellebecq is probing the defense, pointing out the weak spots, the ways that we as humans give in to, thrive on, love commercial materialism, but then he’s letting us have it, writing of an artist dedicated to it, and the people caught up in it.

Against the hipness, the humor, the way the reader is rewarded while putting forth little of his own effort, Ecuador plays a complicated, defensive, possession game. Potbellied Virgin is a denser affair, inward-turning. It is slower than Map and the Territory, patient and asking the reader to pay more attention while not being as easily thrilled. In a unnamed Ecuadorian village two families rival for power, or more accurately, one family dominates while the other passes the time sitting on a bench, smoking cigarettes and remembering when they had land and power. Yánez Cossío sets opposites against each other, but they do not get split in the obvious ways. The matriarchy controls the town through religion, through their devotion to the town’s miracle idol, that Potbellied Virgin. The Benavides are conservative, but younger, newer to the town, and rich, rewarded by capitalism, and notably lighter-skinned, blonde, closer to those rewarded by imperialism. The other family, the Pandos, is the patriarchy, devoid of influence, tied to communism, irreligious, and though not native Indians, aligned with them rather than the American influence from the north.

The Potbellied Virgin may not be as bunkered down as Greece is in the Real World Cup, but it is content to keep the ball without moving forward. It wants to set up this self-contained world, tell the history of the town, of the political turmoil of the whole country, of the miracle of the flatbellied virgin becoming the Potbellied Virgin. Its defensiveness is not thuggish tackles or packing five men in the box, but of little passes amongst teammates, and beautiful ones at times. The relationships in the village matter for everything. The sons and daughters who switch their allegiance from one family to another are the forces that are quieted throughout much of the story, but build into the best chances at goal. Holding onto the ball, playing beautiful passes in the dusty streets of the village may not move forward, but is still nice to watch, and becomes an expression of a life outside of the world of Houellebecq’s grasping:

The acid deposits in her overworked veins ache, ache with the pain that will last until her death without respite or remedy, because she will always be standing among the large boulders of the river washing her clothes, the clothes of Magdalena Benavides who passes her time galloping from the hacienda into town, and who dents her so much clothing that isn’t even dirty, for the pleasure of making her work and harassing her with the hard soap of bad fortune.

In control of the match, Houellebecq tells of Jed Martin’s career as an artist, and his life as a man. He has a distant connection with his father, brought close by their shared isolation and their acceptance of that isolation, and though he has great loves in his life, Houellebecq never gives us hope that they will break Martin from his isolation. Besides, if those loves did take him from solitary life, we cannot imagine room for his art. Jed is a Zidane, a Pirlo, playing his own game in the middle of the pitch, independent, grumpy, yet making connections no one else is able to see until after the fact. By creating a visual artist, with works that if brought to life could be as interesting and successful in real life as they are in the book, Houellebecq threatens to score early but Ecuador manages to hold on. Until just before half-time that is, when the pleasure of The Map and the Territory, through pure enjoyment of the game, playing while having fun, puts through a lovely ball (Houellebecq’s portrayal of himself, beaten, a wrecked man, but through Jed’s eyes, somewhat magnificent), cleanly finished, and takes a lead into the locker room.

Drawn out, The Potbellied Virgin needs to press forward to tie. It is a task Yánez Cossío is up to. To solve a country-wide drought, the Benavides are willing to send out the Potbellied Virgin to travel the country, followed by rain. When the army becomes involved, the Pando convince the town that the Virgin is being sold, greedy religious-capitalism from the Benavides, and the town rises up, fighting off the army with whatever is at hand, mainly the mattresses they were sleeping on in the church while protecting the Virgin:

But what gives the greatest results in the uneven and ferocious combat are the mattresses. With the bare mattress blows they charge the sacrilegious troops calling them thieves, faggots, and all the son-of-a-bitches they can muster. A cloud of dust obscures the sun and the sheep’s wool of all the disemboweled mattresses covers the streets and plaza.

With humor and violence, all the while staying reserved, sticking to the slow style that kept the match equal for so long, The Potbellied Virgin ties the match at one.

But right after, The Map and the Territory presses again. The relationship between Jed and Houellebecq deepens, and so the relationship between Houellebecq and Houellebecq becomes more compelling, an old love briefly returns, human connection again and again seems briefly possible before falling off. The Potbellied Virgin is playing with confidence, happy to have made things level eager for another one. Yet, Ecuador is overexposed, the conflict between Pandos and Benavides heats up, without either side gaining anything.

With the massive success of Jed’s art career, a project of portraits culminating in one of Houellebecq, he almost finds happiness. He is rich, he has a chance with his greatest love. There’s a happy ending in sight, and even if we bemoan sappy, unearned happy endings, don’t we still want one sometimes? Destroying one so perfectly set up, what’s the reward in that? Houellebecq finds it. It is lost not because of cynicism, not because of the dark brooding that feeds every summer blockbuster now, but because for Jed, it is overwhelming, happiness is impossible to embrace, it is too fleeting, and must be caught in the perfect moment, or it’s lost, and that moment can be, will be, terrifying. Jed does not turn to angst or depression, but a sort of paralysis, and when this is so compassionately understood, articulated, given compassion, The Map and the Territory goes up 2-1.

Ecuador is more desperate now. The Benavides begin to lose their control of the village, their daughters not living up to their roles as living icons. Power and wealth become more important than their faith. The Virgin, belief in her miracle, becomes fully a tool of control, no longer true devotion. Their matriarch, Doña Carmen blackmails and bribes rivals into aligning with her. The three daughters of a former communist are rewarded with riches, if they act out the role of virginal caretakers for the Potbellied Virgin. Purity no longer matters, just the obedience that faith in it once created. When Doña Carmen begins to paint threats on her own walls in order to foment dissent between her rivals, any sense of herself is lost. These risks, this destruction of the village, looks like it is going to pay off. Crosses bang in, but are too high, or headers go wide.

In the midst of this, The Map and the Territory makes a substitution. Satire, humor, art, commercialism, are left in, but pure literary fiction is taken off, and sent on in its place is top-flight genre fiction. French police vomit at a horrific crime scene, aging detectives work with their young replacements to solve a high-profile murder, and our former protagonist becomes part of the investigation. The switch does wonders. Losing no pace, no fluidity, but gaining width and pace where exhaustion had it lagging, France scores again almost immediately after the substitution, to take what seems like an impossible to overcome 3-1 lead.

From then, Ecuador fights back fiercely. Finally giving in to rough challenges, unafraid of hitting again and again to take control of the ball, The Potbellied Virgin never stops threatening France’s goal. Knowing that violence has suited Houellebecq well, Yánez Cossío tries her hand at it, with the accidental death of a child in the conflict that Doña Carmen created, in the awful and haunting retribution for that accident, where our hearts break as the offender lays dying, accepting that death. Past that, though, she offers that thing Houellebecq denies us: successful love. The lovers need to exile themselves, but there is hope for a return one day, for: “the man of flesh and blood, of weakness and lunacy that he was until a short time ago, becomes the mystic the town needs to move ahead through so many troubles, for it seems even the image of the Virgin was wearing out . . .” With that, with relentless fierceness and hope, Ecuador scores in the 87th minute, bringing it to 3-2 and giving hope.

It was not to be. France holds on to the victory we expected them to take, too wily, too thrilling, rewarding us with ease, but Ecuador was inspired, and created a memorable match, one you recount any time you’re at a bar, one too many in, telling tales of sports and literature. It’s the type of performance that truly makes you hope that Alicia Yánez Cossío has the chance to compete in translation again.

——

P.T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, BOMB, Quarterly Conversation, and most recently Bookslut.

——

Did The Map and the Territory Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Now that the first week-plus of “World Cup of Literature” matches have been “played,” it’s a perfect time to provide everyone following along with an updated bracket.

And you cand download a printable PDF version here.

As you can see, nine matches have been decided so far (click the link above to see all of the various write ups), and results from the remaining seven first-round matches will appear next week. (Few really intriguing ones coming up . . . )

Just as intriguingly, a couple of second-round clashes are already set: First off, we have Japan and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 going up against Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which may well be one of the favorites of the tournament going forward. And on the other side of the bracket—in a match I’ll be judging, so get your bribes in now—Mexico’s Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli is facing off against Australia’s Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane. INTRIGUING.

We’ll be off for a couple days watching Real World Cup matches (Go Belgium!), but will be back Monday morning.

20 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Will Evans. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.

Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.

The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.

Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .

These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .

It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.

My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)

In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)

Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.

And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .

I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.

I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .

The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.

The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.

It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)

The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)

This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.

Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.

Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).

Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.

It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.

. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)

I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.

And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.

——

Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.

——

Did The Pale King Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


19 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Lance Edmonds. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

This is where it ends: 1-0 because in the end Argentina scores and Nigeria plays very very well. That one doesn’t work. It happens like this: I find myself underlining and rereading and remembering to tell about An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. The beginning is tied to the ending, steeped in extremes the pampas come alive with warriors and lightning and only the company of a horse. I lay here and look up at those exact stars of the southern hemisphere; my foot caught in the stirrup. I wonder about the geographical line of my life and walking back the path that brought me here.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is bigger than the pampas and Graceland is not bigger than Lagos. Graceland ​is only about a place in a time; a documentary in a literature contest.

They both play on the storytelling level which is almost always enough but An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter earns the win with language; a timeless grasp on us quietly living in pampas all over.

——

Lance Edmonds is a Bookseller at Posman Books in Chelsea Market. He lives in New York City.

——

Did An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter Deserve to Win

Yes
No


18 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Hannah Chute. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

I hear that soccer/football fans are pretty excited about Switzerland these days. (Sorry everyone, I haven’t been keeping up with the world of FIFA.) In a literary match-up against Honduras, though, its chance at a win feels a lot smaller. Neither country is really one of the literary world’s power-houses, but in this match Honduras brings to the table the potent prose of Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose Senselessness is pretty remarkable.

“I am not complete in the mind,” begins Moya’s narrator. And no, he most certainly is not: he is caustic, sex-obsessed, unstable, and at least a little bit insane. If you go with it, though, if you let his sentences pull you along for pages with their paranoid urgency, you’re in for a hell of a ride. He is an irritable, obsessive atheist who has gotten himself caught up in the affairs of the Catholic Church as it fights to bring to light the atrocities committed by the unnamed country’s power-hungry military. His rage and angst spiral into what he calls an “expanding maelstrom of paranoia.” And, whether you believe in his conspiracies or think he’s lost his mind, it’s very compelling. An excellent (and excellently unreliable) narrator, a great story and a satisfying ending: this is Moya’s hat-trick.

Now comes Switzerland, with Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. From the start, it looks grim. A melodramatic title and some pretty awful jacket copy leave me unenthused, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Which is my own mistake, really.
The narrator’s mother starts out the novel waist-deep in a lake, frantically shouting her lover’s name (“Edwin!”) across the water. Her former lover, once a poor musician and now the richest man in the country, lives in a mansion across the water and never even thinks about this woman, who he was involved with for a couple of months in his youth. She, on the other hand, obsesses over him, is possessed by the thought of him, hears the wind whisper his name to her all day long. I’d say that this is still a better love story than Twilight, except that a sad and confused woman who shrieks “Edw-!” into the empty night actually sounds an awful lot like Twilight. (I take full responsibility for the fact that, by bringing up the T-word, I am probably fulfilling the literary equivalent of Godwin’s law.) There’s some big, over-the-top Freudian thing going on here; her father is a taciturn, cantankerous control freak who treats her like dirt, and her lover is an insufferable egomaniac who also treats her like dirt. And I just can’t bring myself to care about any of it.

On top of this, the narrator speaks in this bizarre, inverted Yoda-speak (“Pushing and shoving they’d be to get to her,” and “flat as a pancake everywhere was”) and uses em-dashes in baffling and excessive ways.

Stylistic weirdnesses aside, My Mother’s Lover suffers from a lack of empathy. Moya’s characters are not likable (far from it, in fact), but I cared what happened to them. With Widmer’s, I didn’t. At all. And so this novel—supposed to be a tragedy of unrequited love across a backdrop of war and loss—fell flat.

The only major redeeming factor is Widmer’s harrowing and believable portrayal of the mother’s descent into madness. But it isn’t enough to make up for the huge gap in style, impact and appeal that separates it and Senselessness. Between the two, there’s no comparison. Honduras 3, Switzerland 0.

——

Hannah Chute translates literature from Russian and French. She is currently a master’s student in the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Studies program. She is exceptionally bad at soccer.

——

Did Senselessness Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


17 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by George Carroll. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

Garcia Marquez was my gateway into non-dead-white-guy authors in translation. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude on a chaise lounge in Waikiki, on a trip when my friend Howard and I drank the pool bar out of Heineken. But I was sober enough most of the time, enough to appreciate that there was more out there to read than my then steady diet of American noir.

The first line in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the first line of the second chapter are the only two sentences I’ve committed to memory—that, and the opening of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Ursula Iguaran’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove.

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

I first read Murakami in a hammock in Mexico on my honeymoon. I was too lazy to locate a bookstore in Tecate, but found a galley of Kafka on the Shore in the hotel library. That started a thorough run of Murakami; that’s a hell of a lot of cats in a short period of time.

For years, when asked, I would say that either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or One Hundred Years of Solitude was my favorite book. The World Cup of Literature rules disallow both of these books because they’re pre-2000 releases. The only Garcia Marquez work that qualifies is Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Six Murakami titles qualify, including Kafka, but The World Cup of Literature entry is the very troubled 1Q84.

There are no match-ups in the first round of The World Cup of Literature that approach the naming rights, product placement, endorsement deals, or star bling of Colombia / Japan. The burden of commercial success over perceived literary merit haunted this match-up since the bracket was posted.

Crikey, it’s fucking hot in Manaus. Sweat is pouring over my eyebrows like Gullfoss (I seriously wish that Eidur Gudjohnsen was in Brazil rather than Luka Modric). The weather favors Team Garcia Marquez who thrives in heat and humidity. Team Murakami usually practices either in the mountains or at the bottom of wells.

1Q84 entered the pitch in its spiffy Chip Kidd designed kit, visibly suffering from over-exposure. The team is comprised entirely of members of former great Murakami sides with the exception of a young striker, Aomame.

The captain of the Colombia side, unlike many footballers who go by one name, has no name. We’ll just call him Jose Arcadio, because there’s one too many of them in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When manager Jose Pekerman realized that his side was a 90 year old journalist and a sleeping virgin on valerian, he decided to park the bus.

Alberto Zaccheroni sent multiple Murakami recurring themes down the flanks. Tengo, the other forward, confused, was unable to deliver any shots on goal, and waited sullenly for a midfielder to drop the ball on his only good foot (think Eddie Johnson or Wayne Rooney).

All Japan advance, all Colombia defense. Two minutes into stoppage time, Aomame realized it might go to PKs and you don’t know what a 90-year-old whore-monger can deliver when needed. Fuka-Eri sent a cross to Aomame who did a roll and scissors, then entered her parallel universe. She reentered the pitch reality on Arcadio’s weak side and finished into the bottom left corner.

Japan 1 – 0 Colombia

——

George Carroll is the World Literature Editor for Shelf Awareness for Professionals and the Soccer Editor for Shelf Awareness for Readers. In other words, he’s got this nailed.

——

Did 1Q84 Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


16 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Mauro Javier Cardenas. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

In the year 2010, seventeen years after I stopped watching soccer, I wrote a paean to Your Face Tomorrow, claiming that “here’s the wonderfully parenthetical operations of a human mind in the 21th century,” a phrase that later became a blurb in Spanish for Your Face Tomorrow, which must have flattered fleetingly me since I’m a frail human desperate for meaning, although the translation from “wonderfully parenthetical” to “maravillosamente parentéticas” must have shorn a few branches from my twig of meaning because I would have been embarrassed if any native Spanish speakers heard me say anything like “maravillosamente parentéticas,” in any case the parenthetical mind of Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow, a mind that doesn’t pay much attention to itself because “he’s given up understanding himself,” shares its wonderful operations with us throughout 1,232 pages, during a period in Deza’s life when he was delivering conjectural character reports for the British Secret Intelligence Service and was estranged from his wife Luisa.

SPAIN 1 – AUSTRALIA 0

Looking back at the passages from Your Face Tomorrow that I transcribed to my sketchbook in preparation for writing my paean to Your Face Tomorrow, I’m not surprised I transcribed so many passages supporting my partisan fervor for digressions—“digression is secular revelation,” Adam Phillips wrote—especially when they were written by a Spaniard who translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and out of this abundance of partisan passages there’s one from Volume II that I starred as most significant because, according to me, it summarizes the kind of fiction Javier Marias seems interested in composing, so here’s that starred passage in which Deza’s in the women’s bathroom at a nightclub, searching for the wife of a client:

[I] had lost sight of my mission, it had simply got mixed up with a few other things: lines of poetry, images and inherited memories as well as a story, none of which managed to fill my mind entirely, because none was particularly pressing, but they were all floating around in there, perhaps waiting to be picked up later by idle thought—that is, by thought at its most active—at the end of the day, when I finally went to bed.

SPAIN 2 – AUSTRALIA 0

Since the year 2010, I’ve often shared in conversation with my so-called friends two passages from Your Face Tomorrow: (1) Luisa telling Jacques please let’s not live together ever again; (2) “[O]ne never experiences genuine self-disgust, and it’s that inability that makes us capable of doing almost anything.”

(1) The anxiety about domestic life deadening human life, an anxiety featured in many pages of Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, often surfaces in conversation among those who are no longer young enough to playact at wanting so-called meaningful relationships, and what I like to share with my so-called friends who are seeking so-called meaningful relationships, as a sort of literary relationship advice, is something like look there’s this 1,232-page novel in which, at the beginning, the narrator is estranged from his wife, and, toward the end, when they reconcile at last (and here I exclude any mention of Deza assaulting Luisa’s new lover with a sword and telling him to get out of town or else), the wife says to the husband please let’s not live together ever again.

(2) Given the vast gap between our imperfections and our expectations of reasonable perfection, the question of how could we have possibly performed Sin A / Sin B, plus the question of how could we have possibly not known we were going to perform Sin A / Sin B, become central questions in (some) of our lives, or at a minimum we retrofit these central questions around our past Sins A / B, and in the case of Your Face Tomorrow (some of) the central questions that Deza contemplates are how could have Deza’s father best friend betrayed Deza’s father? “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing?” How could I have not known I was going to assault my wife’s lover with a sword so I could get back together with her?

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 0

HALF-TIME

Arbitro ladrón, my high school friends and I would scream at the referee as we watched the Ecuadorian national soccer team miss yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, arbitro conchaetumadre, heaping our juvenile arsenal of insults on the referee because one of our obvious consolations, the consolation of the often defeated, I suppose, revolved around placing the blame for our loss on the rigged ref.

Will I turn out to be a rigged ref because I come from a small, often defeated country? Does it make a difference that, since I left Ecuador in 1993, the Ecuadorian national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup three times?

END OF HALF-TIME

If you come across a new genre, do you raise your hand?

Gerald Murnane has invented a new genre: fiction as “remembered imaginings,” mind as place (“The far parts of my mind,” Gerald Murnane wrote in a letter to Teju Cole published in Issue 3 of Music & Literature, a literary journal that publishes more of my favorite artists per page than any other literary journal, “hold for me the same sort of interest that far countries probably hold for travelers”).

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 1

Imagine “a far-reaching and varied landscape” that contains memories of characters from books, of imaginary racehorses and racecourses, in other words imagine the contents of Murnane’s mind exiting Murnane’s head and populating a landscape that Murnane then dedicates himself to contemplate through his sentences, a contemplation that thankfully does without psychological insight (because who doesn’t enjoy a break from the murky diagrams of human motivation?), a contemplation that consists of unearthing patterns of images as a way to both architect the landscape and invent meaning, meaning defined here as (to quote Murnane from Issue 3 of Music & Literature) “the discovery of connections between things that previously seemed unconnected,” and now here’s a relevant landscape quote from Barley Patch:

He had always thought of the images in his mind as being arranged somewhat in the way the names of townships were arranged on maps of mostly level countryside and that the images were connected by feelings in the way that the names of townships were connected by lines denoting roads.

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 2

Let’s track the progression of one fragment of Murnane’s pattern making in Barley Patch. The chart below, from left to right, tracks the pattern of images that emerges from King-in-the-Lake, the name of an invisible racehorse. Names of racehorses have a peculiar effect on the narrator of Barley Patch:

The sound in his mind of one or another name would often seem to denote not a mere painted toy and not even an actual straining, racing racehorse but a knot of what he might have called compressed mental imagery . . .

The name of the invisible racehorse leads to “an image of a man lying on the bed of a lake of clear water,” which leads to a poem by Matthew Arnold, which leads to the “view that might have appeared to a man lying in the bed of a lake of clear water.” Follow the arrows to the conclusion of the pattern making: an imaginary contest in invisible racecourse.

SPAIN 3 – AUSTRALIA 3

BRIEF INTERLUDE BEFORE EXTRA TIME

I will wash my hands, I thought when I heard I was going to judge Marias vs. Murnane, I will let one of my guinea pigs choose for me and I will add a formal constraint to the pig proceedings so as to not appear unserious. Besides. I wouldn’t mind being remembered as the guinea pig critic, or, as my compatriots might say, el crítico de los cuys.

Alas.

END OF BRIEF INTERLUDE BEFORE EXTRA TIME

In the year 2014, one year after I started watching soccer again due to my eight-year-old daughter was scoring 3 goals per game for her elementary school soccer team, I decided to reread Your Face Tomorrow for the purposes of this competition, hoping to relive the engrossing experience of reading Your Face Tomorrow in the year 2010.

Writing rhythmic prose is easy, apparently W.G. Sebald said to his writing students, and as I reread Volume I of Your Face Tomorrow I was dismayed to conclude rhythmic prose can be a decent cover for the unfurling of banalities. Deza complains that people like to tell everything, for instance, but instead of just writing hey people like to tell everything, he has to unfurl a banal rhythmic list of everything that people like to tell, “the interesting and the trivial, the private and public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what one day will inevitably be broadcast, the sorrows and joys and the resentments,” and it goes on, all over Your Face Tomorrow these banal rhythmic lists. I don’t approach fiction like a critic or a financial analyst, assessing the net flow of pluses and minuses per novel. I have a preferred continuum of fiction, and if a novel adds many pages to this continuum, as Your Face Tomorrow has done, I don’t relegate that novel to my kitchen cabinets (I don’t love any one novel by Stanley Elkin, for instance, but I love so many pages of Stanley Elkin). This is a goddamn match, however, not a vague intertextual pseudo-Jungian notion of fiction reading. Judgments must be made.

YELLOW CARD TO MARIAS

Who would want to compete against an Australian narrator who, as a boy, moved among the characters of the books he read, devising his own strict rules of narrative interference, unable to alter the course of the narrative but free “to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative”? When one of the characters in one of the books he read abandons his wife, for instance, our Australian narrator knows that, from his “standpoint as a shadowy presence among the characters,” he cannot reverse the character’s decision. “And yet, I was able in some mysterious way to add to whatever remorse he might have felt from time to time . . .” I like to think of myself as a shadowy presence among these 1,771 words, adding to my own remorse for ruling against a writer like Javier Marias who has added so many pages to my so-called continuum, unable to alter the course of this match, however, no matter how much I tried.

SPAIN 3-AUSTRALIA 4

——

Excerpts from Mauro Javier Cardenas’s recently completed first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, have appeared in Conjunctions, BOMB, Guernica, Antioch Review, and Witness. His interviews and essays on/with László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared in Music & Literature, San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and the Quarterly Conversation.

——

Did Barley Patch Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


13 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chris Schaefer. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

This first-round match pits a futuristic fantasy of reborn Russian czardom against a present-day fantasy of repressed Algerian Islamism in Paris. Male author against female. Slav against Arab. Political satire against social satire. This is the World Cup of Literature.

The Russian representative is Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (2006), a novel that recounts one day in the life of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, newly reestablished in the 21st century for a new czar ruling a new Russia. In this futuristic world, the Chinese exert great political, economic, and linguistic power. Russian borders are kept safe thanks to gigantic border walls. And the oprichnina are the safeguards of domestic peace and unity. They are men of patriotism and torture, faith and violence, corruption and luxury, censorship and rape, even sadism and sadomasochism—brutal men with a sacred purpose, unique bonding rituals, and a very high buying price.

Against this contender, the Algerians put forth Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (2007). Protagonist Mohamed ben Mokhtar decides he has had enough of his life as a pious Muslim Algerian virgin momma’s boy living in the Parisian banlieues. So he changes his name to the more Frenchified Basile Tocquard, straightens his hair, whitens his skin, and moves into the center of Paris in preparation for a life of unbridled sexual and consumerist pleasure. The good life as a faux Frenchman doesn’t turn out quite like he expects though. He only manages to attract Arab women, mostly older and not exactly charmed by his thinly veiled misogyny.

There is something a little crazy about an Algerian doing everything in his power to suppress his identity to become more French than the French themselves. Mohamed’s masturbation to religious fantasies is also a tad bit strange. However, when it comes down to sheer insanity, Day of the Oprichnik takes the cake with its religious patriotism, mundane torture, nonchalant book-burning, and drug injection by vein-crawling fish. Mostly, though, Sorokin’s novel beats out Marouane’s on this front because of a single drug-fueled gay orgy scene near the end in which the testicles of each oprichnik glow a special color based on his rank in the oprichnina hierarchy. For sheer over-the-top-ness, Sorokin’s novel slides one home. (Russia 1 – 0 Algeria)

Be that as it may, Algeria mounts a strong challenge when it comes to questions of identity. With the Russians, it’s quite simple. As Sorokin’s narrator has it: “The Russian people aren’t easy to work with. But God hasn’t given us any other people.” For the Algerians, it’s not just about managing (that is, torturing or raping or killing) their hard-headed and hard-drinking compatriots. The novel is infused with dichotomies—French vs. Arab, Muslim vs. Western, good son vs. bad son, wife vs. whore—that produce conflicted desires and confused identities. The permutations are endless, and Marouane keeps it interesting. Algeria equalizes. (Russia 1 – 1 Algeria)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Marouane’s novel, however, is the postmodern twist she throws into the narration. Slowly but surely, a feminine voice cleverly intrudes into the hopelessly narcissistic masculine narrative. By the end, it’s not clear who is fictional and who is real, who is writing and who is being written, who is the original and who is the copy. Russia may have crazy, but, with its clever narrative ploy, Algeria keeps the reader guessing until the very end. (Russia 1 – 2 Algeria)

Russia keeps it interesting with outlandish scenes, yet the hyperbole can only carry Sorokin’s novel so far. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris tones down the hyperbole and outlasts Day of the Oprichnik with a more understated social critique. Slow and steady does the trick, and Algeria pulls out the win.

Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris moves on to the next round to face the winner of Germany vs. Ghana!

——

Christopher Schaefer’s writing has appeared in World Literature Today, Three Percent, and The Quarterly Conversation. His celebratory antics after Landon Donovan’s match-winning goal for the United States over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup earned him the ire of a cafe full of Arabs. His literary judgment was in no way influenced by this event.

——

Did The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


13 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Trevor Berrett. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

When we arrived at the stadium, there was a good vibe in the air.

England fans were tentatively confident. After all, they have a mighty tradition, and the stars of their current team—Smith, Hobbes, Benthan, Locke, and Russell—have been performing exceptionally well, nearly everyone agrees.

The story coming into the match is provocative. We’ve been watching short features on TV for weeks. Remarkably, most of the English players have risen from the depths of poverty and drugs in northwestern London. Because of their intimate past, the team has had its share of scandals and near breakdowns, but with the support of their new sponsor, World TeleCom Cellular, and looking back on some of their favorite players of the past, England thinks it has a shot to go all the way.

And who are the Italians? Yes, historically, they’ve done incredibly well, which is surprising because no one remembers them. And who’s even heard of their players? Ferrante? No one sitting around me even knew what he looked like. Olga? Rumors coming in to the match are that Olga is still a bit of a wreck since Mario, the Italian coach, suddenly, without any explanation, left the team. Olga was left holding the bag, and it’s not altogether clear that she even knows what she’s been playing for anymore.

Yes, a promising match for England. They’ve studied, they’ve overcome, and they’re putting all they learned at the forefront.

Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Italy scored in the first minute. Not only that, but they just looked coolly on—no fanfare, no running around the field. They simply lined up for the next play, sober, serious, and—if I’m being honest—joyless.

Here’s a replay of their opening drive:

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.

I don’t want to suggest that England had nothing to offer—of course it did—but the writing was on the wall from this short opening strike. Everyone knew it. The stadium was silent. It was a violent silence.

Nevertheless, England took the hit and didn’t let it get them down too much. Though quite a bit more roundabout, showed its skill in its opening possession. Intricately, the team kicked the ball around, proving to us that they belonged on the field:

The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on the school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line — write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.

This didn’t result in a score, but all around me people were nodding their heads in agreement: something is going on there. But at this point in the match, no one quite knew what.

All throughout, the game was a wonderful display of incredibly different playing styles, most of them from one team: England. It was hard to pin down which player for the English team was doing the most work, and whichever it was, the flow of the English possessions shifted significantly. If the opening drive was a bit abstract, a bit roundabout, they soon shifted to a more direct style as they subbed out their players, going from natural, to short bursts, back to roundabout. England was reveling in the game itself. They were clever, and they looked up at the fans often, saying with their eyes, “Do you follow?” It was impressive. They probably did have a chance if Italy’s anger drained the team of its energy. But that didn’t happen. Quite the contrary.

Throughout the match, the Italians remained direct—one is tempted to say confrontational. It was as if they blamed the English for all their hidden troubles. They didn’t appear to want to be in the stadium at all, but, hey, this is just the situation we’re all in.

With each drive, they got angrier—that poor English goalie! Brutalized! Once, Olga—obviously the central storm—scored a goal and, while the goalie lay on his side, Olga just stared him down. He had to shield his eyes. The referees wisely focused their attention on the ball.

No doubt, the English team will be analyzing this game for years, trying to express just what was going on, just what social currents were at work, just what drove the Italians to this impressive but ugly display of primeval horror. But it really might be much more simple than anything intricate analysis can capture, something the Italians showed in their playing style: simple, absolute rage.

The English, gracious in defeat, were more than happy to chat to reporters when the game ended. They were disappointed, they said, but they were thrilled just to be there, carrying on the traditions of the great teams of the past. They help up a poster of their hero, Woolf. They plan to watch the remaining matches here before returning to London, though they didn’t want to think too much about that.

Meanwhile, the Italian team was suddenly off the field. They didn’t take questions. No one saw them leave. They might be having a good cry right now. I may do the same.

5-3 Italy

——

Trevor Berrett created and edits The Mookse and the Gripes. He is also a co-host on The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast and The Eclipse Viewer Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter (@mookse).

——

Did The Days of Abandonment Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


12 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Jeffrey Zuckerman. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

The last time I watched a soccer game was in the last World Cup, in July of 2010. I had just graduated and moved off campus with my roommate from college. Down the block, a bar was packed with fans, and we forked over a few dollars for a pitcher of Heineken. Neither of us was sure whether the orange shirts were the Dutch or the Spanish—but we were pretty sure the orange shirts were the ones to cheer for. My roommate liked the team from the Netherlands because he was a linguist and preferred Dutch to Spanish. And I was cheering for Gerbrand Bakker’s team because I had just read and loved The Twin.

Four years later, I’ve settled into another city. And yet I live down the street from another bar which, because it specializes in imported beers, promises drink specials for the entirety of the World Cup. Plus ça change . . .

. . . plus c’est la meme chose. I’m being asked to pick the better country based on books I’m reading. Today is the first day of the World Cup in Brazil, so Cameroon has the honor of facing off against the host country. Meaning I have to judge a title from each nation—Cameroon represented by Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, and Brazil represented by Chico Buarque’s Budapest.

I’ll be “that judge” and crush your readerly hopes right now: this wasn’t much of a match-up. There was no special home-field advantage or dark horse in the running here. One book crashed and burned and made me think about why it had even been translated; the other was so radiant and fresh that I wanted to translate it anew.

A quick and clinical overview, first, so you know what we’re talking about here. Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night is the story of Ayané, and the village to which she returns despite having escaped to a cosmopolitan life, and a mass of rebels who bring ruination upon the village. It is a harrowing book, viscerally painful, and told in the distant, knowing voice of a local oral storyteller. Chico Buarque’s Budapest, in contrast, is a meandering and phantasmagoric fever dream that shuttles back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and, yes, Budapest as a ghostwriter composes texts, finds himself replaced by near-perfect copies of himself, and falls in love with Hungary’s singular language and even more singular denizens.

Dark Heart of the Night is shackled by many factors that work against its success. Its title is an unfortunately liberal translation of the original title, L’intérieur de la nuit—the Heart of Darkness allusion hurts more than helps the book—even as the cover plays off the design clichés that i>Africa Is Not a Country rightfully condemns. Despite the careful and insightful translation, however, the narrative voice driving Miano’s entire book made it nearly impossible for me to move from sympathy to full-hearted empathy. Perhaps this narrative style was intended to make the horrors of the story less immediate; the effect, with so many explanatory asides and all its descriptions at a remove, made the story feel like a copy of a copy of a copy of a story I had once been told about “Africa,” writ large. The country is a nameless one (not Cameroon); the rebellion is a vague one (not like any of the civil wars or unrest in recent history); and the village’s primitiveness is so stark as to feel unreal. Cameroon is, in reality, far more complicated and modern than we might be led to believe from this novel. To give just one example: for all the abject poverty suffered throughout the continent, cell phone usage is extraordinarily high because of its advantages for communication and even for finances. I hoped for a novel that would give me a clearer picture of Cameroon (or even Africa) as it is now, and I was disappointed to read a novel that told me, at a remove, about an idea of Africa. Ultimately, I found myself scratching my head: what was different or special about this novel that the French Voices committee had seen fit to grant money toward its publication in English? The only answer I can plausibly think of is that it is a historical document of sorts. Its explanations and descriptions may provide a certain context to readers scarcely aware of Central Africa. But that hardly seems like reason enough to publish and share a book.

In contrast, Budapest continued to shock me and amaze me as I turned its pages toward its end. It seems odd that it should have surprised me: I had read most of it about six years ago after being given an excerpt, in French, to translate into English. It was an assignment from my French teacher, who had discovered the book while abroad with her husband over break. The two of them knew French and English and, preferring not to privilege one translation over another, had bought the two versions of Chico Buarque’s original. (To this day, when somebody mentions their knowledge of Buarque as a famous musician, I have to mentally square that with my image of him as a solitary author.) The whole book itself centers on doubles and replacements and, yes, repetitions: a phrase at the beginning recurs in the book’s final pages; the two cities and the narrator’s two lives seem to parallel each other with the same struggles and challenges, even as the narrator becomes a copy of himself, replicating in Hungary the same ghostwriting work he had done in Brazil, until he surpasses the master for which he has ghostwritten—an appropriate parallel to the moment when he realizes, in Brazil, that his boss has trained many young employees to write as perfectly, as precisely as he does, to the point that he worries he cannot even think a thought without their having already set it down on paper. As he finally writes a poem of his own, he realizes that “The words were mine, but they had a different weight. I wrote as if I were walking through my own house, but in water.” The clarity and beauty of this image is not atypical of the entire book; each page glides with a musical fluidity fully enabled by Alison Entrekin’s keen translation—one that manages to portray in English the grammatical quirks of (at times) Hungarian-flavored Portuguese or a Portuguese that reflects a Portuguese-fractured phrase in Hungarian. I could remember the process of carefully converting each sentence from the French my professor had given me to English; even accounting for the fact that I was translating a translation, Entrekin’s work outstripped mine entirely. I closed the book, and images came unbidden of Rio de Janeiro’s narrow alleyways and quarrelsome relationships, and the ever-yellow (or is it ever-gray?) of Buda and Pest seen from the air, the two halves of the city split by the Danube.

I did say this wasn’t much of a matchup. On the soccer field (or, ahem, football field for all you non-Americans reading my embarrassingly provincial commentary), Cameroon has been a frontrunner among the many teams hailing from the African continent, but its literary entry into the Tournament of Books can’t even get a single goal past Brazil’s writers—especially not when that team includes Chico Buarque and Budapest.

The score’s a pretty clear-cut one: 4-0 Brazil.

——

Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Best European Fiction, and The Quarterly Conversation. In his free time, he does not listen to music.

——

Did Budapest Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


9 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

With the Real World Cup (RWC) kicking off Thursday afternoon, it’s time to announce the participants in this year’s World Cup of Literature (WCL). This post is pretty long, but is also packed with information: all 32 competing titles, the names of the 24 judges, a bit of info on the methodology, and the official bracket . . .

The Books

First off, thanks to everyone who submitted suggestions of books to participate in the WCL. We received way more recommendations than we expected—along with requests to serve as a judge—and it was pretty tough narrowing these all down to a mere 32 titles. (Which, incidentally, makes me think that we should do this again next year for the Women’s World Cup, but include only books written by women.)

Our criteria shifted based on the country in question, but, if at all possible, we only looked at books written in the original language after 2000 (thus eliminating all the “old guys” like David Beckham), and tried, in some quasi-logical way, to tie each book to its country’s actual team. I’ll leave it to the individual judges to expound upon these connections (if they feel like it), but, just to provide an example, we went with The Pale King by David Foster Wallace as the U.S. representative because, like the USMNT, it’s an unfinished product, made of various pieces, and all about boredom (which is how some people in the States view soccer as a whole). Not to mention, The Pale King’s defense is pretty shaky . . .

The Bracket: Some Methodology

For the sake of ease (and respecting everyone’s time and sanity), we decided to forego the whole round-robin group-stage thing. But that doesn’t mean we wanted to ignore the groups altogether in pursuit of a perfect NCAA-like bracket. So we kept the groups, ranked the teams in each group 1-4 (according to the most recent FIFA world rankings), and matched #1 vs. #4 and #2 vs. #3 for each group. So all of our first round matches will happen in the group stage.

As for placing the first-round matches on the bracket, we followed the format of the RWC, pitting A1 vs B2; B1 vs A2; etc. in the second round, using the rankings as the 1s and 2s. This will, of course, fall completely apart and result—most likely—in a second round that looks nothing like the RWC’s, but there remains a chance that we’ll manage to mirror the RWC, at least in a few spots on the bracket.

The groups and rankings (with FIFA world rankings in parentheses), in case you’re curious, are below.

Group A
1. Brazil (4)
2. Mexico (19)
3. Croatia (20)
4. Cameroon (50)

Group B
1. Spain (1)
2. Chile (13)
3. Netherlands (15)
4. Australia (59)

Group C
1. Colombia (5)
2. Greece (10)
3. Ivory Coast (21)
4. Japan (47)

Group D
1. Uruguay (6)
2. Italy (9)
3. England (11)
4. Costa Rica (34)

Group E
1. Switzerland (8)
2. France (16)
3. Ecuador (28)
4. Honduras (30)

Group F
1. Argentina (7)
2. Bosnia & Herzegovina (25)
3. Iran (37)
4. Nigeria (44)

Group G
1. Germany (2)
2. Portugal (3)
3. USA (14)
4. Ghana (38)

Group H
1. Belgium (12)
2. Russia (18)
3. Algeria (25)
4. South Korea (55)

The Judges and Match Dates

So, without further ado, here are books, the first (and second) round match ups, and the names of the judges who will be presiding over these first 24 matches of the WCL. All links lead to listings on Powells so that you can buy these and play along:

First Round

Brazil v Cameroon 6/12 – Jeffrey Zuckerman

Russia v Algeria 6/13 – Chris Schaefer

Italy v England 6/13 – Trevor Berrett

Spain v Australia 6/16 – Mauro Javier Cardenas

Colombia v Japan 6/17 – George Carroll

Switzerland v Honduras 6/18 – Hannah Chute

Argentina v Nigeria 6/19 – Lance Edmonds

Mexico v Croatia 6/20 – Katrine Ogaard

Portugal v USA 6/20 – Will Evans

France v Ecuador 6/23 – P.T. Smith

Chile v Netherlands 6/24 – Shaun Randol

Greece v Ivory Coast 6/25 – Laura Radosh

Bosnia & Herzegovina v Iran 6/26 – Hal Hlavinka

Belgium v South Korea 6/26 – Scott Esposito

Uruguay v Costa Rica 6/27 – Kaija Straumanis

Germany v Ghana 6/27 – James Crossley

Second Round

6/30 – Jeff Waxman
Brazil/Cameroon v Chile/Netherlands

6/30 – Rhea Lyons
Colombia/Japan v Italy/England

7/1- Stephen Sparks
Switzerland/Honduras v B&H/Iran

7/1 – Florian Duijsens
Germany/Ghana v Russia/Algeria

7/2 – Chad W. Post
Mexico/Croatia v Spain/Australia

7/2 – Elianna Kan
Greece/Ivory Coast v Uruguay/Costa Rica

7/3 – Tom Roberge
France/Ecuador v Argentina/Nigeria

7/3 – Lori Feathers
Portugal/US v Belgium/South Korea

Below you can see the actual bracket, or you can download a printable PDF version here.

See you on Thursday with the result of the first match—Brazil vs. Cameroon!

21 May 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

A number of months ago, I alluded to the idea of having Three Percent host a “World Cup of Literature” pitting all of the World Cup qualifying countries (see below) against one another in a battle for world literature supremacy. (At least until the next World Cup.)

Anyway, the time for that is now!, and so here are all the details:

  • The World Cup of Literature will be a 32-book knock-out tournament that will run around the same time as the actual World Cup of Football Soccering. Obviously, our game schedule will be different, since we’re forgoing all that round robin stuff.
  • Stealing a bit from the Morning News Tournament of Books, each “match” will pit two books against one another and will be judged by one of our fifteen illustrious judges. (More on that below, but if you’re illustrious and a judge, let me know. We need a few more good readers.) They’ll assign a soccer-like score and one of the two books will move on. (No draws! Because we are America and America is about winning and teams that don’t win as the winning team.)
  • All fifteen judges will weigh in on the championship match.

Here’s where you all come in: We need recommendations of books for all the World Cup countries. The full list of countries is below. And I set up a special email account (worldcupofliterature@gmail.com) for you to send in your ideas. There’s also a Facebook page and Twitter feed that we’ll get going over the next few days. Submit recommendations there are well!

In terms of what we’re looking for, I think the books we end up including in this competition should be fun, interesting, enjoyable, “readable,” etc. So, in contrast to the BTBA finalists, this could include more genre works and the like. Not that we want to include crap, but I don’t think this should feature 32 obscure, high modernist writers from around the world.

And to keep in the World Cup spirit of young, healthy people running around athletically, we’d like to include books published from 2000 onwards. Keep it young! (And avoid match-ups like The Tin Drum vs. The Great Gatsby.)

Please send along any and all recommendations you have by June 10th. Obviously, there are certain countries that are trickier to find good representatives from than others. (Like Costa Rica. Like Côte d’Ivoire. And good luck coming up with an American book.) I’ll post all the recommendations we get after the 10th, and we’ll announce the official representatives later that week along with a match schedule.

Also, I’m serious about looking for a few more judges. Rather than calling on all the usual suspects, I think it would be more fun to include a bunch of Three Percent/International Literature fans in the judging process. As a judge you will be assigned two matches that you’re responsible for, and can vote on the championship. The pieces you write can be as serious or as flippant as you want—it’s up to you. Just email the same address (worldcupofliterature@gmail.com) if you’re interested.

I think that’s it for now . . . So for the non-soccer obsessed, here are the countries that are participating:

  • Algeria
  • Argentina
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Bosnia-Herzegovina
  • Brazil
  • Cameroon
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Costa Rica
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Croatia
  • Ecuador
  • England
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Honduras
  • Iran
  • Italy
  • Ivory Coast
  • Japan
  • Mexico
  • Netherlands
  • Nigeria
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Switzerland
  • Uruguay
  • USA
....
Astragal
Astragal by Albertine Sarrazin
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

Upon completing Albertine Sarrazin’s Astragal I was left to wonder why it ever fell from print. Aside from the location, Astragal could pass as the great American novel. Its edginess and rawness capture the angst and desires we all had. . .

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Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

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The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
Reviewed by Peter Biello

“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .

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Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
Reviewed by Tiffany Nichols

In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .

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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

You are not ashamed of what you do, but of what they see you do. Without realizing it, life can be an accumulation of secrets that permeates every last minute of our routine . . .

The narrative history of. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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