From here on out, multiple judges will be voting on each of the matches and the “score” will be an accumulation of these votes.
Just to recap, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (Australia) got here by first beating Sweden and Camilla Läckberg’s The Stranger and then upending Nigeria and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.
Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano (Cameroon) is here by beating Switzerland and Noëlle Revas’s With the Animals and then sneaking by Ecuador and Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands.
The winner of this match will go up against Canada and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake next Wednesday, July 8th.
Here we go!
M. Lynx Qualey: Cameroon
Both novels have a murder at the center. But while Burial Rites feels like an ordinary Anglophone novel set in nineteenth century Iceland, with ordinary plays at character, plotting, and change, Dark Heart of the Night—although flawed—moves through its material with power, ambition, and a twinned fear and fearlessness.
Rachel Crawford: Cameroon
I chose Dark Heart of the Night over Burial Rites because of Miano’s honest portrayal of the frightening human capacity to survive. More impressively, of its sheer slap in the face to anyone who thinks they have read Heart of Darkness, one of the canonical works we have all read, and finished it thinking they had any understanding of the affects of the colonization of Africa. A worthy winner of the quarterfinals in my opinion.
Lizzy Siddal: Australia
While Cameroon fields possibly the most shocking contestant in this competition, the storytelling is subservient to the polemic. There’s too much telling, not enough showing. After the—let’s just call it, harrowing—event at the centre, the pages thereafter lost any form of narrative drive or interest for me. The dilemma at the end is the same as at the start. While this may be true to life, it’s not my kind of literature.
Australia, on the other hand, fields one of finest debuts I’ve had the pleasure of reading. A way of life is recreated making the reader experience the entire discomfort of living in nineteenth century Iceland. The dilemma of housing a convicted murderess awaiting execution in the bosom of one’s own family is portrayed convincingly. Characterization of hosts, spiritual counselors and murderess possesses a subtlety that is entirely lacking in the Cameroon entry. The ending, no surprise given that it is a historical fact, is approached with such finesse that it nevertheless left me feeling a little teary,
Hannah Chute: Australia
While both of these novels are powerful tales of death and guilt in harsh lands, Burial Rites pulls ahead through the energy of its characters.
Lori Feathers: Australia
Both novels succeed in conveying a fully realized, unusual setting and interesting moral ambiguities
But with its wonderfully executed narrative and precisely drawn characters Burial Rites compels you to devour it in great, greedy gulps and as such, out-scores Dark Heart of the Night.
Margaret Carson: Australia
Grotesque crimes figure in both Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites and Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, but Kent’s expansive narrative field and versatile storytelling, not to mention the knock-out first-person voice of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the convicted murderess who revisits her past while awaiting execution, give Burial Rites the edge over Dark Heart.
Australia! To be honest, I wouldn’t have given Australia much of a chance going into the overall competition, but whatever, Hannah Kent is not in the semifinals, ready to meet up against Margaret Atwood!Tweet
From here on out, multiple judges will be voting on each of the matches and the “score” will be an accumulation of these votes.
The winner of this game faces off against The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Germany) on Tuesday, July 7th.
On to the match!
Hilary Plum: Colombia
Delirium is gripping and seamlessly made, even its seeming asides proving vital and resonant, and so it outmatches its worthy opponent, whose game is beautifully picaresque but thus less firmly organized.
P.T. Smith: Colombia
Delirium wins, as books of madness usually do for me, and Natasha Wimmer proves her adeptness at translating unsettled reality.
Meredith Miller: Costa Rica
Again, I’m choosing Assault on Paradise for the win. Both books involve a mystery surrounding the characters’ plights, and I am still blown away by the epic reach Lobo gives Pedro’s story. I found the revolving nature of Delirium’s narrative beautifully hypnotizing, but it failed to create the same sense of urgency that is experienced reading Assault on Paradise.
Mythili Rao: Colombia
Delirium. Because the 80s are more fascinating to me than the 1800s, and Agustina seems to be lost in more interesting ways than Pedro is.
Hal Hlavinka: Colombia
By turns light-footed, twisted, and toothy, Delirium out paces the great Assault on Paradise in this North v. South American quarterfinal faceoff!
Katrine Jensen: Colombia
I vote for Delirium because it manages to combine a fast pace and punchiness with elegance and musicality on a sentence level, which is quite an accomplishment. Because of this, Delirium seems more complete than Assault on Paradise, which can be slow and confusing at times. Plus, Natasha Wimmer’s translation is simply masterful and difficult to compete with.
Rhea Lyons: Colombia
I personally just love the perspective in Delirium, the voice, and it’s just more straight up entertaining.
There you have it—the first semifinal is set, with Germany’s Alina Bronsky set to go up against Colombia’s Laura Restrepo for a spot in the first ever Women’s World Cup of Literature championship!
And check back tomorrow for the second quarterfinal featuring Burial Rites (Australia) up against Dark Heart of the Night (Cameroon). Promises to be a very tight match . . .Tweet
As anyone following the tournament already knows, we’re down to the final six books:
Australia: Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Cameroon: Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano, translated from the French by Tamsin Black
Canada: Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Colombia: Delirium by Laura Restrepo, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer
Costa Rica: Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo, translated from the Spanish by Asa Zatz
Germany: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated from the German by Tim Mohr
Which, after re-ranking the teams based on goal differential from their first two wins, results in this bracket:
So, we have five matches left . . . the two quarterfinals matches, two semis, and the championship.
These last rounds will kick off tomorrow and will run like this:
Thursday, July 2nd Quarterfinal #1: Assault on Paradise (Costa Rica) vs. Delirium (Colombia)
Friday, July 3rd Quarterfinal #2: Burial Rites (Australia) vs. Dark Heart of the Night (Cameroon)
Tuesday, July 7th Semifinal #1: Assault/Delirium vs. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (Germany)
Wednesday, July 8th Semifinal #2: Burial/Dark Heart vs. Oryx & Crake (Canada)
Friday, July 10th Championship: Assault/Delirium/Hottest Dishes vs. _Burial/Dark Heart/Oryx)
So come back tomorrow to find out who will be going up against Alina Bronsky, the German juggernaut.Tweet
This match was judged by Hilary Plum—you can learn more about her writing and editing at her website or on Twitter at @ClockrootBooks.
The stands are packed on both sides, tension palpable. Mexico’s entry into this year’s tournament: Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft, in Samantha Schnee’s endlessly sly translation. The novel kicks off in 1859, in a lightly fictionalized version of the Mexican/Texas border, along the Rio Bravo/Rio Grande (depending on where you’re sitting) and in the twin cities—or, a Mexican city and a sad Texan excuse for one—of Matasánchez and Bruneville. As the title reminds us and the novel renders in profound detail, this border was drawn in bloodshed and greed: land that is now the state of Texas had first belonged to Mexico, until the Republic of Texas was declared in 1835, for among other reasons the desire to legalize slavery, which was counter to Mexican law. In 1846, Texas joined the U.S., resulting in the war of 1848 that our textbooks know as the Mexican-American War, but which could just be called a U.S. invasion. The US declared a new, more southerly border and land north of it was redirected into American hands—i.e.: stolen. Amid all this, the conflicts with and among the American Indians who were either of or had been relocated to the region continued. If this sounds like a highly complex geopolitical moment in which to set what seems to be a comic novel, you’re right on.
On one dusty high noon in July in Bruneville, the sheriff/mediocre carpenter of Bruneville insults Don Nepomuceno, son of a prominent Mexican family. Shots are fired, conflict ensues—an intricate and bloody chain of consequences that our narrator relates with relentless Pynchonian inventiveness. The pace is fast, the tone witty, the speed may be manic but this novel won’t lose its cool. When I picture this team, its game is soccer as spectacle: moves showy as hell, hairstyles unprecedented. Each short passage in Texas zips into the next, into and out of the lives of a massive cast of characters, ever precise but never not flip. Boullasa’s form of procedural improvisation is her own, though one thinks too of Aira and Bolaño: this is art along the high-tide line, style poised, glittering, mid-crash, before exhausting itself. Through the snap and pizazz of the prose, the horrors of this conflict surface; we recall how close we are to the landscape through which Cormac McCarthy’s Judge raged, the kid with his mindless taste for violence.
Daring, even absurd, Mexico’s game starts strong: Boullosa’s nonstop stand-up routines, winking and shapeshifting, take us to halftime with a 2–1 Mexican lead.
We turn then to the Colombian side, where Laura Restrepo’s Delirium sets a quite different pace: a fluid elegance, a taut lyricism that, we’ll come to see, can both give and take real devastation. The achievements of Restrepo’s novel—in Natasha Wimmer’s translation—are curiously hard to describe. Its structure is more conventional than Texas’s, without really being conventional; setting the two novels side by side illuminates how Restrepo, too, is playing with genre, though more quietly, so that the reader may almost not notice. The novel is centered on Agustina, a young Colombian woman of upper-class background who is deep in an episode of—one could call it delirium, or madness, or mania: in any case she is far from reality. She has spent her life, as we’ll learn, in and out of such episodes, while also believing herself, perhaps being believed by others, to possess visionary powers. Agustina is a sort of absent center, then—even though she is one of the novel’s four narrators, sometimes referring to herself in the first person, sometimes in the third, she also constitutes its vital mystery. What has caused the new and terrible instance of madness in which we discover her in the novel’s opening scene? This is the question her lover, Aguilar—former professor of literature; current dog-food salesman—sets out to answer, and which seems to drive the book’s plot, against the background of 1980s Bogotá. Aguilar narrates the course of this search, while Agustina’s sections are set during her childhood, amid the layers of secrecy and oppression that make up her deeply patriarchal family. Agustina’s grandfather, a German musician obsessed with a young student, occupies the third, haunting narrative strand; the fourth belongs to the propulsive voice of Midas McAlister, Agustina’s one-time boyfriend and a money launderer who may have just run dangerously afoul of cocaine king Pablo Escobar.
The novel seems, then, to be driven by suspense, infused by noir: a madwoman, a mystery, a detective on the hunt. Yet gradually—no spoilers here—Restrepo sets aside the simplifying logic of cause and effect and refuses any expectation of easy resolution. One narrator yields to the next, ongoingly, and the instability of each character’s story reflects a greater instability, a vulnerability intimate to each voice and yet which also belongs to the societal and political moment—drug traffickers running the nation, guerrillas claiming the highways, bombs detonating downtown—in which they live. In Wimmer’s translation, Restrepo’s syntax is capable of swift architectural feats (you may think of Sebald), suddenly building a world that is half-reality, half-dream, and just as quickly replacing it with another, each creation given life by a vivid sensual glimmer or an offhand flash of her intelligence.
The match is a tense one; both teams play at the top of their games. In the stands you all should have Texas in one hand, Delirium in the other, not able even to pick up your beer till you’ve finished reading. It could go either way, but today, since I’m the judge, I see Colombia pull away in the game’s second half, a greater range of moves at its disposal. Texas is so insistently various and vaudevillian that it becomes, in its way, consistent, and loses a bit of momentum: all short fast passes, less chance of the long desperate lob toward goal, of sinking to one’s knees on the field. We end with a hard-fought 3–2, victory Delirium, in what has surely been another incarnation of the beautiful game.
There we go! All six countries in the quarter- and semi-finals have been decided: Germany, Canada, Cameroon, Australia, Costa Rica, and Colombia. (Very much different from the actual semifinals!)
In terms of pairings, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine gets the top bye and will play the winner of Assault on Paradise vs. Delirium. Oryx & Crake gets the other bye and will face off against the winner of Burial Rites vs. Dark Heart of the Night.
More info soon about these final match-ups. For now, enjoy today’s actual Women’s World Cup quarterfinals . . .Tweet
This match was judged by Katrine Øgaard Jensen, blog editor at Asymptote. You can follow her on Twitter at @kojensen.
This match between Tatiana Lobo’s Assault on Paradise (translated by Asa Zatz) and Elvira Navarro’s The Happy City (translated by Rosalind Harvey) is really a battle between the epic and the subtle. Representing Costa Rica we have a novel depicting the Conquistadores and the Church invading Central America in the early 1700s, and may I just say that I’ve rarely encountered such a larger-than-life opening (entitled “Pa-brú Presbere dreams of Surá, Lord of the Nether World”!!)
Here’s a random sentence from the very first page, which is almost written as if God herself were the narrator:
The fire slowly expired and the shadows fell, the darkness good for thinking and meditation but not about the external things that anguish us in the officious light of day, rather about the secrets of the womb.
In contrast to this opening from “above,” The Happy City—a novel in two separate yet connected sections, representing Spain—begins very much from below, with the first pre-adolescent main character, Chi-Huei, spying on his father and his aunt from a garden (yes, this boy is witnessing something in a garden; need I say more about where the story is going?):
From the bushes, a chorus of crickets rose up, monotonous and precise, drowning out the hum of the traffic and the neighbors’ voices issuing from open windows. The sultry summer atmosphere oozed with the sweet, acidic scent of the loquats, and Chi-Huei liked to stand beneath the tree, breathing in the strangeness of the night, although he was not aware of its mute vibration just now.
As mentioned, The Happy City consists of two sections, and both of them follow a pre-teen (in the first section it’s Chi-Huei, while the second section is dedicated to his friend Sara) discovering the disturbing complexities of the adult world. This novel is written with a sharp clarity, which Assault on Paradise at times fails to achieve. The “epic” nature of the latter almost forced me to keep a notebook in order to remember certain characters and events—which some readers like, I just happen to not like it—and that earns Spain a goal during the first half of this match.
In the second half, however, Costa Rica takes revenge. Although The Happy City covers some steps towards sexuality, it doesn’t stand a chance against the intriguing misadventures of main character and admirer of women Pedro Albarán from Assault on Paradise. Just take a look at this opening sentence for chapter two, which pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book:
Bárbare Lorenzana and Pedro Albarán arrived at the city of Cartago at the same time, slept under the same roof, made love to the same woman, and had not spoken to one another for the past ten long years.
Pedro’s encounters include—but are not limited to—La Chamberga the innkeeper; a local prostitute called The Mother of Travelers; Agueda, wife of an officer in the army; and finally, a mute native woman who embodies the culture that Pedro Albarán’s compatriots seek to terminate. Well done, Pedro. You’ve scored a goal for Costa Rica.
With a score of 1-1, here comes the divine FIFA-like corruption scandal: I’ve decided to leak an out-of-context quote from an email sent to me by fellow judge Meredith Miller, who scandalously allowed Costa Rica to win over Brazil last week. Here’s what she wrote about Assault on Paradise:
Don’t get bogged down by all of the names or disoriented with the mythology in the opening pages.
Well said, Miller. The truth is, Assault on Paradise is epically ambitious in many ways, but it also manages to enthrall the reader with its clever use of low-brow humor combined with an elevated language when the story calls for it. Costa Rica scores the final goal of this match, because reading Assault on Paradise is an utterly entertaining and unique experience.
Costa Rica 2, Spain 1
With only one match left to come, we can speculate a bit on what the quarterfinals will look like. Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has clinched a bye, and unless Texas wins by 5, or Delirium by 4, Canada’s Oryx & Crake will automatically advance to the semi-finals as well. The rest of the seedings are still a bit in flux, with the current standings being Australia (+3), Costa Rica (+2), and Cameroon (+1). Tomorrow’s winner could finish anywhere in there . . .
Speaking of tomorrow, the last match of the second round will be judged by Hilary Plum and feature Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (Mexico) against Delirium by Laura Restrepo (Colombia). And following that, we’ll be able to specify who faces who in the quarter- and semi-finals.Tweet
So, we actually made it to our 100th episode! To celebrate, this week Tom and Chad took questions from all our listeners, leading to discussions about how many books we each read (and how many are in translation), what one thing all translators should know, how censorship plays into our publishing decision, and much more. Of course, it ends with raves and rants—including a rant about rants—and is filled with other interesting side tangents.
Here’s a list of all the books we talked about on this episode (although maybe not in this order):
Apocalypse Baby by Virginie Despentes
Mexico: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa
Case Histories by Kate Atkinson
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Delirium by Laura Restrepo
Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck
The Last Lover by Can Xue
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño
That Smell by Sonallah Ibrahim
Ulysses by James Joyce
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce
This week’s music is the triumphant Crybaby Demon from the new Crocodiles album.
As always you can subscribe to the podcast in iTunes right here. Or just copy this link to add our show’s feed to any podcast app:
This match was judged by Meytal Radzinski whose writings you can find at Biblibo and on Twitter @biblibio.
The game looks mismatched from the onset. Nigeria comes with star power—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a rising star in the literary world, not only for her powerful stories but also for her blatant politics (in Americanah especially). Australia meanwhile comes with a smaller, slighter team: Hannah Kent managed to comfortably sweep her first round competition, but can this debut author really stand up to the powerful politics of Nigeria’s team?
Adichie is the first to score, quickly and bluntly. Ifemelu is such a bold character, engaging and enticing from the start. In her portions of the story (since the novel is divided into Ifemelu and Obinze sections), Adichie tackles large social issues like race, racial identity, and feminism. It’s the sort of intelligent, honest storytelling you always wish you could find, but most writers shy away from. Not Adichie, who gives a nuanced and thought-provoking subtlety to her storytelling. However Obinze’s story is far less interesting—while Adichie stumbles around the implications of his parallel story, Kent snatches the ball and scores neatly with her own sharply defined Agnes Magnusdottir. Kent makes Agnes a complex, confusing and utterly entrancing character in about half the words spent on Obinze. 1-1.
Now the dynamics of the game have shifted somewhat. Kent employs use of both present and past tense in her storytelling (a personal pet peeve), yet the interplay between the two is practically flawless. Kent’s control of the ball is instantly recognized as better, as she manages to pull off character passes Adichie totally fumbles. The adjustment from Ifemelu to Obinze and back starts to feel tiresomely pointless and clumsy. Meanwhile the character shifts (accompanied by the tense change from Agnes’ narration to anyone else’s) flow comfortably. 2-1 Australia.
Adichie reclaims the ball quickly and slams another point with her hard-hitting commentary on being black in the U.S. and more importantly, being foreign in the U.S. The cultural impact rattles the goalposts. Adichie’s brilliant writing makes the fans tremble. It’s a book for the ages. 2-2.
But as the books near their end, it’s clear that one team can play to all its strengths and the other can’t quite. Despite the overwhelming importance and political strength of Americanah (and its lasting power), it fizzles out at the end into a very different sort of novel. It lacks the stamina of the quieter Burial Rites, which plays until the very end and scores a neat goal moments before the game ends. Burial Rites is ultimately the better novel, with a more controlled narrative and a truly inspiring elevation of a character mostly lost to history. The humanity of Burial Rites makes it a powerfully emotional read, while its writing is “contained” in the very best way. Americanah is big—big ideas, big writing, big stories—but it can’t quite control all of its different threads as nicely.
Well, that was a bit of an upset. Much like Australia knocking out Brazil in the actual Women’s World Cup . . . Hmm. Maybe a conspiracy is at work for the Aussies. Anyway, Hannah Kent marches on solidly, although given the goal differentials for Germany (+7) and Canada (+4), Burial Rites will be playing in the quarterfinals. (As will Dark Heart of the Night. The final two matches—tomorrow’s and Saturday’s—will determine which two books get byes and who gets ranked where.)
Speaking of future match-ups, tomorrow features Costa Rica’s Assault on Paradise by Tatiana Lobo versus Spain’s The Happy City by Elvira Navarro. Tough one to call . . . .
Tomorrow’s match features Nigeria’s Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie up against Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.Tweet
In today’s match, Ecuador is represented by Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands, translated by Amalia Gladhart, and Cameroon by Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, translated by Tamsin Black.
Here’s one of those odd WWCOL matchings that other judges have commented on: under what circumstances would these two novels have otherwise been paired? The playing fields could not be more different. Beyond the Islands takes its cues from that well-worn playbook, magic realism, while Dark Heart of the Night tangles with cruelty, horror, violence, blood and guts. This is a match in which Miano’s dangerous writing squares off against Yánez Cossío’s safer and somewhat recycled magic realist storytelling.
In eight, mostly self-contained chapters, Beyond the Islands (in Spanish, Más allá de las islas Galápagos, and what’s so clunky about “Galapagos” that it was left out in the translation?) draws from a rich storehouse of imagery and fantastical elements to portray eight characters, each with something a little “special.” Morgan, a green-eyed pirate with a peg leg, Iridia, a tenderhearted prostitute, Alirio, a poet whose pockets are stuffed with abandoned poems, others. Each one meets a mist-shrouded end and gets transported elsewhere, often on wings. That’s where the magic comes in. Iridia, for example, ascends to the great beyond in a grand Chagallian flourish. As translated by Amalia Gladhart:
Iridia began to ascend the celestial ramp . . . [she] might have lost her balance, but a supernatural force was carrying her obliquely upwards toward the center of the sun, with the mechanism of an automatic staircase. Iridia was light and she kept walking; she was slowly gaining altitude like a weightless figure from the brush of Marc Chagall. From time to time she paused to breathe and reestablish her balance, although she knew that her shoes had sprouted soft suction pads that stuck to the ray, which was the same one that trapped the white butterfly that emerged from Morgan’s foot, and that illuminated the viscous dampness, like semen, that had been Alirio.
Exuberantly fantastical passages like this happen over and over in the novel, and they might be just your thing. But as someone who has been hearing about and reading Latin American magical realism for over thirty years, I wanted at times to yell, “ya basta,” enough. It felt as if the team were dribbling in circles, running down the clock, indulging in flashy play for its own sake. Look! Another player has sprouted wings and is suspended midair!
But it’s a tenacious genre. To my surprise, the game would pick up, new players would be introduced, each with an idiosyncratic tic. Long dull stretches would be followed by something stupendously ridiculous, like the story of the life-size woman doll that when filled with warm water turns into a kind of high-maintenance sex toy. It’s almost all harmless, with metamorphoses rather than outright death, except for the cruel burning of the plant-gatherer and healer Brigita, who’s taken to be a witch.
You might ask why a magic realist novel first published in 1980 comes into English thirty years later, well after the heyday of Latin American magic realism; but put those questions aside. Here it is, still playing with zest and wacky energy, winging its way down the field to score a few goals.
On the other hand, Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night (published in France in 2005 as L’intérieur de la nuit) plays a much more disturbing game. Set in a remote village in an unnamed African country, the novel tells the story of Ayané, the only child of the Aama and Eké, a couple who ignore the traditional customs and rules of the village and are ostracized as a result. But it’s just as well, because it allows Ayané to escape the destiny of other girls whose mothers “taught them to live as they had done, with gritted teeth, a ramrod-straight back and vanquished hope” (in Tamsin Black’s translation). Ayané is sent away to school and grows up, mostly off stage, to become an enterprising and spirited young woman.
Up to this point the novel seems like a rare coming-of-age story of a young African woman, but then it suddenly turns into gruesome bloodbath. Ayané’s return home to tend to her dying mother coincides with the arrival in the village of a band of drug-crazed revolutionaries in need of soldiers. There is resistance, followed by page after page of unbearable brutality, witnessed by Ayané from the high branch of a tree. You might find yourself recoiling from the descriptions of decapitations, castration, the murder of a child, disembowelments, the cooking and eating of entrails and brains, sustained for over forty pages. Once again, you want to yell, “enough!”
When I first read this novel I hated it. Its violence and cruelty seemed gratuitous, over the top, frankly sadistic. But just as the sporting world has its “extreme sports,” maybe literature too has its “extremes” that deeply disturb and push at whatever limits are out there? Of course it does; the orgies of violence in Dark Heart make you think of the Marquis de Sade, Alejandra Pizarnik in The Bloody Countess, Dennis Cooper, Kathy Acker. Contrary to what we might think, Miano is not doing social realism. She’s not chronicling horrendous acts of violence in Africa (which of course are not unique to Africa) in order to cater to the expectations of outsiders. Whether or not she succeeds is another matter, but she could care less about enchanting the reader. She’s asking herself: can this be described in words?
I won’t overdo the soccer analogies, but I considered: which of the two novels “goes for it”? Which one scuffs up the turf, does some damage, earns a few red cards, challenges some notions about what women write about when they write novels?
For her more ambitious game plan, Léonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night advances, beating Alicia Yánez Cossío’s Beyond the Islands 4-3.
And now half of the final six are set, with Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night joining Bronsky’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine and Atwood’s Oryx & Crake in the upcoming quarterfinals.
Tomorrow’s match features Nigeria’s Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie up against Australia’s Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.Tweet
This match was judged by Kalah McCaffrey, a Young Adult literary scout at Franklin & Siegal. You can follow her on Twitter at @moheganscout.
As Ivory Coast and Germany lined up for kick-off in the second round of matches, I wasn’t sure what to expect: that powerhouse Germany had trounced underdog Thailand came as no surprise, but Côte d’Ivoire ousting stoic Norway was a nice twist. Côte d’Ivoire won the toss and first possession and their offensive attacks were wild and breathtaking, but ultimately the strategy was repetitive and short-winded, so endurance flagged. Germany’s steady, relentless advance quickly overwhelmed the defense and left the competition eating turf.
Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou showed its strengths early in the game—the rich mythology, nuance of language, and vibrant characters were instantly powerful. Queen Abraha Pokou’s tale, the origin story of the Baoule people, captivated with wild magical twists, and Pokou fulfilled the role of de facto goalkeeper/savior of her people with real chutzpah. Our heroine is born the niece of the respected king of the Ashanti Kingdom. An early outcrop of wild hair destines her for greatness, a prophecy fulfilled when her brother succeeds her uncle as king and she develops an instinct for leadership. While the king is far from home, Pokou faces an invasion by sending her people to hide in the woods while she herself remains behind to protect the weak. She gets kidnapped, but the king returns in time to rescue her, she becomes a trusted advisor to the throne, and later marries (one of many husbands) and finally gives birth to a son. Her brother king falls ill and names their half-brother his successor, but a treacherous uncle challenges his claim, so Pokou leads the loyal subjects into exile to protect them from a ruthless rash of murders. While trekking through the wilderness, faced with an impassable river and the advancing army looming behind them, the high priest instructs Pokou to sacrifice her royal-blooded infant son in order to calm the waters. She does so without hesitating, saves her people, and her cry of grief—Ba-ou-li (“the child is dead”)—becomes the name of their new community. This moment marks a goal of singular flair just before halftime, a bicycle kick that rockets the ball to the top left corner. In the second half, despite mesmerizing imagery, the story arc becomes muddled and repetitive. The defensive line interferes with its own keeper, offense keeps forfeiting possession, and chaos generally reigns. Some chapters repeat portions of the previous events but from a different angle, while others pick up at scattered points and progress in any number of directions. In one, Queen Pokou herself gives in to the river and becomes a water-dwelling goddess. In another, the tale imagines what the Baoule’s fate would have been had Pokou not sacrificed her son: instead her people stage an ambush and challenge the advancing army long enough to retreat and seek refuge in a nearby village. But in the night the army rallies and slaughters Pokou’s people and their innocent hosts. The language is undeniably rich, even decadent and visceral. The images and spontaneous magical developments are intoxicating as well, but I was left feeling bemused and dyspeptic, as if I’d overindulged in a heavy meal. And while the distilled nature of this very brief text might have proven more challenging to other opponents, Côte d’Ivoire just didn’t have the stamina to maintain pressure against Germany’s stiff, and highly entertaining, attack.
The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine started off with a bang and the hits just kept coming. The self-involved, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing protagonist Rosalinda charmed the referees as she bullied her way through life, a true striker through and through. Of Tartar descent and living in Russia, Rosa is determined to lead a comfortable life, and her homely, stupid daughter Sulfia and pushover husband are no match for her ambition. Rosa’s plotting carries the whole match, even through her own downfall. The first challenges she faces are when Sulfia comes home pregnant at seventeen, claiming to be a virgin. Rosa cares for the resulting granddaughter, Aminat, as her own and is pleased when the young girl grows beautiful and smart, if ill-tempered. Next up is locking down a man for Sulfia, most easily accomplished by using her daughter’s job as a nurse to gain access to men’s affections. The first conquest has a roving eye and defects quickly. The second prospect, though Jewish (to Rosa’s chagrin), proves a decent man even though he knocks Sulfia up and only agrees to marry her after Rosa orchestrates it (tie game). Just when it seems settled—Sulfia has a decent man, ugly baby Lena arrives, and Rosa keeps Aminat nearby (fortunate, since the girl goes feral any time Rosa spends much time away from her)—Sulfia’s husband announces plans to emigrate to Israel with his family. The day before they’re set to leave, Rosa tries to kill herself. When she wakes, she finds Sulfia and Aminat have stayed behind (Germany scores again, if in a dirty penalty kick; the first half closes at 2-1). Sulfia is crushed and Aminat resents Rosa, but the matriarch won’t be deterred. She finds a third husband for her daughter, and this time it’s a German (Rosa wants out of Russia and into Europe). But Dieter is a bit . . . off. He takes an outsized interest in Aminat and merely tolerates Sulfia. Dieter is, however, the ticket to Germany, and relocates all three ladies in order to keep Aminat. The teenager grows sullen, withdrawn, acne-prone. Rosa is aware of the subtext, but loves her new life and will not give it up. Sulfia goes back to Russia to settle affairs so she can marry Dieter, but she falls ill (cancer perhaps) and also gets stuck looking after her ailing father. Back in Germany, Rosa gets a job as a cleaning lady in which she takes great pride and satisfaction. With her own income she feels empowered, and learns to ride a bike, then to drive a car. She even pursues a medical career (a surprise goal from nearly mid-field!; 3-1), though her self-taught education and under-the-table medical advice get her promptly fired (yellow card). In rapid succession, Sulfia dies, Rosa begins to hallucinate her daughter’s presence, Rosa gets taken in by an odd, wealthy Englishman, Rosa’s former husband comes to Germany, a grown-up Lena appears from Israel, and Aminat runs away (second yellow card; Rosa is thrown out of the game). The final chapters show Rosa drifting listlessly through life until she discovers Aminat is a contestant on a TV competition to find star singers. Aminat wins the entire competition, bringing the final score to a thrilling 4-1.
By the second half, the outcome of the match was evident. I appreciated the matchup of the ruthlessly pragmatic heroines who will do anything—including sacrifice their children to disturbing or even tragic fates—to achieve a better life; powerful women faced with impossible circumstances they refuse to let best them. But Rosa’s colorful obstinacy and wildly implausible trajectory (without even the aid of magical realism) carry the game and thrust Germany to the top.
Yesterday I commented on how strong Canada looked in the competition. But then, German and Bronsky! Over two matches, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine has won by a combined score of 9-2. That’s some serious domination. This part of the bracket could come down to Atwood versus Bronsky . . . But I am getting ahead of myself.
Tomorrow’s match features Ecuador’s Beyond the Islands by Alicia Yánez Cossío up against Cameroon’s Dark Heart of the Night by Léonora Miano.Tweet
This match was judged by Lizzy Siddal. You can keep up with her literary adventures at Lizzy’s Literary Life or on Twitter at @LizzySiddal.
The first second round match pits survival in a post-apocalyptic future against adventure during the 1860’s West Coast Gold Rush; Canada’s living legend against the brightest star in New Zealand’s literary firmament. This promises to be an epic fixture, not simply because Catton’s UK hardback is a whopping 832 pages long.
There’s no sense of the youngster being fazed by the reputation of her illustrious opponent. After all, New Zealand has lifted the trophies (Booker Prize, Canadian Governor’s General Award for English Language Fiction) that Canada failed to secure. This is a squad large enough to populate an astrological cosmogram and all the planets besides. It positions itself into an unorthodox golden spiral and opens with a leisurely 360 page section told by an omniscient narrator. This is an elegant homage to the 19th century greats with enough blackmail, theft, fraud, drugs, sex and murder to satisfy a modern audience. Though when the omniscient one twice refuses to let differentiating voices be heard, it’s like watching a promising team settle for possession in midfield. So confusing are the unvarying tone and the never-ending circling round of key moments that the need for a narrative recap—admittedly, a welcome respite to this reader who by then felt as though Anna Wetherell’s opium-induced haze was her own—is not only a weakness. It’s an own goal.
Atwood fields a more traditional formation; a narrative alternating between present and past. Her back passes serve only to drive the story forward and solve the mysteries established in the first 12 pages. Within a page count only 18 pages more than the first section of The Luminaries, Atwood’s precision creates two worlds (pre- and post-apocalypse), complete histories and psychologies for her main characters, a plethora of animal splicings (snats, rakunks, pigoons), and a genetically engineered species of homo not so sapiens. The story entertains and alarms in equal measure. The crime at its centre and the warning apropos rogue scientists have depths and purpose that The Luminaries cannot match.
Halftime score: Canada 2, New Zealand 0
Catton’s structural strategy, however, pays dividends during the second half. As the spiral takes shape, each section halves in length, and the text becomes less verbose. There’s more dialogue. The forward momentum gathers pace even as the timeline travels backwards to the start. As a set piece, this is neat and definitely on target.
But then another slip-up when Catton kills off the only character I actually felt for. Fortunately the appearance of Emery Staines prevents a second own goal. This injection of fresh energy is sorely needed as many of the subsidiary characters just aren’t that interesting.
Atwood, on the other hand, delivers an object lesson in intensity. Crake can teach Carver a lesson or two in villainy. Oryx can teach Anna a trick or two in the oldest profession. The dynamics of the pre-apocalypse Oryx-Crake-Jimmy triangle are, to mix my metaphors, screwed. Yet these relationships are destined to become the stuff of myth and the making of Snowman (a.k.a. Jimmy, the sole human survivor). Emotionally blackmailed into accepting a responsibility he does not desire, he nevertheless gives it his all. He may limp off the field sorely wounded, but he is, without doubt, the man of the match.
Final score: Canada 3, New Zealand 1
Canada, behind the strength of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, moves on to at least the quarterfinals. (As soon as the draw for the next round takes place, I’ll post an update.)
Tomorrow’s match features Germany’s The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky going up against Côte d’Ivoire’s Queen Pokou by Veronique Tadjo. Another big match!Tweet
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