Mexico vs. Croatia
A few years back, during a drunken Christmas party at a Danish newspaper, I asked a colleague how she developed her opinions as a movie critic. She did not have an academic background in film, and yet there she was, at a national paper, reviewing movies every week.
“Piece of cake!” she exclaimed, “I just think of the movie as a soccer match, making up the score as I watch it. When I leave the theatre, I ask myself: How was the game?”
I decided to adopt the movie critic’s honorable method in this piece for World Cup of Literature, Mexico vs. Croatia. Furthermore, I have subjected the two competing novels, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, to reading in several diverse environments in exciting New York City, including a local coffee shop in Bushwick, a local bar in Bushwick, and my bed (also in Bushwick). I highly doubt that any reader will find this carefully thought-out method to be anything but utterly agreeable.
New York City Subway
It almost seems unfair; Faces in the Crowd actually depicts a NYC subway car on its cover. Its short, poetic prose, served to the reader as connected vignettes, is a match made in heaven for a ride on the L train, infested with hipsters either listening to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on their iPhones, or talking loudly to their twenty-something friends about failed Tinder dates. You don’t need an attention span to read Faces in the Crowd. You could even consider displacing it on one of those orange plastic seats, to see if the book actually starts reading itself for you.
Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is an outright hassle to get through on the subway. The literary style is dense; it’s difficult to stay focused in the midst of the IT’S SHOWTIME boys breakdancing on the poles, the occasional evangelist, the Alicia Keys wannabe, and whoever else demands my attention in the subway car.
I really shouldn’t be allowed to read good literature. They should give literary licenses to responsible adults only.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 0)
Local Bushwick Coffee Shop
Three mornings a week, I buy a breakfast bagel and a coffee from a Colombian sunbeam of a woman. She greets me with the words, “morning sweetie, what can I get for you,” forever in the midst of entertaining the rest of the coffee shop with tales from her home country. The day I bring in my World Cup of Literature titles to read, she speaks fondly of her single-parent upbringing while taking my order.
“My mother used to beat me with a belt. Taught me not to make the same mistake twice, oh no,” she says, and laughs. I laugh too.
“I bet your mother never beat you,” she says to me, and I tell her she is right. Then we laugh again.
This morning I find myself in awe of Baba Yaga. Ugresic’s nightmarishly truthful depiction of a mother-daughter relationship through the first eighty pages of the book puts words to situations that I’ve become only too familiar with, ever since my mother’s illness transformed her into a Baba Yaga when I was twenty. Ugresic is clearly a literary master unworthy of my judgment, and oops, what’s that piece of information I overlooked on the cover? “Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.”
GOAL TO CROATIA.
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 1)
The sun is burning my Scandinavian scalp, while my blond mane is drenching the forehead and neck in sweat. I buy 3-dollar water from a cart in the park and curse the smirking salesman for just about three minutes in my head, a minute per dollar, I guess. It’s gross out, and I don’t feel like dealing with the heaviness of Baba Yaga’s 327 pages. I find a bench in the shade, try to read a few pages, but must admit defeat. Once again, I pull out Faces in the Crowd. It’s easy to get back into, it’s the guilty pleasure of having sex with your ex—it’s effortless:
Milk, diaper, vomiting and regurgitation, cough, snot, and abundant dribble. The cycles now are short, repetitive, and imperative. It’s impossible to try to write. The baby looks at me from her high chair: sometimes with resentment, sometimes with admiration. Maybe with love, if we are indeed able to love at that age. She produces sounds that will have a hard time adapting themselves to Spanish, when she learns to speak it. Closed vowels, guttural opinions. She speaks a bit like the characters in a Lars von Trier movie.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Lars, so Luiselli naturally scores with me right there, on a sweaty bench in Riverside Park. I think of an old boyfriend who took me to see Antichrist in the movie theatre. He was really into soccer.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 1)
In Bed In Bushwick
“Is that about Baba Yaga?” my new friend asks, as we lie down to read on my bed, belly first.
“Yeah, kind of,” I say. We look like book seals, although that’s not a thing.
“She’s that witch who eats children, right! Is that book going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s kind of a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of hard to get through. I think I like this one better,” I say, and tap the cover of Faces in the Crowd.
“Well, I think this one should win!” he says, and pushes Baba Yaga closer to me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on Spotify as I begin reading. I was going to put on The Smiths, but decided we were not quite there yet.
I discover that the second section of the book is much sillier than the first; the humor is kind of adorable. I especially enjoy the scene where an elderly woman, Beba, is getting a massage from the young Mevlo:
Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.
“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”
“Hang on, what are you talking about?”
“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”
“No,” lied Beba.
I tell my new friend that Baba Yaga is pretty great. I also tell him that he has a huge cock.
We met on Tinder.
GOAL TO CROATIA
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 2)
Local Bushwick Bar
I’m ordering a completely legitimate Tuesday counter-drink, hair of the dog. A counter-Bacardi rum and coke; it has to be exactly the same as the night before, or it won’t help. At this point, there is no point in denying the obvious, I tell the bartender, as Brazil fails to shine against Mexico on the TV behind him.
I don’t feel like reading Baba Yaga right now. I feel like reading Faces in the Crowd. There, I said it.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 3 – Croatia 2)
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, and the Editor-in-Chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, majoring in Fiction and Literary Translation.
A Greater Music is the first in a line of steady and much-anticipated releases by Bae Suah from key indie presses (this one published by Open Letter). Building off of the interest of 2016 Best Translated Book Award longlist nominee. . .
The dislocation of individuals from the countries of their birth has long been a common theme in contemporary literature. These two short novels recently translated into English appear firmly rooted in this tradition of ex-pat literature, but their authors eschew. . .
In Melancholy, Hungarian author, critic, and art theorist László Földényi presents a panorama of more than two thousand years of Western historical and cultural perspectives on the human condition known as melancholia. In nine chapters, Földényi contrasts the hero worship. . .
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .