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.
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