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.
George Carroll: Chile
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.
Hannah Chute: Chile
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rhea Lyons: Chile
I like trippy, dark and reflective more than bleak, atmospheric and reflective.
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.
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.
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.
Hal Hlavinka: Chile
And with that, Bolaño moves on. Convincingly. We’ll find out tomorrow who he’ll be up against in the final.
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