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:
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.
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.
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.
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.Tweet
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.
This one is going to be close . . .
Hal Hlavinka: Germany
Saša’s payment pending, the ghost of Sebald runs ragged.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
Scott Esposito: France
The Pale King isn’t even actually a book after all . . .
Lance Edmonds: USA
By a mile.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Katrine Jensen: Mexico
Everybody should read Faces in the Crowd. Read it for Luiselli’s language. Read it for the masterly translation by MacSweeney.
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).
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.
Elianna Kan: Mexico
Mexico! A million times Mexico!
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.
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 . . .
The latest addition to our Reviews section is by Juan Carlos Postigo on Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero, translated by Philip H. D. Smith and Graziella de Luis, and published by Hispabooks Publishing.
If you’re still not familiar with Hispabooks, they were founded in 2011 and brought their first books to light in 2013. They work solely with Spanish-language literature, and in the very brief time they’ve been around they’ve already done great things for the authors and works they represent.
Here’s the beginning of his review:
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 José Ovejero’s Nothing Ever Happens lies in its five protagonists (the chapters are titled with the names of the characters; almost everyone gets two chapters to his or her name). Carmela, an excessively independent woman, and her husband Nico, a too gentle man respectively, lead a quiet and comfortable life of middle-class marriage, full of almost imperceptible silences. But the secret of Olivia, their Ecuadorian immigrant housekeeper, could bring down the appearance of normality. Especially with the potential involvement of Claudio, a gifted boy of convoluted ideas who has fun in revealing what is hidden.
For the rest of the review, go “here”:Tweet
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.
Rhea Lyons: Italy
I love By Night in Chile but I identify with Olga. She is close to my heart.
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.
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.
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.
Jeff Waxman: Chile
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.
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.Tweet
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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