3 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Tom Roberge. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

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.

* * *

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter

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.

* * *

The Map and the Territory

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.

——

Did The Map Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


2 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Elianna Kan. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

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.

——

Did The Rest Is Jungle Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


2 July 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by Chad W. Post. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

First off, let it be said that Barley Patch doesn’t even deserve to be playing in this match.

Sure, Mauro had his reasons for choosing Gerald Murnane’s self-conscious masterpiece over Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow, but no matter what YouPoint PowerTube images he tosses out, I would rather read 12,000 pages of this:

‘What Dearlove could not bear,’ obviously I didn’t call him Dearlove, but by his real name, ‘is that his life should end like that; in short, he would find the manner of his death almost unbearable than death itself. He would, of course, be terrified to see his successful existence truncated and to lose his life, as would anyone, even if that life had been a failure; what’s more, I don’t, as I said, believe him to be a brave man, he would be terribly afraid. What most horrifies Dearlove, though, as it does other show-business people (although they may not know it), is that the end of his story should be such that it overshadows and darkens the life he’s lived and accumulated up until now, eclipsing it, almost erasing and cancelling out the rest and, in the end, becoming the only fact that counts and will be recounted.

(You know, like how Michael Hutchence of INXS died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, which is all we really remember him for. Sorry, INXS fan.)

Than even 25 pages of this:

While I was writing the first few sentences of the previous paragraph, I was unable to recall any details of the images of persons and faces that I had had in mind while I read as a child the series of short stories referred to. At some time while I was writing the last two sentences of the previous paragraph, I found myself assigning to the female character under mention the image of a face that I first saw during the early 1990s when I looked into a book that I had recently bought on the subject of horse-racing in New Zealand.

Snoo-motherfucking-ooze.

That said, Spain’s tiki-taka style of play (which, for the uninitiated, can best be summed up in this Los Campesinos! lyric, “we need more post-coital, and less post-rock, feels like the buildup takes forever and you never touch my cock”) went down in flames in the 2014 Real World Cup, so it is kind of fitting that the same happened in the World Cup of Literature.

But, Australia?! A country of poisonous flying spiders, jellyfish that are 100 meters in diameter, snakes that can kill you by looking in your eyes, and shitty Fosters beer? The best thing you ever did for literature was serve as the setting for an episode of The Simpsons.

Then again, you’re playing Mexico here. A country whose players—to steal Kaija Straumanis’s “World Cup Taunt”—hope for a green card every time the ref reaches in their pocket. Your Real World soccer team has never made it past the quarterfinals of a World Cup (failing again in 2014!), making you the least successful Spanish-speaking fútbol country ever. (Verified fact.)

Let’s put aside the actual teams—and random uninformed jokes—for now and look at more of the book itself.

The basic argument for Barley Patch is that it’s “innovative” and “new” and “erudite.” Is Murnane a smart writer? Sure. Is Barley Patch new and innovative? Not in my opinion. Murnane is kind of a poor man’s Gilbert Sorrentino (but without Sorrentino’s sense of humor) mixed with W.G. Sebald (but without Sebald’s universality).

If you haven’t read about Barley Patch before, here’s a basic summary: The narrator of this book has decided to stop writing. For 257 pages he tries to explain why he stopped writing by writing about things that he’s written, writing about his relationship to books that he read in his youth, writing about his family, writing about images that have evolved with him over time, writing about how he’s thinking about his current writing, etc. In between all of this, he asks himself “probing” questions, trying to move his narrative along in the most self-conscious way possible.

Spoiler Alert! This is all boring as shit. It’s also one of the most self-fellating books I’ve ever read.

OK, time to blast away with a few examples, like the way-too-precious opening line, “Must I write?” NO. THE ANSWER IS ALWAYS AND FOREVER, NO.

This level of the book—wherein the narrator asks himself questions and answers them dishonestly—is super pretentious, and results in “writing” that is more or less Australian Lorem Ipsum:

Have I answered yet the question why had I written?

I would be willing to admit that I have not yet answered the impending question, but only if my hypothetical questioner would admit that a question can hardly be worth asking if its answer can be delivered in fewer than ten thousand words.

Murnane is the anti-Zen monk of world literature.

But even the straightforward parts of the book are uninspired. In a section that should be interesting since it’s all about orgies and Black Masses:

The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import.

Holy Jesus it should not take that many words to say that! And “a copy each of several issues”? Like, if he had written “owned several issues of Playboy” anyone would’ve assumed he had a bunch of copies of the same one?

The thing is, Barley Patch isn’t even a bad book—it’s just an incredibly boring one.

Let me kill off Australia’s last goal scoring chance with this:

Something that ought to be explained is my having begun again to write fiction only a few years after I had stopped, so I thought, for good.

Four years after I stopped writing fiction, my seventh book of fiction was published. Some of the book consisted of pieces of fiction that had been published previously in so-called literary magazines, but each of the other three pieces I had written in order to explain one or another of three matter that I could have explained by no other means than by writing a piece of fiction. One of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had become tired of reading book after book of supposedly memorable fiction and then being unable to remember, a year or more afterwards, any sentence of the text or any detail of my experience as a reader. Another of the three pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had not been misguided whenever I had struggled from time to time during the previous forty years to devise a set of racing colours in which one or another arrangement of one or another shade of blue or of green explained about me something that could have been explained by no other means than by the appearance of a set of racing colours. The third of the pieces was intended to explain to myself and to readers of good will why I had stopped writing fiction several years before (and had presumably stopped again after having written the text that explained this) and to offer to readers of good will a hint as to what sort of project I now preferred to fiction-writing. [. . .]

I find myself now in a strange situation. Nearly sixteen years ago, I stopped writing fiction. A few years later, I wrote a piece of fiction intended to explain why I had so stopped. Now, more than ten years later again, I am trying to compose a passage of fiction that might explain my explanatory piece.

Just stop. Now. Zero goals! You’ve been Ochoa-ed.

*

Given all of that, and the fact that I read Barley Patch first, expecting to have my life altered forever by the brilliance of Murnane’s images, only to be massively under-impressed, Faces in the Crowd simply had to not suck to move on to the quarterfinals.

And not only is it a trillion times more readable, enjoyable, less-pretentious, and interesting, it’s one of the best books I’ve read in 2014.

I go back to writing the novel whenever I’m not busy with the children. I know I need to generate a structure full of holes so that I can always find a place for myself on the page, inhabit it; I have to remember never to put in more than is necessary, never overlay, never furnish or adorn. Open doors, windows. Raise walls and demolish them.

That’s how you write a self-reflexive, intellectual passage without coming off as someone obsessed with proving how brilliant they are.

Faces in the Crowd is a short novel with three storylines: one of a young translator working at a publishing house in New York obsessed with the poet Gilberto Owen, one of a woman in Mexico City writing a book about ghosts and young translators, and one of Gilberto Owen in Philadelphia dreaming of New York. It’s made up of dozens of short bits that collage, creating a million diverse, beautiful bits, and one complex whole.

Also, Valeria Luiselli gets a goal—or three—for being funnier than Murnane. This is a bit of a lame example, but the “author” in Mexico City writes a lot of suspect things about her husband, who occasionally reads her manuscript and gets annoyed. Like when she pokes fun at his obsession with zombie films.

I don’t like zombie films. Why did you write that I like zombie films?

Because.

Please, cut the zombies.

Or a better example, in relation to Gilberto Owen’s way of defining people:

Owen would’ve said that he spoke with spelling mistakes.

If Barley Patch gets some love for being “new,” for exploring the lines between reality and fiction and how one transforms into the other, Faces in the Crowd gets another goal for this embedded explanation of its structure:

Not a fragmented novel. A horizontal novel, narrated vertically.

But the main point: Reading Faces in the Crowd is enjoyable and stimulating. Barley Patch deserves nothing. Unfortunately, a lot of the review outlets that seek out “innovative” literature seem to have given Murnane way more attention than Luiselli. I’ll red card that shit and redeem the Real Mexican team (and Robben’s god awful shitheel flop) by awarding a penalty kick.

Final result: 3-0 Mexico.

——

Chad W. Post makes people angry with his swearing, random insults, and dislike of fans of American soccer. Otherwise, he can usually be found reading or trying to buy rights to untranslated works of literature.

——

Did Faces in the Crowd Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


1 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Florian Duijsens. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

To pitch anyone against W. G. Sebald is a cruel exercise, even within the high-stakes tournament that is the World Cup of Literature. More so even than Bolaño, whose fame in the English-speaking world has also grown exponentially after his death, Sebald’s posthumous stature is gargantuan, and his presence in this tournament is that of a towering flâneur facing teams of tiny tots in soccer shoes and diapers.

Still, the game has begun and a winner can and must officially be declared only after this second-round match has been played. To introduce our players then: On our left, playing for the former French colony of Algeria, there’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane, translated by Alison Anderson, on our right, sauntering about the field and peering at the crypto-fascist stadium architecture is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, translated from the German by Anthea Bell.

A cursory glance at these books’ stats suggests several points in common: occasional footnotes, a playful approach to fact and fiction, an authorial narrator who was told the story by a restless third party, that third party being the bearer of two names and two identities. Yet this reader found one book almost infinitely stronger when the last pages had been turned and the final whistle blown.

Set in Paris, Marouane’s novel, her fifth, has at its center Mohamed Ben Mokhtar, a man of Algerian descent who, at the age of 40, though very successful at his only sketchily described job in finance, still lives with his mother and still is a virgin. He describes how, early on in his career, he legally had his name changed to Basile Toquard, lightening his skin and straightening his hair, all in order to ‘pass’ among the French more easily. His impulse purchase of an expensive flat at the beginning of the novel, however, forces him to renegotiate this split identity, especially once (in a very Hollywood move) he promises his devastated mother he will marry before he and his still devout brother leave on their haj to Mecca in a few months time. Though he tries to pop his cherry and find a suitable mate, his clock soon is running out as the women he courts turn out to be quite unlike the vixens his lustful gaze had suggested. The joke is on Mohamed as the plot derails amidst authorial interventions and that move most deserving of a literary red card, the ‘dream sequence’. In a silly take on Kafka’s The Judgment, these bits see the previously overprotective mother suddenly turned into a freethinking feminist artist, rendering poor Mohamed’s hard-won independence from her meaningless; who is he without his mother?

If this indeed sounds like a trippy Muslim take on The 40-Year-Old Virgin, you should know that Marouane adds a metafictional frisson by inserting both herself into the narrative (under the pseudonym of feminist Algerian author Loubna Minbar), as well as the female protagonists of her previous novels. This does not, however, get us any closer to any of the characters (or, really, the vagaries of post-colonial identity), instead often drawing us further away while the actors turn into warring stereotypes performing an increasingly bizarre allegorical romcom of letters.

Austerlitz, on the other hand, uses its central and titular character’s quest to learn more about his unknown heritage to simultaneously illuminate the way the 20th century has scarred us all. When young Dafydd Elias learns his real name is Jacques Austerlitz and later finds out that he came to Wales alone as a child on a Kindertransport from Nazi-occupied Europe, this sets him on a course that will lead him, both consciously and subconsciously, to learn more about his family and the horror that tore it apart.

As played out in hotel lobbies and train station waiting rooms, the story of both Jacques Austerlitz and Austerlitz the novel is one born from the Sebaldian belief that:

we also have appointments to keep in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished, and must go there in search of places and people who have some connection with us on the far side of time

Though endlessly and fascinatingly digressive, all the digressions Austerlitz leads the narrator on have a bearing on both his past and on the way history is still unspooling all around and underneath us. From casual mentions of the “murderous town of Bacharach” and Schumann’s descent into madness, to longer essayistic reportage on Fort Breendonk outside of Antwerp or the concentration camp at Terezín, Sebald’s book bears witness to a past that is barely buried. As James Wood points out in his foreword to the 10th anniversary edition, it is impossible for a contemporary reader to make her way through the book without time and time again misreading the protagonist’s name as Auschwitz, a cursed name pointedly not mentioned anywhere in the book. The interspersed and unattributed photography, meanwhile, at once reminds us that this fiction is rooted in fact, these pictured places at some point having existed somewhere real, and nags at us as we realize that surely the boy in costume on the cover cannot be the fictional character Austerlitz; relics of the past they may be, but photographs in no way can offer us conclusive proof (or comfort).

All this to say that on the metaphorical soccer field this tournament calls home, Marouane may have conjured up a shape shifting team of conflicted French Algerians dressed in outfits that range from the traditionally Muslim to high-priced finance casual, a glance at Sebald’s side of the field reveals it to be deserted, the grass rolled up to uncover the foundations of the fortified encampment that once stood in the stadium’s stead. Outside, in the dilapidated and dark little bakery where you can only hear muted honks of the echoing vuvuzelas, is a man telling another man the story of our lives, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves have no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on”.

In the end, then, the result is the expected one: the Algerian team defeated, the stands and goals empty, the ref’s whistles always already forgotten.

Germany’s victory: 1-0.

——

Florian Duijsens is a freelance writer/editor/translator, senior editor of Asymptote Journal, and fiction editor at Sand. He lives in Berlin.

——

Did Austerlitz Dererve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


1 July 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Stephen Sparks. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

The battle between Honduras and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a contrast in style. This is obvious as the two teams line up for pre-match ceremonies: on one side, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s understated Senselessness, with a few tasteful blurbs—from Roberto Bolaño, Russell Banks, and Francisco Goldman—adorning the back jacket; on the other side is Saša Stanišić’s gaudy How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, with its bold, ALL CAPS, multi-colored blurbs, pages and pages of extravagant praise, and a “Reading Guide,” designed no doubt to help palliate those readers concerned about the accents in the Bosnia author’s name. The packaging of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone feels compensatory, too showy. As it preens and struts, confident of its greatness, Senselessness gets right to work, scoring an early goal with its crisp opening salvo:

I am not complete in the mind, said the sentence I highlighted with the yellow marker and even copied into my personal notebook, because this wasn’t just any old sentence, much less some wisecrack, not by any means, but rather the sentence that astonished me more than any other sentence I read that first day on the job, the sentence that most dumbfounded me during my first incursion into those one thousand one hundred almost single-spaced printed pages placed on what would be my desk by my friend Erick so I could get some idea of the task that awaited me.

Honduras 1 – 0 Bosnia and Herzegovina

After these initial maneuvers, the Bosnians marshal their forces, realizing that a nifty kit alone does not a soccer team make, especially not in fevered battle against a righteously angry and caustic opponent. They launch an offensive, with a series of beautifully executed passes, backing the Hondurans into their own end. Stanišić’s use of chapter summaries (reminiscent of E.T.A. Hoffmann) is clever and worthy of appreciation. We learn, for instance, that Chapter Five will explain the following:

When something is an event, when it’s an experience, how many deaths Comrade Tito died, and how the once-famous three-point shooter gets behind the wheel of a Centrotrans bus

And that later, as the novel moves from more or less innocent childhood memories to war and genocide, we’ll understand:

What we play in the cellar, what peas taste like, why silence bares its fangs, who has the right sort of name, what a bridge will bear, why Asija cries, how Asija smiles

This seldom used tactic results in a goal by Stanišić’s side.

Honduras 1 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

This might be the most fevered, high-strung match in the World Cup of Literature, with lulls in play coming few and far between. Each side seems intent on pummeling the other into submission, and goals are scored in bunches: Castellanos Moya’s wicked humor and coiled sentences spring into action, tilting things in Honduras’ favor . . .

Honduras 2 – 1 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . and Stanišić’s effective, if occasionally too cute heartstring-tugging getting the Bosnians back into the match . . .

Honduras 2 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . then, Senselessness gets really offensive with an STD, sending the Bosnians scurrying back on defense . . .

Honduras 3 – 2 Bosnia and Herzegovina

. . . after regrouping—nothing a little penicillin can’t cure, boys!—the Soldier and his Gramophone comes back strong, striking two goals in quick succession with a one-legged former soccer player, Kiko, and twenty pages of a No Man’s Land soccer match that involves cowardice, duplicity, a 6’9” tall lethal striker nicknamed Mickey Mouse, land mines, and a miracle comeback for the ages. The Hondurans are reeling, they can’t hold up against this onslaught. With their hyperactive exuberance, the Bosnians take the lead.

Honduras 3 – 4 Bosnia and Herzegovina

What do the Hondurans have left as we near the ninetieth minute? One last charge that falls flat against the nimble-footed Bosnian, who steals the ball, streaks toward the goal and deposits an insurance goal, putting How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone up for good.

Honduras 3 – 5 Bosnia and Herzegovina

You can be sure that a people who “sing even when they’re killed” will be celebrating in style.

——

Stephen Sparks is a buyer at Green Apple Books. He lives in San Francisco and blogs at Invisible Stories.

——

Did How the Soldier Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Rhea Lyons. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

One of the first games of the second round finds Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment pitted against the Japanese juggernaut 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.

Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment is written from the perspective of Olga, a forty-something mother of two whose husband leaves her in the opening pages for a much younger woman. With the first line, the reader is hit with a palatable shock as Olga is abandoned, seemingly without reason, after fifteen years of marriage.

Score one for Italy, 15 seconds in!

Ferrante’s opening is clean and direct, easily remained as a crisp pass from a wing to a perfectly timed cut from a striker, who drives the ball confidently into the high corner. However, as the novel progresses, Olga becomes increasingly helpless in her own rage and fury. In a scene where she encounters her husband and new lover on the street, Olga attacks him, attempting to punish him but succeeding only in making matters worse for herself. Although this begins as a brilliant second scoring attempt, it’s ultimately an untimely yellow card for the Italians, and as Olga loses her grip, the Italian team loses control of the game.

And that’s when Japan takes over. Murakami immediately makes the reader wonder at the creativity of his own world, as Ayomame, his brilliant and enigmatic assassin, escapes a traffic jam and makes the windy descent from a crowded highway. Ayomame experiences a strange feeling, and her usual ability to recall important dates becomes scrambled—but so is the readers’ ability to stay ahead of her. She deftly defies our defenses—a breakaway chance that makes you hold your breath to watch the outcome.

When she emerges past the last line of defenders, she is surprised to see a police officer dressed in a different uniform than usual, carrying a more dangerous gun than usual—she’s wide open, but it’s almost as if the game is a completely different one than she started in. Still, she’s a professional. She performs her assassination, but can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is going on.

At the same time, her teammate Tengo is also attempting to rewrite the playbook—but in this case, by literally rewriting an incredible novel to dupe the literary world into believing this is worthy of a prestigious prize. With this sort of misdirection and intense plotting, it’s no problem for Japan to score the equalizer. Despite her ferocity, Ferrante’s Olga is slipping, and Murakami’s set up is pretty solid—sexy female assassin, alternate realities, literary mystery, and plenty of moral conflict for both narrators. It’s quickly 1-1.

Olga continues to slip into a pitiable state of desperation— she spends hours examining her face in the mirror, trying to divine the reason her husband left her. She has a failed sexual encounter with her downstairs neighbor. She starts to forget to pick her children up for school, becomes unable to feed them. She cannot escape the prison of her own sorrow. Poor Olga can’t do anything right—leaving the Italians flopping around the field like crazy, grabbing their barely-bruised shins. It doesn’t work— they don’t get any calls their way. The Italian team suffers a self-inflicted wound: a devastating own goal. The Italian fans go silent. The Japanese fans go wild.

Thank goodness for half time. Japan leads 2-1, and the Italian morale is undeniably low. It’s clear Olga has basically stopped trying to get herself out of her misery. Yet, all isn’t completely rosy in the Japanese camp, either. Tengo feels increasingly conflicted about re-writing Air Chrysalis, and Ayomame is struggling with with her own feelings of loneliness and regret as well. If I was coaching either team I’d probably make them to watch the scene from Miracle when Kurt Russell fires up the team during the Sweden game (“a bruise on the leg is a hell of a long way from the heart, candy ass!”) But sadly, I’m not the coach here, and also, I’m not so sure the reference would translate.

Anyway. Italy begins the second half with more of the same, as Olga is doing worse than ever. Her apartment is infested by ants. Her son is suffering from a mysterious fever, and her dog, Otto, is acting sick. She realizes that they are all locked into their apartment, as she simply can’t figure out how to turn the key in the front door. If she doesn’t get some help, and quickly, her whole life will fall apart. Despite not being the greatest team-player, she employs her daughter, Ilaria, to stab her in the leg when she notices her mother staring off into space.

Now, sometimes you need a kick in the ass to jump-start a stagnant offense, and yet no real scoring chances come from it: her son is still sick, she’s still locked in the apartment, and the dog is dying. If you’re a fan of the Italians, you probably feel like crying right now…I am a neutral judge, but I admit I shed many tears watching poor Otto’s suffering.

This would be the perfect time for Japan to take advantage and the offensive, and really put this contest away . . . but 1Q84 is just such a damn slow read. While Olga is focused and determine to solve the essential problem behind her misery, Ayomame’s and Tengo’s story lines meander through past and present, taking their time to unwind. It’s a graceful performance, but time is ticking down. Although Japan has maintained possession, they haven’t managed to execute any effective scoring opportunities.

Finally, Italy takes a chance. Olga has seen her life collapse around her, and has hit rock-bottom, and that realization is the water break she needs. She finds herself feeling strangely calm. The door opens without a problem. The dog is laid to rest, and she calls a doctor for the children. More importantly, Olga realizes she is no longer in love with her scumbag husband. Like the mighty phoenix, Italy rises from the ashes and takes possession of the ball, and quickly scores not once, but twice! Olga has overcome her abandonment and has learned what she needs to to do become a courageous, wise women.

However, Olga is exhausted, and there’s still about 500 pages of 1Q84 left to go. It’s as if the refs have added an addition 30 minutes of stoppage time—it’s almost impossibly long, and you have to think Murakami’s got enough talent on his side to at least get a tie. And they are able to come off with a few nail-biting offensive chances, but Italy’s play is just too solid in the end. Shaky in the middle, but a little more dynamic than the slow-and-steady 1Q84. Just when it starts to look dire for Italy, the buzzer sounds—time really wasn’t on Ayomame and Tengo’s side after all.

ITALY WINS 3-2.

——

Rhea Lyons is a former Open Letter intern (and University of Rochester grad) who is now a literary scout at Franklin & Siegal.

——

Did Days of Abandonment Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

On June 2nd, Luis Negrón’s Mundo Cruel (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine, pub. Seven Stories Press) was named recepient of the 2014 Lambda Literary Award for Gay General Fiction. Of great note is that this is the first time in Lambda Literary Award history (the first award ceremony was held in 1989) that a work of fiction in translation has won an award.

From the Seven Stories press release:

Nine short stories open a door into working class Santurce, Puerto Rico, where shoddy medical offices, Catholic churches, Mormon temples, and Santeria storefronts line the sunbaked streets. Here, a bumbling prostitute-turned-fugitive bewilderingly avoids capture. Back-biting mothers hand down judgment on their neighbors and the world at large from their front lawns. A desperate dog-owner will do anything to have his precious animal sent to a taxidermist. A young Chosen One with a curious gift helps his fellow parishioners find God.

Mundo Cruel, Luis Negrón’s debut book, elegantly presents to its readers a world both tragic and outrageous. Masterfully satirical with a discrete solemnity at its core, Mundo Cruel’s most remarkable element is its language. Several of its stories feature unnamed protagonists brought to life by their speech—colloquial, self-incriminating, and idiosyncratic—revealing Negron’s mesmerizing talent for conjuring the spoken word in all its subtlety.

LUIS NEGRÓN was born in the city of Guayama, Puerto Rico, in 1970. He is co-editor of Los otros cuerpos, an anthology of queer writing from Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora. The original Spanish language edition of Mundo Cruel, first published in Puerto Rico in 2010 by Editorial La Secta de Los Perros, then by Libros AC in subsequent editions, is now in its third printing. It has never before appeared in English. Negrón lives in Santurce, Puerto Rico.

SUZANNE JILL LEVINE’s acclaimed translations, which include works by Guillermo Cabrera Infante (Three Trapped Tigers) and Manuel Puig (Betrayed by Rita Hayworth), have helped introduce the world to some of the icons of contemporary Latin American literature. She is also editor of Penguin Classics’ essays and poetry of Jorge Luis Borges and the author of The Subversive Scribe: Translating Latin American Fiction. She is the winner of PEN USA’s Translation Award 2012 for her translation of Jose Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale.

For a great interview with Suzanne Jill Levine on Mundo Cruel, go here.

For information on the history of the award, go here.

For more information on the award categories, go here.

30 June 14 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This match was judged by Jeff Waxman. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the updated bracket.

It’s hard watching the first round, shoulder to shoulder with other sweating fans at wobbling tables that would sacrifice the first inch of your beer if you ever set it down. It’s hard watching your team bite it. I read The Dinner, and it might’ve even had a shot against any one of the other novels in the running. But not against By Night in Chile, one of the bookiest books in Bolaño’s sainted oeuvre. Even with officials like ours—as loathsome, venal, half-blind, and hateful as a Herman Koch antihero—Bolaño couldn’t fall. “The fix is in!” they’d shriek. And they’d be right. Didja hear about Marias? Damn.

So the better book won. And to read the play-by-play on Budapest/Dark Heart of the Night, Cameroon never really had a chance. What did Jeffrey Zuckerman say? It shocked and amazed him? I was pretty impressed, too. But as Brazil is about to learn, you can only get so far in a tournament like this one with cute jibes at the Hungarian language. And when you’re writing for this reader, you’re liable to get carded for any number of extremely subjective sins.

By Night in Chile has the air of a parable about it: an aged poet and critic (and priest) lies on his deathbed recounting a career that peaked during some of the darkest days of the Pinochet regime. You need to hear this plot again like you need a hole in the head—this is the second round after all. But I will emphasize that this isn’t, precisely, a political book or an apolitical book. It’s not a book about body count, even if there are a few bodies. It’s a book about the culture of books and the sometimes ambiguous place in which that culture exists. “And that’s the truth,” Bolaño writes.

We were bored. We read and we got bored. We intellectuals. Because you can’t read all day and night. You can’t write all day and all night. Splendid isolation has never been our style, and back then, as now, Chilean artists and writers needed to gather and talk, ideally in a pleasant setting where they could find intelligent company. Apart from the inescapable fact that many of the old crowd had left the country for reasons more personal than political, the main difficulty was the curfew. Where could the artists and intellectuals meet if everywhere was shut after ten at night, for, as everyone knows, night is the most propitious time for getting together and enjoying a little unbuttoned conversation with one’s peers. Artists and writers. Strange times.

1-0, Chile. Like you had to ask. You were there. You saw it.

As the narrative of a ghostwriter, a man who requires the special cadences of life itself to write and, sometimes, to translate, Budapest is awash with sex and metatextual jokes, with winks and nudges. Buarque is a writer’s writer and his sentences range across the pitch—the page!—passing forward and backward, almost offsides as often as they advance. Buarque writes:

The writing flowed spontaneously, at a pace that was not mine, and it was on Teresa’s calf that I write my first words in the local tongue. At first she kind of liked it and was flattered when I told her I was writing a book on her. Later she took it into her head to get jealous, to refuse me her body, saying I only wanted her to write on . . .

1-1. Buarque knows what he’s doing.

But like I said, Bolaño’s prose here is powerful and written from the backfield—in retrospect, I mean. And from that position, it surges forward, sentence running into sentence, pushing, driving, probing. Paragraphs hardly break. Dialogue is a series of colons (sometimes) without columns. Chile is getting somewhere and they’re getting there fast:

And Farewell: Have you been to Italy? And I: Yes. And Farewell: Everything falls apart, time devours everything, beginning with Chileans. And I: Yes. And Farewell: Do you know the stories of other popes? And I: All of them. And Farewell: What about Hadrian II? And I: Pope from 867 to 872, there’s an interesting story about him, when King Lothair II came to Italy, the pope asked him if he had gone back to sleeping with Waladra . . .

Chile scores again. And again.

There’s a parody of soccer you’ll all remember from The Simpsons:

Buarque writes like that, almost, a passing game with unexpected thrusts and he can shuffle his chapters in just such a way that the reader nods along, saying, “Ah, yes, I see what you did there. You’re skipping from location to location almost by chapter”:

And again, that’s the truth: when reading a good novel, the reader can marvel at the elegance of individual sentences, at the slow building of plot, at the construction of character. When reading a great novel, there are no sentences that aren’t a part of the whole, there’s no plot and there’s no character to admire—there’s a book. A great novel is not a house of cards, it’s a pleasure palace made of motherfucking gold. And while we mortals can aspire to the delicate work of writing something clever and wonderful and cunning, we cannot cause golden fucking palaces to spring into being. Not like Bolaño can. Shit, I’m supposed to be making sports metaphors. Who’s good? Buarque is a world-class writer, a Suárez chomping at the shoulders of great players. Bolaño is fucking Pelé-Beckham-Ronaldinho. He’s the Galloping Ghost, His Airness, the Big Kahuna, the Sultan of Swat, and the Great One all rolled up.

What I’m trying to say is Chile over Brazil, 3-1. Buarque’s Budapest is a book to love. I feel as though it has been written for me, but By Night in Chile was written for the ages.

To quote the last line in Bolaño’s book: “And then the storm of shit begins.”

——

Jeff Waxman recently left Chicago—and 57th Street Books—to work at Other Press. He’s a funny guy.

——

Did By Night in Chile Deserve to Make it to the Quarterfinals?

Yes
No


27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The first round of the inaugural World Cup of Literature is complete! Over the past two weeks, we’ve seen sixteen books eliminated from the competition for a variety of reasons. (Click here to read all of the pieces from the first round.)

The second round starts—and finishes—next week, so for those of you following along at home, here’s an updated bracket:

And you can download a PDF version here.

Looking ahead to next week, here are the match-ups (and judges) for Round Two:

Brazil vs. Chile 6/30 – Jeff Waxman

Japan vs. Italy 6/30 – Rhea Lyons

Honduras vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina 7/1 – Stephen Sparks

Germany vs. Algeria 7/1 – Florian Duijsens

Mexico vs. Australia 7/2 – Chad W. Post

Ivory Coast vs. Uruguay 7/2 – Elianna Kan

France vs. Argentina 7/3 – Tom Roberge

USA vs. Belgium 7/3 – Lori Feathers

And once again, here’s the updated bracket:

Which matches are you most excited about? Bunch of intriguing match-ups this round: Houellebecq vs. Aira is definitely one, but so is Buarque against Bolaño. Ferrante—who has become a Twitter favorite to win it all—is taking on 1Q84. Will upstart Australian entry Barley Patch continue its winning streak? Or will Mexican Valeria Luiselli put a stop to that? No one knows. (Actually, I do, since I’m judging that match.)

Come back on Monday for four days of second round action!

27 June 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This match was judged by James Crossley. For more info on the World Cup of Literature, read this, and download the bracket.

It’s an alliterative pair of nations facing off in the final match of the first round, as Ghana takes on Germany. On grass this is a bit of a mismatch, with the European squad ranked second in the world heading into the tournament, 35 spots higher than its African counterpart. But things may play out differently on paper.

Ghana’s entry, Search Sweet Country by Kojo Laing, takes the field in impressive fashion, wearing a resplendent gold and green kit with red trim. (Seriously, this is a beautiful book, with nary an acacia tree to be seen on the cover. That in itself has to be seen as a small victory for Africa.) Germany, represented by W.G. Sebald’s austere, monochromatic Austerlitz looks positively meek in comparison.

There’s the kick-off, and right away we see Ghana starting strong with an unexpected style of attack. Search Sweet Country is a metropolitan novel, set not in some stereotypical rural village but in the capital city of Accra. It’s the 1970s, and most of the high hopes ushered in with independence have faded as a new era of corruption and dictatorship has begun. Multiple characters, including the intriguingly named 1/2-Allotey, rattle around this novel like pachinko balls, scheming and hustling to achieve their various goals and pontificating all the while.

Laing, who writes in English, made his bones as a poet, and he’s besotted by words in his prose as well. Why use one when several will do? A semi-randomly chosen bit of dialogue:

Now look, we are talking about the reality of Ghana politics . . . whoever told you that morality and subtlety are the moving passions? Surely a professor does not need to be told the difference between what is and what ought to be. I am for life, and you are for the ivory tower, which makes you a member of the tall elephant brigade, Hahaha! And I am the grasscutter down low in the earth, with the burrowers and worms! I am the norm and you are the normative!

Search Sweet Country is showy, vibrant, and full, a novel to sink into for a good long while, and it looks set to dominate the action throughout the match. Germany, led by coach and erstwhile fifth Beatle Joachim Low, will have to play quite a game to have any hope of countering.

At first blush, Austerlitz seems far too subdued to compete, almost passionless, in fact. It quietly tells of an eponymous character, a Czechoslovakian evacuated to England on the Kindertransport and raised by foster parents, who spends his adult years researching his family’s experiences during World War II in dusty archives scattered across Europe. Where Search Sweet Country is brash, Austerlitz is sober; where Laing swaggers, Sebald is scholarly and dry. The only thing the two authors share is a taste for packing as many words as possible between their periods:

No one today, said Austerlitz, has the faintest idea of the boundless amount of theoretical writings on the building of fortifications, of the fantastic nature of the geometric, trigonometric, and logistical calculations they record, of the inflated excesses of the professional vocabulary of fortification and siegecraft, no one now understands its simplest terms, escarpe and courtine, faussebraie, réduit, and glacis, yet even from our present standpoint we can see that towards the end of the seventeenth century the star-shaped dodecagon behind trenches had finally crystallized, out of the various available systems, as the preferred ground plan: a kind of ideal typical pattern derived from the Golden Section, which indeed, as study of the intricately sketched plans of such fortified complexes as those of Coevorden, Neuf-Brisach, and Saarlouis will show, immediately strikes the layman as an emblem both of absolute power and of the ingenuity the engineers put to the service of that power.

Phew. Under this lexical onslaught, abetted by translator Anthea Bell, Ghana begins to tire slightly. And it isn’t just relentlessness they’re facing, it’s deception. Austerlitz is only superficially the story of a sedate academic—between the lines it’s an excoriating indictment against Nazism and the institutional mentality that systematized horror and produced it more efficiently than anyone ever had before. Sebald very calmly paints an unforgettable picture of Europe as half factory, half charnel house, and Germany takes control of the game by exposing the rot in its own cultural roots. Nicely played. As the clock winds down to the 90th minute, the crowd is silent, dwelling on its own mortality and awestruck by Sebald’s dominance. By masterfully marshaling facts and mixing them with fiction, he’s godfathered a hybrid form that’s going to freshen literature for decades. Just ask David Shields.

Time expires in the match (as it will for all of us someday) and chiaroscuro has overcome color completely. It’s a devastating win for Germany, and Austerlitz has established itself as the prohibitive favorite to take home the Cup of Lit. Might as well start hanging the black crepe and playing a dirge now.

Germany 5 – 1 Ghana

——

James Crossley is a bookseller at a venerable institution just outside of Seattle, Island Books. He writes regularly for the store’s blog, “Message in a Bottle,” and is also a contributing writer for Book Riot and Northwest Book Lovers. In 1976 he saw Pelé play for the New York Cosmos in a friendly against George Best and the Los Angeles Aztecs at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona. They tied nil-nil.

——

Did Austerlitz Deserve to Win?

Yes
No


Live Bait
Live Bait by Fabio Genovesi
Reviewed by Megan Berkobien

When my eyes first crossed the back cover of Fabio Genovesi’s novel Live Bait, I was caught by a blurb nestled between accolades, a few words from a reviewer for La Repubblica stating that the novel was, however magically, “[b]eyond. . .

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The Skin
The Skin by Curzio Malaparte
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Love Sonnets & Elegies
Love Sonnets & Elegies by Louise Labé
Reviewed by Brandy Harrison

With the steady rise of feminist scholarship and criticism in recent decades, it is little wonder that the work of Louise Labé should be attracting, as Richard Sieburth tells us in the Afterword to his translation, a “wide and thriving”. . .

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Conversations
Conversations by César Aira
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Nothing Ever Happens
Nothing Ever Happens by José Ovejero
Reviewed by Juan Carlos Postigo

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. . .

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The Pendragon Legend
The Pendragon Legend by Antal Szerb
Reviewed by P. T. Smith

Literature in translation often comes with a certain pedigree. In this little corner of the world, with so few books making it into this comforting nook, it is often those of the highest quality that cross through, and attention is. . .

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Mr. Gwyn
Mr. Gwyn by Alessandro Baricco
Reviewed by Paul Doyle

Alessandro Baricco’s Mr. Gwyn is a set of two loosely interlinked novellas that play with narrative and the construction of character. Ably translated by Ann Goldstein, Mr. Gwyn plays some subtle metafictional games as Baricco delves into what it means. . .

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Bombay Stories
Bombay Stories by Saadat Hasan Manto
Reviewed by Will Eells

I must admit upfront that I went into reading Saadat Hasan Manto’s Bombay Stories almost entirely blind. I have not read Salman Rushdie. I have read, perhaps, two short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri. I might shamefully add that I really. . .

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The Gray Notebook
The Gray Notebook by Joseph Pla
Reviewed by Christopher Iacono

Throughout his work The Gray Notebook, Josep Pla mentions many different authors, some of whom have inspired him to pick up a pen. One of them is Marcel Proust. Even though Pla normally prefers nonfiction, he lauds the French novelist. . .

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I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan
I am the Beggar of the World: Landays from Contemporary Afghanistan by Various
Reviewed by Grant Barber

On that September 11th I had a conversation with a professor friend who was teaching a creative writing class that evening. He questioned, “What can I possibly teach when all of this has happened?” While the dismay and grief were. . .

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