Everybody knows you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and I’m trying damn hard to resist doing just that, but the fact remains that the cover of the St. Martin’s edition of The Misfortunates by Dimitri Verhulst features a cartoon drawing of several drunk men swimming in a gigantic been stein and about to be overtaken by a huge wave of pilsner.
Against that, Kim Young-Ha’s Your Republic Is Calling You offers two creepy, razor-sharp, stylized eyes, one featuring the North Korean flag for its iris, the other the South Korean flag.
So there’s your match-up right there: Cold War thriller versus drunk louts about to be drowned by their own beer.
Ki-yong, the protagonist of Your Republic, is a North Korean spy who has infiltrated South Korea. He’s been there for 21 years, long enough to start up a perfectly dull marriage and even have a daughter. He’s kinda forgotten that North Korea even exists. Except one day he receives a transmission: liquidate everything and return home ASAP.
Ki-yong doesn’t exactly want to do that. He likes it where he is, and who knows what awaits him back north. Thus begins Kim’s story of spy intrigue and identity.
That’s a clever plot and an interesting way to get at identity. Headed into the net, 1-0.
The protagonist of The Misfortunates is a 13-year-old named Dimmy, who is surrounded on all sides by extremely drunk men. Seriously: these dudes are so drunk and so working class that avoiding cancer, cirrhosis, etc., and reaching 60 years of age is regarded as some sort of unthinkable concession to bourgeois values.
Um, what? There are some damn screwy books in this competition (Senselessness, The Map and the Territory, Day of the Oprichnik) but this book’s just as screwed-up as any you will find here. Equalized, 1-1.
And then, The Misfortunates makes a leitmotif out of pissing. Seriously. Rarely in a work of literature will you encounter urination in so many varieties, fit so snugly and inventively into so many scenes, described with such care and, dare I say—yes, I do—artistry. Lobbed (drunkenly) over the goalkeeper’s outstretched hand and into the goal. 2-1.
And then, as if this were not enough, there is a Tour de France of drinking in The Misfortunates. Yes, a drinking game based on the freaking Tour de France, complete with day-long stages and colored jerseys for the lead drinkers. 3-1.
Your Republic Is Calling You has got some things going for it—interesting characters, a good way to look at the two Koreas, some paranoid intrigue. But overall it’s just outmatched by what Verhulst is doing here. This is the difference between the second division and the first, a textbook example of one team being outclassed by the other. Game Belgium.
“Welcome on this glorious summer evening to another match in the 2014 World Cup of Literature! We’re here in beautiful Brazil, where Bosnia and Herzegovina faces off against Iran. I’m Chaz Flippo, here with the lovely Cindy Mignon on point to call the match for readers tonight.” “That’s right Chaz, we’ll be taking you through the pregame here momentarily as both countries get ready to square off with their strongest recent books: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone for Bosnia and Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel for Iran.” “The books are in the tunnel now, getting their covers’ straight, stretching those sentences and phrases and prepping for any and all narrative turns.” “Chaz, what would you say is the goal for each team in this matchup today?” “Well, to put it bluntly, Cindy: goals! Ha ha!” “Ha ha! Indeed, Chaz, and when you get one strong chapter to the back of the net it only takes another to really help conclude the whole thing.” “That’s right Cindy, the key will be control, pacing, and, if we’re lucky, a little twist thrown in for good measure.” “I’ve heard that the Iranian book has a particularly nasty little turn set up for the start of the match, with the Colonel’s wife getting executed by his own—” “Tut tut, Cindy! We don’t want to get ahead of our readers here. That would be like jumping to the Bosnian war section of How the Soldier, where Aleksandar deliberately changes the name of—” “Chaz, please! Look at us here, giving all the spoilers away.” “We’ll be more careful, dear readers! It’s a wonderful day for a match, the field glowing green under the hot jungle sun, beating down on your head like you just spent all night in the jungle talking to god!” “That’s, uhmm, that’s right, Chaz!“And here come the books now! The Colonel is hand in hand with the youth escorts.” “My are those some spritely future football players accompanying The Colonel.” “Yes yes, to be sure, but I have to admit to you, Cindy, the Iranian looks a little old for this match—just a little too wrinkled walking out there hand in hand with the children.” “There was some talk in the WCoL’s Governing Powers about the The Colonel’s age, but apparently it slipped right through. One wonders, with these things, how much of this might have to do with a briefcase or two.” “Tut tut, my girl, let’s not jump to any conclusions. Conclusions make the head pound, and, to be frank, I had quite a long night last night. You see, I had something of and adven—” “Not now, Chaz, not right during coverage.” “Oh and how marvelous! Here comes How the Soldier, walking tall and proud as ever. You know, this Bosnian book really might have what it takes to make it deep into the later rounds. It has the playfulness, the rigor, the complexity to really mix things up here tonight and come out ahead.” “If it can manage to handle The Colonel’s dense, elliptical style, well, sure, but I wouldn’t count on it. The Iranians are lucky enough to be represented by a book that was banned in their own country, so you can imagine what a feat of writing it must be.” “It’s a dark book, to be sure, but one wonders, watching it warm up before the match, if it’s perhaps a little too relentless, a little too brooding. But really, last night was the most marvelous night of all my years.” “Don’t you think it can wait?” “Tut tut, Cindy! Always business first! Oh, and would you look at that! One of the Bosnian escorts is doing pirouettes right there on the pitch! How fun!” “He’s all hands and feet, isn’t he Chaz? All hands and feet, that one. My what a lovely cultural moment this all is. That’s really the only way you can put it, a lovely cultural moment.” “Cindy, I’ve been milling around the stadiums, and I’ve seen the beaches and the beautiful people and the architecture and all that’s peachy, but last night I saw something more.” “Yes, let’s just say peachy and end it there, Chaz.” “I’ve taken to spending lots of time outside the heavily guarded, fenced off areas of the cities, and Cindy, let me tell you about a friend I made last night named Mr. Huasca.” “Chaz I don’t think that’s very appropriate for our readers.” “No no, that’s alright, everything is alright now. It was all like the dream of the breath from a god playing a flute.” “. . .” “I awoke this morning with birds all a flutter in my head, deep in the jungle, ready for the game, and ready to tell my story.” “Well we’re just a few minutes away from kicking off the next exciting match in the World Cup of Literature, and—” “And, if you’d excuse me for one moment, I can tell you what it feels like to squirm around in football’s primordial soup.” “Chaz, please, not ag—“ “No no no, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s topical. You see, I was staying over at my grandparents house, the ones that grew up right around Kent—this was, say, forty years ago, in the vision of course—and, and this is all in my head, you see, because my grandma and papa are long since dead, but here I found myself, lying on my back under their kitchen table watching all of their feet stir by, their loafers and slippers speeding past, keeping to the rhythm of the music coming from the gramophone, the kind you hear in a dream, sleigh bells and clarinets and French horns—oh yes, the French horns!—filling up the space like a vapor, my grandparent’s making laps around the—” “Chaz, I really thi—” “kitchen shuttling plates from counter to counter, and I can hear my parents in the other room drinking cocktails with my auntie and uncle, prattling on about my marks—or lack thereof ha ha!—in voices that seem almost to well up from inside my own head and pop out and around a little hale from ear to ear and then slip right back inside, breaking apart into a million pieces, these voices, and out of nowhere—and this was really out of nowhere, you see, like out of some void right there at the room’s edge—comes a giant black dog, skulking low and sniffing—” “It’s really not appro—” “at every surface, pushing his giant maw under every shoe, every chair, the table cloth, the placemats, everything, coming closer and closer, the size of a pony, smelling of meat and sweat and garbage, and he’s coming closer and closer, pushing the chairs out the way now to put his giant nose right in front of me, right over my head, and then he’s opening his mouth, he’s baring his teeth, his tongue dangling loosely over my hair like the floppy flaps in a car wash, and I hear a rumbling coming from the pit of his stomach, and then a heaving, a heavy, hollow, heaving pushing right up out of from his belly and through his chest, and my hands are bound by my sides with some invisible force—I was a worm, in fact, my hands and feet were no longer separate dangles but all one body, one worm-body, so I’m totally helpless beneath this table, this music, these people, this dog, and just as I’m sure he’s going to vomit all over my head, what comes out of his mouth, but a giant football. And I knew right then and there just what I had to—” “CHAZ! Chaz, listen to me here. Are you okay? You look faint. Would you like me to get you a doctor?” “I ate it.” “Ate what? You really should drink some water and maybe get some sleep. You look as white as a—” “The vomit football.” “. . .” “In the vision, I wiggled up like a worm and ate it.” “Chaz, this is hardly the time.” “I used my tongue to scoop it up and once it was in my throat it just dissolved—” “We’re just seconds away from the start of this round’s match—” “and I felt a great calm.” “—between the Bosnians and the Iranians for the chance to take on Honduras in the semi—” “I was like a child again.” “—finals, the chance of a lifetime to play for country—” “Like a little boy hiding.” “—people—” “Like a little coward, ha ha!” “—and literature.” “There I was, a worm under a dog beneath a table inside a dream, munching on a football!” “And the match starts, with The Colonel taking possess—“ “Let me just get down here on the ground and replay the scene. Would you kindly hold my pants?” “Chaz, no!”
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1 — Iran: 0
Hal Hlavinka recently moved from Chicago to New York to take over as the events coordinator at Powerhouse Arena. As a result, he sends out approximately 500 email announcements a day.
Artist-activist Maria is on the playing field of her current job when the sudden appearance of the daughter of her ex-best friend, Anna, sends her on a fragmented journey through her life and their friendship, never without political context:
The day PASOK wins the election, I lose my virginity. Now that’s what I call a “rendezvous with history.”
The trite humor is a bit disconcerting. Is this maybe just an intellectual romance novel after all? But the bad pass is forgotten with the description of the act that follows.
Fifteen-year-olds who want to have sex and at least try to enjoy it. Who smoke and discuss Barthes and go to demonstrations in passages that unabashedly use words like “freedom” and “revolution.” Amanda Michalopoulou scores a goal for completely believable 1970s teenagers.
Still, the political contextualization often slows down the game. No station in post-dictatorship, pre-crisis Greece is missing. Not to mention World Economic Forum protests in Geneva, oil company protests in Nigeria and, of course, Seattle, where “Kayo and I vomited side by side at the barricades.” Kayo, the good best friend taken off the bench to replace bad best friend, Anna. This is Maria and Kayo’s first meeting:
“Kayo you smell like Africa” He shoves me away. “No you don’t understand! I was born in Nigeria.” I hug him, sink my nose into his neck and breathe in the smell of Gwendolyn, grilled suya, soil after a tropical rain. Kayo’s eyes tear up—he must be pretty drunk too. Then he bends down and kisses my hand.
Now I’m perfectly willing to believe Maria thinks she’s not racist because she loves Gwendolyn, her childhood nanny. After all, she’s a weak-willed, naive, romantic idealist, although I’m not sure this is what I was supposed to take away from that paragraph. But that this reassures a twenty-something left black gay man? Suspension of belief only goes so far—this is realism after all. Penalty kick for the Ivory Coast.
But when we finally get the replay of the incident that turned Anna into an ex-friend, Michalopoulou scores again. Not so much for the event itself, and certainly not for the cave–subconsciousness metaphor that runs throughout the novel, but for the way in which it triggers Maria’s memory of the childhood trauma that led to her exile from Africa. For at least trying to acknowledge the specter of colonialism that haunts the global left. In a novel, you can kill your annoying best friend. What we will do with all the annoyance in the world no one knows.
But two goals don‘t make up for the fact that for most of Why I Killed My Best Friend, Michalopoulou is to-ing and fro-ing in midfield (‘to and fro’, according to Merriam Webster, is an adjective, noun, or adverb, but I am not obliged to use American English, so suck my dick).
That last convention is lifted from Allah Is Not Obliged. The ten-year-old narrator of Ahmadou Kourouma’s novel, Birahima, “the fearless, blameless street kid, the child soldier,” also uses a lot of dictionaries to tell the story of his time as a child-soldier in Liberia.
I need to be able to explain stuff because I want all sorts of different people to read my bullshit: colonial toubabs, Black Nigger African Natives and anyone that can understand French.
So you never get further than a couple of paragraphs without the intrusion of a definition. These interruptions are often infuriating, there’s no possibility of escaping into characters or narrative, but suddenly the Ivory Coast is scoring goals left and right. After all, child soldiers are always on drugs, maybe this is just the running commentary of a hash high. Or the dissociation necessary to retain sanity, a paean to the resilience of so many former child soldiers. Either way, it’s an absolutely brilliant idea that allows for one the most clear-headed explorations of atrocity I’ve ever read. And certainly one of the funniest.
A country is a fucked-up mess when you get warlords dividing it up between them like in Liberia, but when you’ve got political parties and democrats on top of the warlords it’s a big-time fucked-up mess.
Ivory Coast 4–Greece 2
Laura Radosh feels like she’s violated a FIFA rule for not letting an Open Letter book win. She’s also a translator living in Berlin who would have called a tie if she’d been judging the brilliant translations.
Paul Doyle is a writer, teacher, and web developer based in Seattle. In addition to writing reviews for Three Percent, he also writes about literature and film—especially Spanish and Arabic language literature—on his site, By the Firelight.
Here’s the beginning of Paul’s review:
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 not just to write, but to create representations of ourselves. Is narrative a story, or a portrait, or both? It is a question Baricco delightfully plays with, with intriguing results that can be quite sensual.
In the title novella, a writer, Jasper Gwyn, after publishing only three novels publicly announces in the Guardian that he is never going to write another book. The reason? It “no longer suited him.” His publisher and friend try to no avail to have him change his mind. Gwyn is unwilling to go back on what he’s said and refuses to write another book. However, he is restless after his decision and feels the pull of writing. His solution is to become a copyist, a man who makes portraits. Gwyn determines he needs 30 days of observing his subject for four hours every day in the nude. His first subject is his publisher’s assistant, an overweight woman who is somewhat self-conscious. It is an encounter that starts awkwardly as each learns what it means to be the observer and the observed. Slowly, the assistant finds the experience liberating and at times erotic as she lies there with her body exposed to Gwyn, often ignoring him.
When the 30 days ends he creates a four-page portrait of the assistant, which she loves and believes describes her exactly. True to Gwyn’s goal to create portraits, the strictly business-like relationship that develops between them over the 30 days ends as quickly as it started. Gwyn continues to create these kinds of portraits with another eight people, but the intense description of the artist and his model are never revisited. Instead, as if none of the relationships could be as interesting a second time around, Baricco contents himself with short and ultimately superficial blurbs about his subjects. The closeness one felt to the subject will never return. That is, until Gwyn is tempted by his last model, and their relationship undoes the whole project. The reader should be warned: Baricco never reveals what Gwyn has written and the mystery is one of many open-ended elements of the book.
For the rest of the piece, go here .Tweet
The record for the fastest goal ever scored in a World Cup match belongs to Hakan Sukur of Turkey. Eleven seconds into the 2002 match against South Korea, Sukur capitalized on a mistake in the backfield and with a left-footed shove put the ball in the back of the net. The South Koreans were stunned and so was Sakur, who could think of no better celebration than to sit his ass down in the middle of the field.
That was the fastest World Cup goal, until now.
In this contemporary literary skirmish, Chile scored so quickly anyone observing or playing in the game didn’t have time to question what happened. As if by magic—before the whistle even blew—Chile was awarded a 1-0 lead. Nobody questioned this advantageous start, not the coaches (authors), not the referee (me), and not even the fans (readers). It just was, a fact however strange, accepted just as Clara del Valle Trueba’s family readily accepts her telekinetic and clairvoyant powers in Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits.
Not even the Dutch players (the narrative) questioned Chile’s pre-game’s goal. Here’s Herman Koch’s striker (the narrator) caught on tape during the warm-up (page 7, that is):
No matter what you do, you’re not free. You shave, but you’re not free. Shaving is a statement as well. Apparently you found this evening significant enough to go to the trouble of shaving, you see the others thinking—in fact, shaving already puts you behind 1-0.
But it was neither magical intervention nor Dutch defeatism that gave Bolaño the edge. Those in the stands with sharp eyes might have seen near the scoreboard a dark figure operating on behalf of the mafia group known as the Literati. Television cameras panned the crowd looking for baying fans and paused on the visages of Jonathan Lethem, Susan Sontag, Colm Tóibín, and James Wood, all of whose blurbs appear on the cover of By Night in Chile.1
So there it is. Ninety minutes on the clock, By Night in Chile with its foot firmly on the ball ready to kick off, starts with a one-goal advantage.
So who is this superstar team? By Night in Chile, the first of Roberto Bolaño’s stories to be published in English, is the deathbed confession of poet, priest, and literary critic Father Urrutia. Propped up on one elbow, Urrutia recalls the life of a respected, but not central, figure of Chilean intellectual life, a priest and man of letters who did little to stand up to the despotism of Augusto Pinochet. The audience—the priest to this priest—is treated to an ambling narrative that includes a journey across European to visit priests engaged in falconry, a stint teaching Marxism to Pinochet and his lieutenants, and a warm friendship with a critic with the literary name of Farewell. (There is very little discussion of Urrutia’s priestly duties in the Opus Dei sect.) Neruda makes an appearance here and there; the first time he appears Urrutia finds the poet-god staring at the moon, “murmuring words I could not understand, but whose essential nature spoke to me deeply from the very first moment.” Several other literary figures are mentioned, but the theme remains firmly fixed on Urrutia’s atonement before he slips into the darkest of nights.
On the other side of the pitch is Koch’s sixth novel, The Dinner, which also takes place over a single evening, told from the perspective of one of the husbands, Paul Lohman. Two married couples meet at a one-percenter’s kind of restaurant in what appears to be a routine, privileged performance of dining, conversation, witticism, and maybe the exchange of an actual good idea, before wiping dessert from the corners of their mouths, paying an exorbitant check, and heading back to the safety of a home in a well-to-do neighborhood. Appearances are deceiving, though, for we soon discover something more sinister is afoot, that there is a very troubling matter to be discussed. A deadly matter, in fact. Turns out—spoiler alert—that the sons of the married couples are involved in a murder in which the whole country, having seen the grainy footage caught by a security camera, is lamenting the downfall of social democratic society and the wasted lives of the youth. Of interest to the diners is not the chef’s special, but rather how to handle the situation. One of the fathers, it turns out, is a soon-to-be elected prime minister.
FOUL! Why the hell would you discuss such grave matters in such a very public place? This ref issues the World Cup of Literature’s second yellow card. Koch’s striker is booked for negligence.
Action resumes . . .
By Night in Chile is lean, with no fat, like a well-hewed body of a professional soccer player. Chile plays consistently from page one to the closing line. As expectant spectators we become increasingly convinced victory is in reach, though often just out of reach. Next drive. Next shot! Bolaño’s prose methodically drives forward, building an offense from the back, searching for the opponent’s weak points, and willing to take the time do so. Chile entices with dazzling tales of forgotten popes of yesteryear, priests with falcons, and a dictator’s studious mien. These short plays accomplished with solid teamwork promise a big payoff. And is there any better literary sendoff than “And then the storm of shit begins”? This book wants it.
Contrast Chile’s steady pace with that of The Dinner’s, whose ball play looks more like pinball than futbol. The Dutch team passes the ball around, one side to the other, lots of crosses and middle-field possession and even the groan-inducing pass-backs to the goalie. This makes for lengthy possession but limited progress. Occasionally the midfielders and fullbacks boot the ball into the penalty area, but with little aim. It’s as if the strategy is to get a goal by force (at best) or by a lucky deflection (at least!). Back stories, flashbacks, and tangents seem to exist to kill time rather than further the plot. By page 50 I just wanted Koch to get on it with it already.
Moreover, despite the fact Koch is fielding at least four star players with another couple potential stand-outs on the pitch, there is very little character development. The narrator receives the most attention, but it is of the self-flattering kind. There’s no teamwork here and the play looks a little sloppy.
Hail to the translators! Both By Night in Chile and The Dinner are ably translated by Chris Andrews and Sam Garrett, respectively. Chile’s pacing is a steady march to a politically damning climax, and its Andrews who keeps us on track. Garrett, too, maintains a consistency of voice, ensuring that the matter-of-fact prose mirrors the matter-of-fact thought process of the troubled narrator.
In the second half of the game it’s as if neither team left the field for a break. The strategies remain consistent into the backend of each narrative, though the Dutch team plays with more aggression. The narrator—Lohman—reveals a darker, violent past, which always seem to somehow involve his son. A visit to suspected child molester in which “the curtains, I noted, were already drawn.” The threatening of a store clerk with a bicycle pump. The bloodying of one of his son’s teachers:
Then I punched him squarely in the nose. Right away there was blood, lots of blood: it sprayed from his nostrils and spattered across his shirt and the desktop, and then on the fingers with which he pawed at his nose.
Lohman’s violent tendencies are made apparent with these flashbacks, served in bite-sized portions over the course of The Dinner. This is the only character development the audience will see, and it’s thin gruel.
It is Chile who scores in the 79th minute and it is a beautiful goal. Upper ninety, one of those near-impossible shots. Though the Dutch goalie can see the shot from where it’s launched 25 yards out, he doesn’t even bother to jump. We’ve all seen this shot coming; it was just a matter of time before it was revealed.
Here Urrutia is visited by men who very easily convince the intellectual to teach Marxism to Pinochet, so he can better know his enemies.
What do you understand? asked Mr. Raef, with a frank and friendly smile. That you require me to be absolutely discreet, I said. More than that, said Mr. Raef, much more, we require ultra-absolute discretion, extraordinarily absolute discretion and secrecy. I was itching to correct him but restrained myself, because I wanted to know what they were proposing. Do you know anything about Marxism? asked Mr. Etah, after wiping his lips with a napkin.
. . . Who are my pupils? I asked. General Pinochet, said Mr. Etah. My breath caught in my throat. And the others? General Leigh, Admiral Merino and General Mendoza, of course, who else? said Mr. Raef, lowering his voice. I’ll have to prepare myself, I said, this is not something to be taken lightly.
No, not lightly at all, but still taken. Bolaño’s coaching strategy shines.
In the end, the play by The Dinner is inconsistent and lacks finesse. Not even a flying Dutchman — that is, an attempt at a clever closing — can give Netherlands a consolation goal. Koch’s closing is too quick, too clean, too simple. The most important loose end is handled so far off the field it’s in the locker room, and this leaves a bad taste in the mouths of the spectators. Sure the ball pops over the Chilean goalie’s head in the final minute of play, but it’s a half-hearted trick shot that glances off the post and bounces out of bounds.
From the 79th minute on, Chile is relentless against its opponent. The strategy toward which they have been playing all along is coming to a head, for By Night in Chile is a fierce, blistering argument against Chile’s intellectuals who were meek in the face of the atrocities committed by Pinochet’s regime. Coach Bolaño sends a very clear message not just to the other team, but to all of his compatriots who refuse to play with such courage: shame on you.
In Chile, Maria Canales, married to an American (Jimmy), hosts soirees for Chile’s intellectual and cultural elite. In her home is hidden a dark secret, to which every guest has stumbled on at least once and said nothing. They return, instead, to the party again and again, feigning ignorance, remaining mute.
. . . he opened doors and even started whistling, and finally he came to the very last room at the end of the basement’s narrowest corridor, lit by a single, feeble light bulb, and he opened the door and saw the main tied to the metal bed, blindfolded, and he knew the man was alive because he could hear him breathing, although he wasn’t in good shape, for in spite of the dim light he saw the wounds, the raw patches, like eczema, but it wasn’t eczema, the battered parts of his anatomy, the swollen parts, as if more than one bone had been broken, but he was breathing, he certainly didn’t look like he was about to die, and then the theorist of avant-garde theater shut the door delicately, without making a noise, and started to make his way back to the sitting room, carefully switching off as he went each of the lights he had previously switched on. And months later, or maybe years later, another regular guest at those gatherings told me the same story. And then I heard it from another and another and another. And then democracy returned, the moment came for national reconciliation . . .
Here is the final and damning goal.
1 The Dinner’s best blurb comes from The Wall Street Journal: “A European Gone Girl . . . A sly psychological thriller.” If that’s true, then I have no desire to read Gone Girl.
France and Ecuador take to the pitch in what appears to be a serious mismatch. France, represented by Prix Goncourt winner Michel Houellebecq, teamed up with translator Gavin Bowd, puts forth The Map and the Territory. Its first moves on the field show the level it wants to play at: Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst have posed for a painting, and the protagonist, another artist, this time fictional, is struggling to finish it. Houellebecq’s strategy is clear. He’s going to portray the contemporary world, the high-brow of commercialism, and while his flair and spite is French, he’s speaking to the English, to Americans, to the Western world.
Against the strength of the French side is them oldest contender in the tournament. Pushed into service without another able to take its place representing Ecuador, Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin, aided by Amalia Gladhart’s translation, arrives to the tournament as an outsider. Set in the 60s and often reaching further into the past, living wholly in one small Ecuadorian village, The Potbellied Virgin can’t compete with The Map and the Territory on the same terms, to have any chance of moving on, it must embrace its own style, letting the French be as adventurous in the attack as Houellebecq wants, hoping to keep him from scoring, looking for its own opportunities to counterattack.
Houellebecq is indeed looking to be on the offensive, to strike often and quickly, against art, for art, against commercialism, for commercialism, against himself, and, through Jed, for himself. Yet, at this point he is a veteran, suave and poised on the ball, no overly-ambitious balls or reckless challenges. He understands when to be showy, creative, and why. The passes, towards the goal, away, towards again, are intricate. Of the attitude of French hotels Jed imagines:
a rich young urban couple without children, aesthetically very decorative, still in the first phase of their love affair—and for this reason quick to marvel at everything, in the hope of building up a store of beautiful memories that would come in handy when they reached the difficult year, perhaps enabling them to overcome a crisis in their relationship. They represented, for any professional in the hotel-restaurant trade, the archetype of ideal clients.
Houellebecq is probing the defense, pointing out the weak spots, the ways that we as humans give in to, thrive on, love commercial materialism, but then he’s letting us have it, writing of an artist dedicated to it, and the people caught up in it.
Against the hipness, the humor, the way the reader is rewarded while putting forth little of his own effort, Ecuador plays a complicated, defensive, possession game. Potbellied Virgin is a denser affair, inward-turning. It is slower than Map and the Territory, patient and asking the reader to pay more attention while not being as easily thrilled. In a unnamed Ecuadorian village two families rival for power, or more accurately, one family dominates while the other passes the time sitting on a bench, smoking cigarettes and remembering when they had land and power. Yánez Cossío sets opposites against each other, but they do not get split in the obvious ways. The matriarchy controls the town through religion, through their devotion to the town’s miracle idol, that Potbellied Virgin. The Benavides are conservative, but younger, newer to the town, and rich, rewarded by capitalism, and notably lighter-skinned, blonde, closer to those rewarded by imperialism. The other family, the Pandos, is the patriarchy, devoid of influence, tied to communism, irreligious, and though not native Indians, aligned with them rather than the American influence from the north.
The Potbellied Virgin may not be as bunkered down as Greece is in the Real World Cup, but it is content to keep the ball without moving forward. It wants to set up this self-contained world, tell the history of the town, of the political turmoil of the whole country, of the miracle of the flatbellied virgin becoming the Potbellied Virgin. Its defensiveness is not thuggish tackles or packing five men in the box, but of little passes amongst teammates, and beautiful ones at times. The relationships in the village matter for everything. The sons and daughters who switch their allegiance from one family to another are the forces that are quieted throughout much of the story, but build into the best chances at goal. Holding onto the ball, playing beautiful passes in the dusty streets of the village may not move forward, but is still nice to watch, and becomes an expression of a life outside of the world of Houellebecq’s grasping:
The acid deposits in her overworked veins ache, ache with the pain that will last until her death without respite or remedy, because she will always be standing among the large boulders of the river washing her clothes, the clothes of Magdalena Benavides who passes her time galloping from the hacienda into town, and who dents her so much clothing that isn’t even dirty, for the pleasure of making her work and harassing her with the hard soap of bad fortune.
In control of the match, Houellebecq tells of Jed Martin’s career as an artist, and his life as a man. He has a distant connection with his father, brought close by their shared isolation and their acceptance of that isolation, and though he has great loves in his life, Houellebecq never gives us hope that they will break Martin from his isolation. Besides, if those loves did take him from solitary life, we cannot imagine room for his art. Jed is a Zidane, a Pirlo, playing his own game in the middle of the pitch, independent, grumpy, yet making connections no one else is able to see until after the fact. By creating a visual artist, with works that if brought to life could be as interesting and successful in real life as they are in the book, Houellebecq threatens to score early but Ecuador manages to hold on. Until just before half-time that is, when the pleasure of The Map and the Territory, through pure enjoyment of the game, playing while having fun, puts through a lovely ball (Houellebecq’s portrayal of himself, beaten, a wrecked man, but through Jed’s eyes, somewhat magnificent), cleanly finished, and takes a lead into the locker room.
Drawn out, The Potbellied Virgin needs to press forward to tie. It is a task Yánez Cossío is up to. To solve a country-wide drought, the Benavides are willing to send out the Potbellied Virgin to travel the country, followed by rain. When the army becomes involved, the Pando convince the town that the Virgin is being sold, greedy religious-capitalism from the Benavides, and the town rises up, fighting off the army with whatever is at hand, mainly the mattresses they were sleeping on in the church while protecting the Virgin:
But what gives the greatest results in the uneven and ferocious combat are the mattresses. With the bare mattress blows they charge the sacrilegious troops calling them thieves, faggots, and all the son-of-a-bitches they can muster. A cloud of dust obscures the sun and the sheep’s wool of all the disemboweled mattresses covers the streets and plaza.
With humor and violence, all the while staying reserved, sticking to the slow style that kept the match equal for so long, The Potbellied Virgin ties the match at one.
But right after, The Map and the Territory presses again. The relationship between Jed and Houellebecq deepens, and so the relationship between Houellebecq and Houellebecq becomes more compelling, an old love briefly returns, human connection again and again seems briefly possible before falling off. The Potbellied Virgin is playing with confidence, happy to have made things level eager for another one. Yet, Ecuador is overexposed, the conflict between Pandos and Benavides heats up, without either side gaining anything.
With the massive success of Jed’s art career, a project of portraits culminating in one of Houellebecq, he almost finds happiness. He is rich, he has a chance with his greatest love. There’s a happy ending in sight, and even if we bemoan sappy, unearned happy endings, don’t we still want one sometimes? Destroying one so perfectly set up, what’s the reward in that? Houellebecq finds it. It is lost not because of cynicism, not because of the dark brooding that feeds every summer blockbuster now, but because for Jed, it is overwhelming, happiness is impossible to embrace, it is too fleeting, and must be caught in the perfect moment, or it’s lost, and that moment can be, will be, terrifying. Jed does not turn to angst or depression, but a sort of paralysis, and when this is so compassionately understood, articulated, given compassion, The Map and the Territory goes up 2-1.
Ecuador is more desperate now. The Benavides begin to lose their control of the village, their daughters not living up to their roles as living icons. Power and wealth become more important than their faith. The Virgin, belief in her miracle, becomes fully a tool of control, no longer true devotion. Their matriarch, Doña Carmen blackmails and bribes rivals into aligning with her. The three daughters of a former communist are rewarded with riches, if they act out the role of virginal caretakers for the Potbellied Virgin. Purity no longer matters, just the obedience that faith in it once created. When Doña Carmen begins to paint threats on her own walls in order to foment dissent between her rivals, any sense of herself is lost. These risks, this destruction of the village, looks like it is going to pay off. Crosses bang in, but are too high, or headers go wide.
In the midst of this, The Map and the Territory makes a substitution. Satire, humor, art, commercialism, are left in, but pure literary fiction is taken off, and sent on in its place is top-flight genre fiction. French police vomit at a horrific crime scene, aging detectives work with their young replacements to solve a high-profile murder, and our former protagonist becomes part of the investigation. The switch does wonders. Losing no pace, no fluidity, but gaining width and pace where exhaustion had it lagging, France scores again almost immediately after the substitution, to take what seems like an impossible to overcome 3-1 lead.
From then, Ecuador fights back fiercely. Finally giving in to rough challenges, unafraid of hitting again and again to take control of the ball, The Potbellied Virgin never stops threatening France’s goal. Knowing that violence has suited Houellebecq well, Yánez Cossío tries her hand at it, with the accidental death of a child in the conflict that Doña Carmen created, in the awful and haunting retribution for that accident, where our hearts break as the offender lays dying, accepting that death. Past that, though, she offers that thing Houellebecq denies us: successful love. The lovers need to exile themselves, but there is hope for a return one day, for: “the man of flesh and blood, of weakness and lunacy that he was until a short time ago, becomes the mystic the town needs to move ahead through so many troubles, for it seems even the image of the Virgin was wearing out . . .” With that, with relentless fierceness and hope, Ecuador scores in the 87th minute, bringing it to 3-2 and giving hope.
It was not to be. France holds on to the victory we expected them to take, too wily, too thrilling, rewarding us with ease, but Ecuador was inspired, and created a memorable match, one you recount any time you’re at a bar, one too many in, telling tales of sports and literature. It’s the type of performance that truly makes you hope that Alicia Yánez Cossío has the chance to compete in translation again.
P.T. Smith is a writer and critic living in Vermont. He has written for Three Percent, BOMB, Quarterly Conversation, and most recently Bookslut.
On this week’s podcast, Chad and Tom review the opening round of the World Cup of Literature and make some predictions, talk about the Amazon-Hachette kerfuffle, and discuss the awfulness of The American Outlaws and the awesomeness of a couple Wikipedia pages. (You have to listen to find out which ones.)
Because it seems fitting, this week’s music is I Wanna Love You off of Jessica Lea Mayfield’s latest album.
And don’t forget that we have a dedicated podcast email address now. So, send your podcast-related rants, raves, and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now that the first week-plus of “World Cup of Literature” matches have been “played,” it’s a perfect time to provide everyone following along with an updated bracket.
And you cand download a printable PDF version here.
As you can see, nine matches have been decided so far (click the link above to see all of the various write ups), and results from the remaining seven first-round matches will appear next week. (Few really intriguing ones coming up . . . )
Just as intriguingly, a couple of second-round clashes are already set: First off, we have Japan and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 going up against Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which may well be one of the favorites of the tournament going forward. And on the other side of the bracket—in a match I’ll be judging, so get your bribes in now—Mexico’s Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli is facing off against Australia’s Barley Patch by Gerald Murnane. INTRIGUING.
We’ll be off for a couple days watching Real World Cup matches (Go Belgium!), but will be back Monday morning.Tweet
The result came to me as a shock, more of a shock to me even than to you: the US pulled out a 3-2 stunner of a victory over Portugal in the 2014 World Cup of Literature: David Foster Wallace’s final, posthumous novel The Pale King defeated the concise, nearly-perfect Jerusalem by Gonçalo M. Tavares.
Victory came for the Americans in stoppage time of a tightly contested literary deathmatch—there could be no tie, there could be but one champion in this contest—and the scrappy upstart Americans delivered a deathblow in the final seconds over beautiful, sweet Portugal, nation of literary greats like Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, Lobo Antunes, Pessoa, Ronaldo . . . oh wait, I’m getting literature and soccer mixed up, and letting my obsession show. But that’s what this is all about. Soccer is fun and beautiful and capable of transcendent, much like literature, and sometimes a team like America, a nation that is both overrated and underrated at the same time as much in literature as in soccer, can beat a small but extremely talented punch-above-its-weight literary and soccer powerhouse like Portugal. On any given day, anything can happen, and it did.
The match started off basically at 1-0. I thought of myself as a referee (or, rather, more like what a referee should be), I tried to distance myself from the action in the books, to give an impartial rendering to my judgment. But I can’t lie, I came in pulling for Portugal. After all, I am a translation publisher; I prefer translated literature to American literature. And I had already read Tavares’ brilliant, perfect Jerusalem (arguably his masterpiece) and had never read the massively-hyped, no-way-he-could-ever-live-up-to-the-weight-of-expectation David Foster Wallace, except an essay on lobsters or something (the ridiculous hype this man conjures among people was almost reason enough to start the American squad down a man since I can’t give negative points)—who in so many ways represents what I don’t like about American literature—that, combined with the fact that I honestly thought that since The Pale King is most certainly not his masterpiece that it would be a close game that Portugal would eventually pull away and win in a resounding victory . . . I was wrong.
Without writing actual reviews of these books, because there are plenty of reviews out there, including a tremendous review of The Pale King by Garth Risk Hallberg in New York Magazine and a wonderful profile of Tavares in The New Yorker, neither of these writers are lacking in critical attention, so I will spare you any attempt to write a review and instead get into why DFW/USA beat Tavares/Portugal . . .
These two books are both phenomenal, and packed punches that landed squarely in my gut and my brain at the same time, different in their execution but similar in their ambition, and I recommend everybody to read both (and actually, try to read them both at the same time, like I did, re-reading Jerusalem as I made my way through The Pale King—you start to notice similarities and connections that make each book that much more impactful, which then got me wondering if I should always read two books at once because then all sorts of links are going to open up between the two texts). They both deal with the big questions of existence and of making connections in a modern world that is set up in so may ways to destroy us, break us down, make us inhuman or, worse, tragically normal. The tedium, the crushing boredom, the weight of expectations, the essence of tragedy, the root of human cruelty, it’s all on display in both books. Chalk up another point to each team for getting at the meaning of it all. I appreciate that about literature. It’s tied 1-1 at the half . . .
It has to be said that this is the match of the 2014 World Cup of Literature, and it came in the first round. It felt like a championship. This is like how the Spain-Netherlands championship rematch in the first round should have been played. And in the end, Tavares vs. DFW felt like the Argentina-Bosnia game in the first round: both teams should have won, and when Bosnia finally lost, it was a beautiful loss. They had arrived, they had played, and they could hold their heads high in defeat, knowing they had the skills and talent to take down the mightiest of teams—it’s like that for Jerusalem. If the World Cup of Literature were like the soccer version and there were three matches in the first round, there are only one or two other countries in this literary battle who could take on Tavares and hope to win.
My horror-graph could then lead us to discover something even more basic to the problem of human atrocity: the underlying formula. I mean a numerical, objective, specifically human formula—removed from our animal natures, aside from sentiment and instinct, changes of heart, fluctuations of mood—a purely mathematical, purely quantitative, I would even say detached formula, implied by my results. But: not merely a formula serving as a concise summary of the effects of past horrors; no, my intention is to arrive at another, greater equation; a formula that will allow us to predict the horrors to come, that allows us to act and not just ponder or lament. I intend to develop a formula laying bare the cause of all the evil men do for no good reason—not even out of fear—the evil that seems almost inhuman, precisely because it’s inexplicable. I believe that this is not only possible, but practical. (Jerusalem)
In fact, he started to think that thinking of the speech’s line so much just made him all the more afraid of the fear itself. That what he really had to fear was fear of the fear, like an endless funhouse hall of mirrors of fear, all of which were ridiculous and weird. (The Pale King)
Fear. Horror. Tragedy. Not just the tragedy of war but of everyday atrocities.
And if you put Tavares’ entire oeuvre up against DFW’s oeuvre, who knows how it might tilt, considering that Jerusalem is but one book in a four-part series called The Kingdom (all four books have now been published by Dalkey Archive), and the brilliance of those four books could go up against Infinite Jest in as fair a fight as either side could ever hope to experience . . .
I will now admit freely that I was wrong about Foster Wallace in nearly every way, though at times I could get annoyed with the overwriting and the meticulously unnecessary details (that led to Portugal taking a 2-1 lead right after halftime), but when one steps outside of the novel, the minutiae of the inner workings of the IRS in a period of upheaval within the department as told through a vantage point in 1980s Peoria, Illinois (not far from where Dalkey Archive, the publisher of Tavares’s Jerusalem, is based). The Pale King is a spectacular novel that combines experimental technique with moments of breathtaking clarity and ridiculous sublime beauty in diagnosing the ills of our 21st-century American condition and trying to ways to persevere through the muck of existence.
I learned that the world of men as it exists today is a bureaucracy. This is an obvious truth, of course, though it is also one the ignorance of which causes great suffering . . .
The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom. To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air.
The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. I met, in the years 1984 and ’85, two such men.
It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish. (The Pale King)
The truly healthy man necessarily spends most of his life trying, like a child, to find what he feels he’s missing . . . because he lives with a feeling of constant loss, and this sensation is easily mistaken for the feeling of having been robbed, the feeling that someone has stolen something very important from you, a part of your own self—a part that, for the sake of argument, we’ll agree to call “spiritual.” (Jerusalem)
This quote in The Pale King sums up some of the main points of the whole book, and it alone is worth a point, because it’s a very lengthy digression that leads to the same point DFW made very succinctly in his much-lauded 2005 Kenyon College commencement address (published as the oh-so adorable little book This is Water). I like that DFW meanders his way around the point of boredom and finding meaning in things, it leads to The Pale King becoming exactly the type of book I’ve come to expect I have to look overseas to find, so grand in ambition, so sloppy in its telling. Those are my favorite kinds of books. Works of art should be rough around the edges, their perfection comes not from fitting in to any definition of perfection that ever existed before they were born, but rather from the combination of their transcendent and earthly qualities. DFW ties the score at 2 . . . the clock is ticking down.
Much was made before the competition began of the fact that The Pale King is an incomplete novel. Some people told me that the novel was like the 2014 version of the US Men’s National Team: big, fast, and incomplete. Another friend (a judge in this competition!) stressed to me that it is not an incomplete novel, that what DFW left behind was a fully-formulated novel of sketches set out on his desk in a particular way so that when his editor got a hold of the papers after DFW took his own life (right after completing The Pale King) the book would be sitting there, waiting. What has been published is certainly not the 3,000 pages of novellas, sketches, vignettes, ideas, and chaos, but rather a tidy 550+ page avant-garde novel that mixes high and low literature with tedious but necessary IRS lingo, jargon, and facts. And after finishing the novel, I tend to lean with the fact that this is indeed a finished novel. As finished as any novel ever is. Because I come from the school of readers who considers the author’s text to be sacred, it comes from years of schooling in Russian literature and Russian literary theory (or, more simply, from reading Master & Margarita ten times: “Manuscripts don’t burn.” The text is sacred). I consider DFW to be an auteur, a master, an artist (even having never read him before, but definitely now, having finally read him, now with the burning desire to read his every word as if I were a 90s slacker at some Yankee private liberal arts college), and so I believe The Pale King should have been published in its full 3,000 page mess. But DFW’s editor at Little Brown, Michael Pietsch (he now of Hachette-running, Amazon-fighting fame), does not come from the same school of literary theory as me, and so he molded these messy 3,000 pages into a tidy 550+ page piece of strange, hypnotic brilliance.
Jerusalem by Tavares is as close to perfect as novels of ideas get. The characters are there, fully-realized, terrifying and sympathetic and alive, the ideas are in their words and their actions and the spaces surrounding their bodies, and the author’s form is architectural in its tightly-controlled structure, a form that allows the complexity of madness and tragedy in its characters to be realized. This is the point where the match could have gone either way—tied 2-all, a minute or two of stoppage time, desperation heaves on both ends, Tavares throwing his creative weight behind a complex structure that weaves his story in and out of time—and The Pale King too possesses all of those things except in its form, because the form is not the author’s but the editor’s. In American letters, the editor controls the form far more than readers ever realize. The same readers who give translators such a hard time for taking ideas and translating them for English-language readers take into account the interpretive role that editors play at our publishing houses, ruling over translators and authors alike. As I read The Pale King, I felt like I was reading Michael Pietsch as much as DFW, in a way that contrasts how I felt about reading Jerusalem, which I read as the fully-realized novel of one Gonçalo M. Tavares, overlooking the brilliant work of the translator Anna Kushner even as I knew I was reading her version of Tavares’s words, forms, ideas, etceteras. And I love Michael Pietsch for piecing this together (while simultaneously wanting a Nabokovian full-on release of all the notes in all their messy glory).
Is the editor a sort of monolingual translator? The editor translates the words, ideas, and form of an author into the cultural expectations of the reader of that culture, while translators work to translate the words and ideas and form of the foreign language into the cultural expectations of the receiving reader. I’m getting into translation theory. You’re falling asleep. One could go on for days. But should I leave you with any one idea I’m trying to impart here: read The Pale King and consider at once both the role of the editor in the text you’re reading and the ways that you choose to transcend above the everyday boredom that crushes our souls.
It was true: The entire ball game, in terms of both the exam and life, was what you gave attention to vs. what you willed yourself to not.
. . . light traffic crawling with a futile pointless pathos you could never sense on the ground. What if it felt as slow to actually drive as it looked from this perspective? It would be like trying to run under water. The whole ball game was perspective, filtering, the choice of perception’s objects. (The Pale King)
I love both of these books because they concern themselves with “the whole ball game.” Read Jerusalem at the same time and marvel in Tavares’s world, a world so much like ours, but slightly off . . . just like the world will be slightly off on June 22 when the US and Portugal face off in soccer. It’s not impossible for the US to win, in fact they have more than a fighter’s chance but the world may need to rotate slightly off its normal axis to fight off the sheer perfection that is Ronaldo . . . oh damn, there I go again, off on my Ronaldo tangent, when in reality I should know that the US will win because Clint Dempsey, because . . . Texas.
And in the last seconds, the crowd at fever pitch, this judge in a sweat, knowing legions of fans will be let down one way or the other, as my mind swirled, DFW pulled off a stunning goal to win the match 3-2. It could have gone either way, but today, today the ball game went to the USA.
Will Evans is the publisher of Deep Vellum, a new pressed based in Dallas, Texas dedicated to literature in translation.
Mexico vs. Croatia
A few years back, during a drunken Christmas party at a Danish newspaper, I asked a colleague how she developed her opinions as a movie critic. She did not have an academic background in film, and yet there she was, at a national paper, reviewing movies every week.
“Piece of cake!” she exclaimed, “I just think of the movie as a soccer match, making up the score as I watch it. When I leave the theatre, I ask myself: How was the game?”
I decided to adopt the movie critic’s honorable method in this piece for World Cup of Literature, Mexico vs. Croatia. Furthermore, I have subjected the two competing novels, Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli, and Baba Yaga Laid an Egg by Dubravka Ugresic, to reading in several diverse environments in exciting New York City, including a local coffee shop in Bushwick, a local bar in Bushwick, and my bed (also in Bushwick). I highly doubt that any reader will find this carefully thought-out method to be anything but utterly agreeable.
New York City Subway
It almost seems unfair; Faces in the Crowd actually depicts a NYC subway car on its cover. Its short, poetic prose, served to the reader as connected vignettes, is a match made in heaven for a ride on the L train, infested with hipsters either listening to “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” by The Smiths on their iPhones, or talking loudly to their twenty-something friends about failed Tinder dates. You don’t need an attention span to read Faces in the Crowd. You could even consider displacing it on one of those orange plastic seats, to see if the book actually starts reading itself for you.
Baba Yaga, on the other hand, is an outright hassle to get through on the subway. The literary style is dense; it’s difficult to stay focused in the midst of the IT’S SHOWTIME boys breakdancing on the poles, the occasional evangelist, the Alicia Keys wannabe, and whoever else demands my attention in the subway car.
I really shouldn’t be allowed to read good literature. They should give literary licenses to responsible adults only.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 0)
Local Bushwick Coffee Shop
Three mornings a week, I buy a breakfast bagel and a coffee from a Colombian sunbeam of a woman. She greets me with the words, “morning sweetie, what can I get for you,” forever in the midst of entertaining the rest of the coffee shop with tales from her home country. The day I bring in my World Cup of Literature titles to read, she speaks fondly of her single-parent upbringing while taking my order.
“My mother used to beat me with a belt. Taught me not to make the same mistake twice, oh no,” she says, and laughs. I laugh too.
“I bet your mother never beat you,” she says to me, and I tell her she is right. Then we laugh again.
This morning I find myself in awe of Baba Yaga. Ugresic’s nightmarishly truthful depiction of a mother-daughter relationship through the first eighty pages of the book puts words to situations that I’ve become only too familiar with, ever since my mother’s illness transformed her into a Baba Yaga when I was twenty. Ugresic is clearly a literary master unworthy of my judgment, and oops, what’s that piece of information I overlooked on the cover? “Nominated for the Man Booker International Prize.”
GOAL TO CROATIA.
(Mexico 1 – Croatia 1)
The sun is burning my Scandinavian scalp, while my blond mane is drenching the forehead and neck in sweat. I buy 3-dollar water from a cart in the park and curse the smirking salesman for just about three minutes in my head, a minute per dollar, I guess. It’s gross out, and I don’t feel like dealing with the heaviness of Baba Yaga’s 327 pages. I find a bench in the shade, try to read a few pages, but must admit defeat. Once again, I pull out Faces in the Crowd. It’s easy to get back into, it’s the guilty pleasure of having sex with your ex—it’s effortless:
Milk, diaper, vomiting and regurgitation, cough, snot, and abundant dribble. The cycles now are short, repetitive, and imperative. It’s impossible to try to write. The baby looks at me from her high chair: sometimes with resentment, sometimes with admiration. Maybe with love, if we are indeed able to love at that age. She produces sounds that will have a hard time adapting themselves to Spanish, when she learns to speak it. Closed vowels, guttural opinions. She speaks a bit like the characters in a Lars von Trier movie.
Admittedly, I have a soft spot for Lars, so Luiselli naturally scores with me right there, on a sweaty bench in Riverside Park. I think of an old boyfriend who took me to see Antichrist in the movie theatre. He was really into soccer.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 1)
In Bed In Bushwick
“Is that about Baba Yaga?” my new friend asks, as we lie down to read on my bed, belly first.
“Yeah, kind of,” I say. We look like book seals, although that’s not a thing.
“She’s that witch who eats children, right! Is that book going to win?”
“I don’t know, it’s kind of a masterpiece, but it’s also kind of hard to get through. I think I like this one better,” I say, and tap the cover of Faces in the Crowd.
“Well, I think this one should win!” he says, and pushes Baba Yaga closer to me. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are playing on Spotify as I begin reading. I was going to put on The Smiths, but decided we were not quite there yet.
I discover that the second section of the book is much sillier than the first; the humor is kind of adorable. I especially enjoy the scene where an elderly woman, Beba, is getting a massage from the young Mevlo:
Beba didn’t know what to say. As far as she could judge, the young man was fine in every way. More than fine.
“This thing of mine stands up like a flagpole, but what’s the use, love, when I’m cold as an icicle? It’s as much use to me as a cripple’s withered leg. You can do what you like with it, tap it as much as you like, it just echoes as though it was hollow.”
“Hang on, what are you talking about?”
“My willy, love, you must have noticed.”
“No,” lied Beba.
I tell my new friend that Baba Yaga is pretty great. I also tell him that he has a huge cock.
We met on Tinder.
GOAL TO CROATIA
(Mexico 2 – Croatia 2)
Local Bushwick Bar
I’m ordering a completely legitimate Tuesday counter-drink, hair of the dog. A counter-Bacardi rum and coke; it has to be exactly the same as the night before, or it won’t help. At this point, there is no point in denying the obvious, I tell the bartender, as Brazil fails to shine against Mexico on the TV behind him.
I don’t feel like reading Baba Yaga right now. I feel like reading Faces in the Crowd. There, I said it.
GOAL TO MEXICO
(Mexico 3 – Croatia 2)
Katrine Øgaard Jensen is an Editor-at-Large for Asymptote, and the Editor-in-Chief for Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Columbia University, majoring in Fiction and Literary Translation.
“I preferred the war to the plague,” writes Curzio Malaparte in his 1949 novel, The Skin. He speaks of World War II and the destruction it has wrought on Italy, the city of Naples in particular. But the plague he. . .
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”. . .
In Conversations, we find ourselves again in the protagonist’s conscious and subconscious, which is mostly likely that of Mr. César Aira and consistent with prototypical Aira style. This style never fails because each time Aira is able to develop a. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
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. . .
In a story of two emotionally distant people, Japanese author Takashi Hiraide expertly evokes powerful feelings of love, loss, and friendship in his novel The Guest Cat. The life of the unnamed narrator and his wife, both writers, is calm. . .