Yesterday, PEN announced its shortlists for all the awards ever, including those for works of poetry in translation and works of fiction in translation. For the 2014 awards, PEN tried out something new by announcing a longlist back in May.
The 2014 poetry list was judged this year by Kimiko Hahn:
Even Now: Poems by Hugo Claus (Archipelago), David Colmer
Diaries of Exile by Yannis Ritsos (Archipelago), Karen Emmerich & Edmund Keeley
Collected Haiku of Yosa Buson by Yosa Buson (Copper Canyon Press), Takako Lento & W.S. Merwin
Paul Klee’s Boat by Anzhelina Polonskaya (Zephyr Press), Andrew Wachtel
Cut These Words Into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs (Johns Hopkins University Press), Michael Wolfe
(To which I’ll add that Karen Emmerich is also the translator of Open Letter’s very own Why I Killed My Best Friend by Amanda Michalopoulou.)
In turn, the 2014 fiction /PEN Translation Prize judges are Ann Goldstein, Becka McKay, and Katherine Silver:
An Armenian Sketchbook by Vasily Grossman (New York Review Books), Elizabeth & Robert Chandler
Transit by Anna Seghers (New York Review Books), Margot Bettauer Dembo
The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (Yale University Press), Jeffrey Gray
The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth (New Directions), Michael Hofmann
Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (New York Review Books), Joanne Turnbull & Nikolai Formozov.
Winners will be announced by PEN on July 30th.Tweet
For those of you who are regulars, you may remember Will’s name—he’s a former student of Chad’s at the University of Rochester, budding translator of Japanese, semi-regular Three Percent reviewer, and is a man who does a mean snake-head dance. He is unstoppable.
Anyway, here’s the beginning of Will’s review (and yes, we wish we had a video of his snake dance):
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 only remember the barest details of Gandhi’s life and deeds. I can say, in the humblest of humblebrags, that I did read Intizar Husain’s Basti, a book I certainly might not have if not for its inclusion on the “2013 Best Translated Book Award longlist”: http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?id=6532. That book, more than anything, made me somewhat—an emphatically underlined, italicized, all-caps, incorrectly-used quotation marked “SOMEWHAT”—more educated of the events surrounding India and Pakistan’s violent schism in the 1940s.
But perhaps you are on equally unfamiliar terrain. Or perhaps not: maybe you were one of the many who read Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, which would most likely make you yet more knowledgeable of India in the 20th century than I, because I didn’t read that one either (by the way, this is the part of the review where I wow you with my credentials). However, if I were a betting man, I would wager that I am in the majority when it comes to the American readership in regard to South Asian literature: an absolute novice.
It is precisely why I jumped at the chance to read this collection. I could barely know less about the Indian subcontinent if I tried. But the point of reading international fiction at all, as far as I’m concerned, is precisely to experience and learn about a place, a culture, a history of which I am only dimly aware. I can only imagine that this is true for many of you, who so adventurously clicked on the link to get here. Great job, by the way! You and I are going to be good friends, I can tell. And for the Manto-educated, fan or otherwise, surprised to see him getting some attention today: I’m going to be ignoring you. Sorry about that.
For the rest of the review, go here.Tweet
This is where it ends: 1-0 because in the end Argentina scores and Nigeria plays very very well. That one doesn’t work. It happens like this: I find myself underlining and rereading and remembering to tell about An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter. The beginning is tied to the ending, steeped in extremes the pampas come alive with warriors and lightning and only the company of a horse. I lay here and look up at those exact stars of the southern hemisphere; my foot caught in the stirrup. I wonder about the geographical line of my life and walking back the path that brought me here.
An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter is bigger than the pampas and Graceland is not bigger than Lagos. Graceland is only about a place in a time; a documentary in a literature contest.
They both play on the storytelling level which is almost always enough but An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter earns the win with language; a timeless grasp on us quietly living in pampas all over.
Lance Edmonds is a Bookseller at Posman Books in Chelsea Market. He lives in New York City.
I hear that soccer/football fans are pretty excited about Switzerland these days. (Sorry everyone, I haven’t been keeping up with the world of FIFA.) In a literary match-up against Honduras, though, its chance at a win feels a lot smaller. Neither country is really one of the literary world’s power-houses, but in this match Honduras brings to the table the potent prose of Horacio Castellanos Moya, whose Senselessness is pretty remarkable.
“I am not complete in the mind,” begins Moya’s narrator. And no, he most certainly is not: he is caustic, sex-obsessed, unstable, and at least a little bit insane. If you go with it, though, if you let his sentences pull you along for pages with their paranoid urgency, you’re in for a hell of a ride. He is an irritable, obsessive atheist who has gotten himself caught up in the affairs of the Catholic Church as it fights to bring to light the atrocities committed by the unnamed country’s power-hungry military. His rage and angst spiral into what he calls an “expanding maelstrom of paranoia.” And, whether you believe in his conspiracies or think he’s lost his mind, it’s very compelling. An excellent (and excellently unreliable) narrator, a great story and a satisfying ending: this is Moya’s hat-trick.
Now comes Switzerland, with Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover. From the start, it looks grim. A melodramatic title and some pretty awful jacket copy leave me unenthused, but I’m willing to give it a chance. Which is my own mistake, really.
The narrator’s mother starts out the novel waist-deep in a lake, frantically shouting her lover’s name (“Edwin!”) across the water. Her former lover, once a poor musician and now the richest man in the country, lives in a mansion across the water and never even thinks about this woman, who he was involved with for a couple of months in his youth. She, on the other hand, obsesses over him, is possessed by the thought of him, hears the wind whisper his name to her all day long. I’d say that this is still a better love story than Twilight, except that a sad and confused woman who shrieks “Edw-!” into the empty night actually sounds an awful lot like Twilight. (I take full responsibility for the fact that, by bringing up the T-word, I am probably fulfilling the literary equivalent of Godwin’s law.) There’s some big, over-the-top Freudian thing going on here; her father is a taciturn, cantankerous control freak who treats her like dirt, and her lover is an insufferable egomaniac who also treats her like dirt. And I just can’t bring myself to care about any of it.
On top of this, the narrator speaks in this bizarre, inverted Yoda-speak (“Pushing and shoving they’d be to get to her,” and “flat as a pancake everywhere was”) and uses em-dashes in baffling and excessive ways.
Stylistic weirdnesses aside, My Mother’s Lover suffers from a lack of empathy. Moya’s characters are not likable (far from it, in fact), but I cared what happened to them. With Widmer’s, I didn’t. At all. And so this novel—supposed to be a tragedy of unrequited love across a backdrop of war and loss—fell flat.
The only major redeeming factor is Widmer’s harrowing and believable portrayal of the mother’s descent into madness. But it isn’t enough to make up for the huge gap in style, impact and appeal that separates it and Senselessness. Between the two, there’s no comparison. Honduras 3, Switzerland 0.
Hannah Chute translates literature from Russian and French. She is currently a master’s student in the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Studies program. She is exceptionally bad at soccer.
Garcia Marquez was my gateway into non-dead-white-guy authors in translation. I read One Hundred Years of Solitude on a chaise lounge in Waikiki, on a trip when my friend Howard and I drank the pool bar out of Heineken. But I was sober enough most of the time, enough to appreciate that there was more out there to read than my then steady diet of American noir.
The first line in One Hundred Years of Solitude and the first line of the second chapter are the only two sentences I’ve committed to memory—that, and the opening of James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Ursula Iguaran’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
I first read Murakami in a hammock in Mexico on my honeymoon. I was too lazy to locate a bookstore in Tecate, but found a galley of Kafka on the Shore in the hotel library. That started a thorough run of Murakami; that’s a hell of a lot of cats in a short period of time.
For years, when asked, I would say that either The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or One Hundred Years of Solitude was my favorite book. The World Cup of Literature rules disallow both of these books because they’re pre-2000 releases. The only Garcia Marquez work that qualifies is Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Six Murakami titles qualify, including Kafka, but The World Cup of Literature entry is the very troubled 1Q84.
There are no match-ups in the first round of The World Cup of Literature that approach the naming rights, product placement, endorsement deals, or star bling of Colombia / Japan. The burden of commercial success over perceived literary merit haunted this match-up since the bracket was posted.
Crikey, it’s fucking hot in Manaus. Sweat is pouring over my eyebrows like Gullfoss (I seriously wish that Eidur Gudjohnsen was in Brazil rather than Luka Modric). The weather favors Team Garcia Marquez who thrives in heat and humidity. Team Murakami usually practices either in the mountains or at the bottom of wells.
1Q84 entered the pitch in its spiffy Chip Kidd designed kit, visibly suffering from over-exposure. The team is comprised entirely of members of former great Murakami sides with the exception of a young striker, Aomame.
The captain of the Colombia side, unlike many footballers who go by one name, has no name. We’ll just call him Jose Arcadio, because there’s one too many of them in One Hundred Years of Solitude. When manager Jose Pekerman realized that his side was a 90 year old journalist and a sleeping virgin on valerian, he decided to park the bus.
Alberto Zaccheroni sent multiple Murakami recurring themes down the flanks. Tengo, the other forward, confused, was unable to deliver any shots on goal, and waited sullenly for a midfielder to drop the ball on his only good foot (think Eddie Johnson or Wayne Rooney).
All Japan advance, all Colombia defense. Two minutes into stoppage time, Aomame realized it might go to PKs and you don’t know what a 90-year-old whore-monger can deliver when needed. Fuka-Eri sent a cross to Aomame who did a roll and scissors, then entered her parallel universe. She reentered the pitch reality on Arcadio’s weak side and finished into the bottom left corner.
Japan 1 – 0 Colombia
George Carroll is the World Literature Editor for Shelf Awareness for Professionals and the Soccer Editor for Shelf Awareness for Readers. In other words, he’s got this nailed.
The winner of the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize 2014 is Susan Wicks for her translation of Valérie Rouzeau’s Talking Vrouz (Arc publications).
From the judges:
“Talking Vrouz is a wonderfully inventive and yet faithful translation of poems which are already at an oblique angle to their own language (French). Susan Wicks renders a unique poetic voice, with all its eccentricities and privacies, into a matching English. The translation is exact, inventive and full of life, and offers readers something new and startling in English poetry.”
The Prize was awarded at an event at St Anne’s College Oxford, at which the shortlisted translators read from and discussed their work. This was the crowning event of Oxford Translation Day, a festival or talks, readings and workshops staged in collaboration with Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation, English PEN, the Poetry Translation Centre, the Oxford German Network, the East Oxford Community Classics Centre and the Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities.
The Oxford–Weidenfeld Prize is for book-length literary translations into English from any living European language. It aims to honour the craft of translation, and to recognise its cultural importance. It is funded by Lord Weidenfeld and by New College, The Queen’s College and St Anne’s College, Oxford.Tweet
In the year 2010, seventeen years after I stopped watching soccer, I wrote a paean to Your Face Tomorrow, claiming that “here’s the wonderfully parenthetical operations of a human mind in the 21th century,” a phrase that later became a blurb in Spanish for Your Face Tomorrow, which must have flattered fleetingly me since I’m a frail human desperate for meaning, although the translation from “wonderfully parenthetical” to “maravillosamente parentéticas” must have shorn a few branches from my twig of meaning because I would have been embarrassed if any native Spanish speakers heard me say anything like “maravillosamente parentéticas,” in any case the parenthetical mind of Jacques Deza, the narrator of Your Face Tomorrow, a mind that doesn’t pay much attention to itself because “he’s given up understanding himself,” shares its wonderful operations with us throughout 1,232 pages, during a period in Deza’s life when he was delivering conjectural character reports for the British Secret Intelligence Service and was estranged from his wife Luisa.
Looking back at the passages from Your Face Tomorrow that I transcribed to my sketchbook in preparation for writing my paean to Your Face Tomorrow, I’m not surprised I transcribed so many passages supporting my partisan fervor for digressions—“digression is secular revelation,” Adam Phillips wrote—especially when they were written by a Spaniard who translated Tristram Shandy into Spanish, and out of this abundance of partisan passages there’s one from Volume II that I starred as most significant because, according to me, it summarizes the kind of fiction Javier Marias seems interested in composing, so here’s that starred passage in which Deza’s in the women’s bathroom at a nightclub, searching for the wife of a client:
[I] had lost sight of my mission, it had simply got mixed up with a few other things: lines of poetry, images and inherited memories as well as a story, none of which managed to fill my mind entirely, because none was particularly pressing, but they were all floating around in there, perhaps waiting to be picked up later by idle thought—that is, by thought at its most active—at the end of the day, when I finally went to bed.
Since the year 2010, I’ve often shared in conversation with my so-called friends two passages from Your Face Tomorrow: (1) Luisa telling Jacques please let’s not live together ever again; (2) “[O]ne never experiences genuine self-disgust, and it’s that inability that makes us capable of doing almost anything.”
(1) The anxiety about domestic life deadening human life, an anxiety featured in many pages of Javier Marias’s A Heart So White, often surfaces in conversation among those who are no longer young enough to playact at wanting so-called meaningful relationships, and what I like to share with my so-called friends who are seeking so-called meaningful relationships, as a sort of literary relationship advice, is something like look there’s this 1,232-page novel in which, at the beginning, the narrator is estranged from his wife, and, toward the end, when they reconcile at last (and here I exclude any mention of Deza assaulting Luisa’s new lover with a sword and telling him to get out of town or else), the wife says to the husband please let’s not live together ever again.
(2) Given the vast gap between our imperfections and our expectations of reasonable perfection, the question of how could we have possibly performed Sin A / Sin B, plus the question of how could we have possibly not known we were going to perform Sin A / Sin B, become central questions in (some) of our lives, or at a minimum we retrofit these central questions around our past Sins A / B, and in the case of Your Face Tomorrow (some of) the central questions that Deza contemplates are how could have Deza’s father best friend betrayed Deza’s father? “How can I not know today your face tomorrow, the face that is there already or is being forged beneath the face you show me or beneath the mask you are wearing?” How could I have not known I was going to assault my wife’s lover with a sword so I could get back together with her?
Arbitro ladrón, my high school friends and I would scream at the referee as we watched the Ecuadorian national soccer team miss yet another opportunity to qualify for the World Cup for the first time, arbitro conchaetumadre, heaping our juvenile arsenal of insults on the referee because one of our obvious consolations, the consolation of the often defeated, I suppose, revolved around placing the blame for our loss on the rigged ref.
Will I turn out to be a rigged ref because I come from a small, often defeated country? Does it make a difference that, since I left Ecuador in 1993, the Ecuadorian national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup three times?
If you come across a new genre, do you raise your hand?
Gerald Murnane has invented a new genre: fiction as “remembered imaginings,” mind as place (“The far parts of my mind,” Gerald Murnane wrote in a letter to Teju Cole published in Issue 3 of Music & Literature, a literary journal that publishes more of my favorite artists per page than any other literary journal, “hold for me the same sort of interest that far countries probably hold for travelers”).
Imagine “a far-reaching and varied landscape” that contains memories of characters from books, of imaginary racehorses and racecourses, in other words imagine the contents of Murnane’s mind exiting Murnane’s head and populating a landscape that Murnane then dedicates himself to contemplate through his sentences, a contemplation that thankfully does without psychological insight (because who doesn’t enjoy a break from the murky diagrams of human motivation?), a contemplation that consists of unearthing patterns of images as a way to both architect the landscape and invent meaning, meaning defined here as (to quote Murnane from Issue 3 of Music & Literature) “the discovery of connections between things that previously seemed unconnected,” and now here’s a relevant landscape quote from Barley Patch:
He had always thought of the images in his mind as being arranged somewhat in the way the names of townships were arranged on maps of mostly level countryside and that the images were connected by feelings in the way that the names of townships were connected by lines denoting roads.
Let’s track the progression of one fragment of Murnane’s pattern making in Barley Patch. The chart below, from left to right, tracks the pattern of images that emerges from King-in-the-Lake, the name of an invisible racehorse. Names of racehorses have a peculiar effect on the narrator of Barley Patch:
The sound in his mind of one or another name would often seem to denote not a mere painted toy and not even an actual straining, racing racehorse but a knot of what he might have called compressed mental imagery . . .
The name of the invisible racehorse leads to “an image of a man lying on the bed of a lake of clear water,” which leads to a poem by Matthew Arnold, which leads to the “view that might have appeared to a man lying in the bed of a lake of clear water.” Follow the arrows to the conclusion of the pattern making: an imaginary contest in invisible racecourse.
I will wash my hands, I thought when I heard I was going to judge Marias vs. Murnane, I will let one of my guinea pigs choose for me and I will add a formal constraint to the pig proceedings so as to not appear unserious. Besides. I wouldn’t mind being remembered as the guinea pig critic, or, as my compatriots might say, el crítico de los cuys.
In the year 2014, one year after I started watching soccer again due to my eight-year-old daughter was scoring 3 goals per game for her elementary school soccer team, I decided to reread Your Face Tomorrow for the purposes of this competition, hoping to relive the engrossing experience of reading Your Face Tomorrow in the year 2010.
Writing rhythmic prose is easy, apparently W.G. Sebald said to his writing students, and as I reread Volume I of Your Face Tomorrow I was dismayed to conclude rhythmic prose can be a decent cover for the unfurling of banalities. Deza complains that people like to tell everything, for instance, but instead of just writing hey people like to tell everything, he has to unfurl a banal rhythmic list of everything that people like to tell, “the interesting and the trivial, the private and public, the intimate and the superfluous, what should remain hidden and what one day will inevitably be broadcast, the sorrows and joys and the resentments,” and it goes on, all over Your Face Tomorrow these banal rhythmic lists. I don’t approach fiction like a critic or a financial analyst, assessing the net flow of pluses and minuses per novel. I have a preferred continuum of fiction, and if a novel adds many pages to this continuum, as Your Face Tomorrow has done, I don’t relegate that novel to my kitchen cabinets (I don’t love any one novel by Stanley Elkin, for instance, but I love so many pages of Stanley Elkin). This is a goddamn match, however, not a vague intertextual pseudo-Jungian notion of fiction reading. Judgments must be made.
Who would want to compete against an Australian narrator who, as a boy, moved among the characters of the books he read, devising his own strict rules of narrative interference, unable to alter the course of the narrative but free “to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative”? When one of the characters in one of the books he read abandons his wife, for instance, our Australian narrator knows that, from his “standpoint as a shadowy presence among the characters,” he cannot reverse the character’s decision. “And yet, I was able in some mysterious way to add to whatever remorse he might have felt from time to time . . .” I like to think of myself as a shadowy presence among these 1,771 words, adding to my own remorse for ruling against a writer like Javier Marias who has added so many pages to my so-called continuum, unable to alter the course of this match, however, no matter how much I tried.
Excerpts from Mauro Javier Cardenas’s recently completed first novel, The Revolutionaries Try Again, have appeared in Conjunctions, BOMB, Guernica, Antioch Review, and Witness. His interviews and essays on/with László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Juan Villoro, and Antonio Lobo Antunes have appeared in Music & Literature, San Francisco Chronicle, BOMB, and the Quarterly Conversation.
This first-round match pits a futuristic fantasy of reborn Russian czardom against a present-day fantasy of repressed Algerian Islamism in Paris. Male author against female. Slav against Arab. Political satire against social satire. This is the World Cup of Literature.
The Russian representative is Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik (2006), a novel that recounts one day in the life of Ivan the Terrible’s secret police, newly reestablished in the 21st century for a new czar ruling a new Russia. In this futuristic world, the Chinese exert great political, economic, and linguistic power. Russian borders are kept safe thanks to gigantic border walls. And the oprichnina are the safeguards of domestic peace and unity. They are men of patriotism and torture, faith and violence, corruption and luxury, censorship and rape, even sadism and sadomasochism—brutal men with a sacred purpose, unique bonding rituals, and a very high buying price.
Against this contender, the Algerians put forth Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris (2007). Protagonist Mohamed ben Mokhtar decides he has had enough of his life as a pious Muslim Algerian virgin momma’s boy living in the Parisian banlieues. So he changes his name to the more Frenchified Basile Tocquard, straightens his hair, whitens his skin, and moves into the center of Paris in preparation for a life of unbridled sexual and consumerist pleasure. The good life as a faux Frenchman doesn’t turn out quite like he expects though. He only manages to attract Arab women, mostly older and not exactly charmed by his thinly veiled misogyny.
There is something a little crazy about an Algerian doing everything in his power to suppress his identity to become more French than the French themselves. Mohamed’s masturbation to religious fantasies is also a tad bit strange. However, when it comes down to sheer insanity, Day of the Oprichnik takes the cake with its religious patriotism, mundane torture, nonchalant book-burning, and drug injection by vein-crawling fish. Mostly, though, Sorokin’s novel beats out Marouane’s on this front because of a single drug-fueled gay orgy scene near the end in which the testicles of each oprichnik glow a special color based on his rank in the oprichnina hierarchy. For sheer over-the-top-ness, Sorokin’s novel slides one home. (Russia 1 – 0 Algeria)
Be that as it may, Algeria mounts a strong challenge when it comes to questions of identity. With the Russians, it’s quite simple. As Sorokin’s narrator has it: “The Russian people aren’t easy to work with. But God hasn’t given us any other people.” For the Algerians, it’s not just about managing (that is, torturing or raping or killing) their hard-headed and hard-drinking compatriots. The novel is infused with dichotomies—French vs. Arab, Muslim vs. Western, good son vs. bad son, wife vs. whore—that produce conflicted desires and confused identities. The permutations are endless, and Marouane keeps it interesting. Algeria equalizes. (Russia 1 – 1 Algeria)
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Marouane’s novel, however, is the postmodern twist she throws into the narration. Slowly but surely, a feminine voice cleverly intrudes into the hopelessly narcissistic masculine narrative. By the end, it’s not clear who is fictional and who is real, who is writing and who is being written, who is the original and who is the copy. Russia may have crazy, but, with its clever narrative ploy, Algeria keeps the reader guessing until the very end. (Russia 1 – 2 Algeria)
Russia keeps it interesting with outlandish scenes, yet the hyperbole can only carry Sorokin’s novel so far. The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris tones down the hyperbole and outlasts Day of the Oprichnik with a more understated social critique. Slow and steady does the trick, and Algeria pulls out the win.
Leïla Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris moves on to the next round to face the winner of Germany vs. Ghana!
Christopher Schaefer’s writing has appeared in World Literature Today, Three Percent, and The Quarterly Conversation. His celebratory antics after Landon Donovan’s match-winning goal for the United States over Algeria in the 2010 World Cup earned him the ire of a cafe full of Arabs. His literary judgment was in no way influenced by this event.
When we arrived at the stadium, there was a good vibe in the air.
England fans were tentatively confident. After all, they have a mighty tradition, and the stars of their current team—Smith, Hobbes, Benthan, Locke, and Russell—have been performing exceptionally well, nearly everyone agrees.
The story coming into the match is provocative. We’ve been watching short features on TV for weeks. Remarkably, most of the English players have risen from the depths of poverty and drugs in northwestern London. Because of their intimate past, the team has had its share of scandals and near breakdowns, but with the support of their new sponsor, World TeleCom Cellular, and looking back on some of their favorite players of the past, England thinks it has a shot to go all the way.
And who are the Italians? Yes, historically, they’ve done incredibly well, which is surprising because no one remembers them. And who’s even heard of their players? Ferrante? No one sitting around me even knew what he looked like. Olga? Rumors coming in to the match are that Olga is still a bit of a wreck since Mario, the Italian coach, suddenly, without any explanation, left the team. Olga was left holding the bag, and it’s not altogether clear that she even knows what she’s been playing for anymore.
Yes, a promising match for England. They’ve studied, they’ve overcome, and they’re putting all they learned at the forefront.
Imagine everyone’s surprise, then, when Italy scored in the first minute. Not only that, but they just looked coolly on—no fanfare, no running around the field. They simply lined up for the next play, sober, serious, and—if I’m being honest—joyless.
Here’s a replay of their opening drive:
One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me. He did it while we were clearing the table; the children were quarreling as usual in the next room, the dog was dreaming, growling beside the radiator. He told me that he was confused, that he was having terrible moments of weariness, of dissatisfaction, perhaps of cowardice. He talked for a long time about our fifteen years of marriage, about the children, and admitted that he had nothing to reproach us with, neither them nor me. He was composed, as always, apart from an extravagant gesture of his right hand when he explained to me, with a childish frown, that soft voices, a sort of whispering, were urging him elsewhere. Then he assumed the blame for everything that was happening and closed the front door carefully behind him, leaving me turned to stone beside the sink.
I don’t want to suggest that England had nothing to offer—of course it did—but the writing was on the wall from this short opening strike. Everyone knew it. The stadium was silent. It was a violent silence.
Nevertheless, England took the hit and didn’t let it get them down too much. Though quite a bit more roundabout, showed its skill in its opening possession. Intricately, the team kicked the ball around, proving to us that they belonged on the field:
The fat sun stalls by the phone masts. Anti-climb paint turns sulphurous on the school gates and lampposts. In Willesden people go barefoot, the streets turn European, there is a mania for eating outside. She keeps to the shade. Redheaded. On the radio: I am the sole author of the dictionary that defines me. A good line — write it out on the back of a magazine. In a hammock, in the garden of a basement flat. Fenced in, on all sides.
This didn’t result in a score, but all around me people were nodding their heads in agreement: something is going on there. But at this point in the match, no one quite knew what.
All throughout, the game was a wonderful display of incredibly different playing styles, most of them from one team: England. It was hard to pin down which player for the English team was doing the most work, and whichever it was, the flow of the English possessions shifted significantly. If the opening drive was a bit abstract, a bit roundabout, they soon shifted to a more direct style as they subbed out their players, going from natural, to short bursts, back to roundabout. England was reveling in the game itself. They were clever, and they looked up at the fans often, saying with their eyes, “Do you follow?” It was impressive. They probably did have a chance if Italy’s anger drained the team of its energy. But that didn’t happen. Quite the contrary.
Throughout the match, the Italians remained direct—one is tempted to say confrontational. It was as if they blamed the English for all their hidden troubles. They didn’t appear to want to be in the stadium at all, but, hey, this is just the situation we’re all in.
With each drive, they got angrier—that poor English goalie! Brutalized! Once, Olga—obviously the central storm—scored a goal and, while the goalie lay on his side, Olga just stared him down. He had to shield his eyes. The referees wisely focused their attention on the ball.
No doubt, the English team will be analyzing this game for years, trying to express just what was going on, just what social currents were at work, just what drove the Italians to this impressive but ugly display of primeval horror. But it really might be much more simple than anything intricate analysis can capture, something the Italians showed in their playing style: simple, absolute rage.
The English, gracious in defeat, were more than happy to chat to reporters when the game ended. They were disappointed, they said, but they were thrilled just to be there, carrying on the traditions of the great teams of the past. They help up a poster of their hero, Woolf. They plan to watch the remaining matches here before returning to London, though they didn’t want to think too much about that.
Meanwhile, the Italian team was suddenly off the field. They didn’t take questions. No one saw them leave. They might be having a good cry right now. I may do the same.
Trevor Berrett created and edits The Mookse and the Gripes. He is also a co-host on The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast and The Eclipse Viewer Podcast. You can follow him on Twitter (@mookse).
The last time I watched a soccer game was in the last World Cup, in July of 2010. I had just graduated and moved off campus with my roommate from college. Down the block, a bar was packed with fans, and we forked over a few dollars for a pitcher of Heineken. Neither of us was sure whether the orange shirts were the Dutch or the Spanish—but we were pretty sure the orange shirts were the ones to cheer for. My roommate liked the team from the Netherlands because he was a linguist and preferred Dutch to Spanish. And I was cheering for Gerbrand Bakker’s team because I had just read and loved The Twin.
Four years later, I’ve settled into another city. And yet I live down the street from another bar which, because it specializes in imported beers, promises drink specials for the entirety of the World Cup. Plus ça change . . .
. . . plus c’est la meme chose. I’m being asked to pick the better country based on books I’m reading. Today is the first day of the World Cup in Brazil, so Cameroon has the honor of facing off against the host country. Meaning I have to judge a title from each nation—Cameroon represented by Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night, and Brazil represented by Chico Buarque’s Budapest.
I’ll be “that judge” and crush your readerly hopes right now: this wasn’t much of a match-up. There was no special home-field advantage or dark horse in the running here. One book crashed and burned and made me think about why it had even been translated; the other was so radiant and fresh that I wanted to translate it anew.
A quick and clinical overview, first, so you know what we’re talking about here. Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night is the story of Ayané, and the village to which she returns despite having escaped to a cosmopolitan life, and a mass of rebels who bring ruination upon the village. It is a harrowing book, viscerally painful, and told in the distant, knowing voice of a local oral storyteller. Chico Buarque’s Budapest, in contrast, is a meandering and phantasmagoric fever dream that shuttles back and forth between Rio de Janeiro and, yes, Budapest as a ghostwriter composes texts, finds himself replaced by near-perfect copies of himself, and falls in love with Hungary’s singular language and even more singular denizens.
Dark Heart of the Night is shackled by many factors that work against its success. Its title is an unfortunately liberal translation of the original title, L’intérieur de la nuit—the Heart of Darkness allusion hurts more than helps the book—even as the cover plays off the design clichés that i>Africa Is
Not a Country rightfully condemns. Despite the careful and insightful translation, however, the narrative voice driving Miano’s entire book made it nearly impossible for me to move from sympathy to full-hearted empathy. Perhaps this narrative style was intended to make the horrors of the story less immediate; the effect, with so many explanatory asides and all its descriptions at a remove, made the story feel like a copy of a copy of a copy of a story I had once been told about “Africa,” writ large. The country is a nameless one (not Cameroon); the rebellion is a vague one (not like any of the civil wars or unrest in recent history); and the village’s primitiveness is so stark as to feel unreal. Cameroon is, in reality, far more complicated and modern than we might be led to believe from this novel. To give just one example: for all the abject poverty suffered throughout the continent, cell phone usage is extraordinarily high because of its advantages for communication and even for finances. I hoped for a novel that would give me a clearer picture of Cameroon (or even Africa) as it is now, and I was disappointed to read a novel that told me, at a remove, about an idea of Africa. Ultimately, I found myself scratching my head: what was different or special about this novel that the French Voices committee had seen fit to grant money toward its publication in English? The only answer I can plausibly think of is that it is a historical document of sorts. Its explanations and descriptions may provide a certain context to readers scarcely aware of Central Africa. But that hardly seems like reason enough to publish and share a book.
In contrast, Budapest continued to shock me and amaze me as I turned its pages toward its end. It seems odd that it should have surprised me: I had read most of it about six years ago after being given an excerpt, in French, to translate into English. It was an assignment from my French teacher, who had discovered the book while abroad with her husband over break. The two of them knew French and English and, preferring not to privilege one translation over another, had bought the two versions of Chico Buarque’s original. (To this day, when somebody mentions their knowledge of Buarque as a famous musician, I have to mentally square that with my image of him as a solitary author.) The whole book itself centers on doubles and replacements and, yes, repetitions: a phrase at the beginning recurs in the book’s final pages; the two cities and the narrator’s two lives seem to parallel each other with the same struggles and challenges, even as the narrator becomes a copy of himself, replicating in Hungary the same ghostwriting work he had done in Brazil, until he surpasses the master for which he has ghostwritten—an appropriate parallel to the moment when he realizes, in Brazil, that his boss has trained many young employees to write as perfectly, as precisely as he does, to the point that he worries he cannot even think a thought without their having already set it down on paper. As he finally writes a poem of his own, he realizes that “The words were mine, but they had a different weight. I wrote as if I were walking through my own house, but in water.” The clarity and beauty of this image is not atypical of the entire book; each page glides with a musical fluidity fully enabled by Alison Entrekin’s keen translation—one that manages to portray in English the grammatical quirks of (at times) Hungarian-flavored Portuguese or a Portuguese that reflects a Portuguese-fractured phrase in Hungarian. I could remember the process of carefully converting each sentence from the French my professor had given me to English; even accounting for the fact that I was translating a translation, Entrekin’s work outstripped mine entirely. I closed the book, and images came unbidden of Rio de Janeiro’s narrow alleyways and quarrelsome relationships, and the ever-yellow (or is it ever-gray?) of Buda and Pest seen from the air, the two halves of the city split by the Danube.
I did say this wasn’t much of a matchup. On the soccer field (or, ahem, football field for all you non-Americans reading my embarrassingly provincial commentary), Cameroon has been a frontrunner among the many teams hailing from the African continent, but its literary entry into the Tournament of Books can’t even get a single goal past Brazil’s writers—especially not when that team includes Chico Buarque and Budapest.
The score’s a pretty clear-cut one: 4-0 Brazil.
Jeffrey Zuckerman is Digital Editor of Music & Literature. His writing and translations have appeared in The White Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Best European Fiction, and The Quarterly Conversation. In his free time, he does not listen to music.
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