France vs. Ecuador [World Cup of Literature: First Round]
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.