World Cup fever has cooled a bit around here since the US team bowed out of the tournament, but the temperature is still high. How could it not be after this year’s display? It looks like the record for total goals scored will fall before all is said and done, and we’ve seen some spectacular play along the way. In particular, Germany’s shellacking of Brazil was a match that will be talked about for at least the next fifty years. The finals take place on Sunday at noon, and even if we can’t watch, you can bet we’ll be checking the score from behind the counter. Oh, the sacrifices we make for you, our beloved customers.
As we’ve mentioned before, though, the World Cup of Literature has been even more fun for us to follow, and that competition too is winding up. Thirty-two works of fiction from around the globe have been facing off against each other for weeks now, and a winner, the so-called best book in the world, will be announced on Monday.
There have been some uncanny parallels between the action on the field and in the books, including a shocking upset of Spain. The defending champs on the pitch got crushed by the Netherlands, and pre-tournament favorite Your Face Tomorrow by Spaniard Javier Marías likewise got bounced in the first round, taken out by Australian Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch. The United States and Belgium had critical second-round matchups on turf and also on the shelf; apparently we Americans are better writers than soccer players, because we lost the first but won the second.
Before the WCL comes to an end, let’s take a closer look at the most successful books so far, the ones that made it all the way to the semifinals.
Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (Germany): A novel that takes the form of a thirty-year conversation unfolding in train stations and travelers’ stops across England and Europe. Jacques Austerlitz is an orphan who came to England alone in the summer of 1939 via the Kindertransport, rescued from a Jewish family. He relates to an unnamed friend his lifelong efforts to discover the truth about himself and his family, details obscured by the veil of atrocity that the Nazis dropped across the continent during the war years. Almost any subject is fodder for Austerlitz’s intellectual investigation—railway architecture, military fortifications; insects, plants, and animals; the constellations; works of art; the strange contents of the museum of a veterinary school; a small circus; and the three capital cities that loom over the book, London, Paris, and Prague. Austerlitz was a favorite of the judges throughout the tournament, and also of the fans who followed it—each win was endorsed by more than ninety percent of those who voted.
By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño (Chile): Chile’s soccer team had a remarkable run through the World Cup, and so did this novel, which recounts the tale of a poor boy who wanted to be a poet, but ends up a half-hearted Jesuit priest. Father Urrutia is offered a tour of Europe by agents of Opus Dei (to study “the disintegration of the churches,” a journey into realms of the surreal); and ensnared by this plum, he is next assigned the secret, never-to-be-disclosed job of teaching the dictator Pinochet all about Marxism, so the junta generals can know their enemy. One WCL judge called it “razor sharp in its examination of centuries of abuse of power, corruption, and apathy in Chile’s sordid history; the strange bedfellows that such corruption creates; and the oh-so-human tendency towards looking the other way, towards self-preservation, towards going with the flow. It’s an indictment against the world laid out in Bolaño’s trademark style, wherein he leads you right to the lurking horror but doesn’t quite let you see it in full. And then, all of a sudden, you see it in all its horrible glory, know it better than you thought you wanted to, to the point that you will doubt humanity’s capacity for good. Ever. This was Bolaño’s power, and it’s on full display in this short book. A masterpiece if ever there were one.”
Cheerless but darkly comic, By Night in Chile went up against Austerlitz in a semifinal that felt more like a final. Either book could easily be crowned the most important international fiction of this millennium, but in this match Chile got the win.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (USA): Like the US soccer team, this book is a bit of a hodgepodge that’s nonetheless powerful and full of potential. Wallace left the work unfinished upon his death in 2008, and it was restructured and assembled by an editor before it was published on April 15, Tax Day, 2011. The judge who moved it into the quarterfinals says this about it: “On its face The Pale King is about the Internal Revenue Service and a bureaucratic snafu that creates a case of mistaken identity between two IRS employees named David F. Wallace. The characters orbit a back-story involving the mismanagement of tax returns and an IRS regional processing center’s bungled cover-up…. But do not read The Pale King if you are looking for a novel with a strong plot. What you will find are fully drawn characters who feel alive and true, with their various neuroses, skin conditions, glandular disorders, and hardship enduring the consistent drudgery of the Service. These people (mostly men) are boring. Their work is boring. And DFW’s slow, granular descriptions, use of repetition and bureaucrat-speak make the tedium of their lives palpable. The labyrinthine IRS procedures and protocols depicted are absurd. But for these ‘anti-actors’ adherence to them is a test of will, even heroic. Weak will is failure. And the writing is great: immediate, but not urgent; technical, but accessible; overly descriptive, but entertaining. All of the opposing elements combine to create something extraordinary, like eating something that is both sweet and salty.”
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli (Mexico): Something of a breath of fresh air entered the semis when this book made the cut. It’s a debut novel, the only one by a woman and in fact the only one by a living author still in the mix. The publisher describes it thus: “A young mother in Mexico City, captive to a past that both overwhelms and liberates her, and a house she cannot abandon nor fully occupy, writes a novel of her days as a translator living in New York. A young translator, adrift in Harlem, is desperate to translate and publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet who lived in Harlem during the 1920s, and whose ghostly presence haunts her in the city’s subways. And Gilberto Owen, dying in Philadelphia in the 1950s, convinced he is slowly disappearing, recalls his heyday decades before, his friendships with Nella Larsen, Louis Zukofsky, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the young woman in a red coat he saw in the windows of passing trains. As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into one single stream, an elegiac evocation of love and loss.”
North America fared much better in the WCL than in the real World Cup, pushing two teams into the final four. Pity that they both couldn’t go on, but in the end Faces in the Crowd knocked out The Pale King.
So the final is set: Mexico vs. Chile in a Spanish-language battle for all the marbles. Tune in Monday to the Three Percent blog to see who wins.