June 2010

Jesse Tangen-Mills

Latin Lit Lover

Soccer and the Rest

As I write this there are only a few weeks left until the World Cup, which in Latin America means the world spins slower for a little over a month, while everyone scurries off to parks, bars, houses, anywhere there is a screen, to watch the world’s best soccer for free. It’s noble; it’s chauvinist; it’s nationalist. It defuses war, while it creates them, like the one between Honduras and El Salvador in the 1980s -- magnificently rendered by Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Soccer War -- that erupted as the result of a qualifier game. In other words, this is serious. I had to put Goncalo M. Tavares’s Neighborhood series, which I had planned to read, back on the shelf, and kick the ball around, warm up, recharge, stretch and re-read Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow.

You might have heard of Eduardo Galeano back when Hugo Chavez handed his first book, The Open Veins of Latin America, to President Obama like a pedantic dad. Galeano wrote that book back when he was a journalist, after being jailed and then exiled by the American-backed Uruguayan dictator, Bordaberry. Since then, he’s developed his own genre of epigram that can range from a few sentences to many pages in length, at once memoir, journalism, myth, and short story. This collection, however, as the title reveals, focuses solely on soccer, or as the rest of the world would have it: football.

Soccer in Sun and Shadow is a series of anecdotes, articles, micro-essays that make for a handy ultra-brief history of the World Cup. Its short, entertaining and easy passages, as well as tiny illustrations, make it a great candidate for bar reading, especially if waiting for a game to come on. Galeano offers both a beginner’s guide to soccer and a doxology for soccer fanatics.

Galeano writes a sort of summary of each World Cup tournament, that doubles as a zeitgeist portrait of the world at that time. The 1954 World Cup begins:

Gelosomina and Zampanó sprouted from Fellini’s magic hand and were clowning around leisurely in ¨La Strada,¨while Fangiuo surged ahead to become the world's car-racing champion for the second time. Jonas Salk was concocting a vaccine against polio. In the Pacific the first hydrogen bomb was going off. In Viet Nam, General Giap was knocking out the French army in the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu. In Algeria, another French colony, the war of independence was just beginning. General Stroessner was being elected president in Paraguay in a close contest with himself. US planes were dropping bombs in Guatemala with the blessings of the OAS, and an army invented by that northern power was invading, killing and winging. While in Switzerland, the national anthems of sixteen countries were being sung to inaugurate the fifth World Cup.

Like the Olympics, the World Cup didn't start with all the world's countries. In fact, when read in succession, these histories (along pieces like "Fish" that trash Fox's soccer-triumphalist commercials) is a story of victory for the world’s underdogs, which -- when compared to the Olympics or the money-drenched world of professional sports -- qualifies the World Cup as a unique sport event, to put it mildly.

A lot of these are quotables, ready to be launched during beer-drenched World Cup game conversations (that is, if you like soccer, or beer, for that matter). Among my favorites: “The goal is soccer’s orgasm”; ”The fanatic cannot let his mind wander because the enemy is everywhere, even in that quiet spectator who at any moment might offer the opinion that the rival team is playing fair”; “When good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it."

It makes you almost want to say, God bless the soccer ball. It is fan nonfiction, without a doubt. Reading it makes you want to play, or watch, or yell, and jump up and down, singing lewd stadium chants (an Argentine pastime). And you can bet Galeano will be seated in front of a TV somewhere screaming at the screen, if not in South Africa screaming at the players. I’ve yelled at his team before, mostly at their arrogant forward Suarez, who scored the first goal against Colombia in a qualifier, back when it looked like we would qualify, but I digress. Bitterly so.

When thinking about the World Cup, I was thinking about how to finish of Tavares's series and why I had proposed doing the whole series in two reviews in the first place. As this magazine's name suggests, reading is an act of passion, seduction, and thoroughly sucks when turned into a "you have to read…" but the books are short and, for what it´s worth, I'm disciplined.

I looked at the cover of Mister Kraus, then I counted its pages. I knew Karl Kraus was some Austrian critic that Walter Benjamin was cool with, and that I vaguely associate with satirical expressionist painter Max Beckman, but aside from that I had nothing on the guy. So I looked him up, asked a few friends, and it seems he's a satirist, and was a big public intellectual in Vienna  -- that’s to say, I should have known who he was (shame on me). In Tavares’s world, Kraus writes chronicles for a newspaper. All of them revolve around a boss called the Boss, along with his asinine, genuflecting assistants. In short, the Boss -- a mixture of despot, charlatan and idiot -- lives only to scheme and dream his way into political power. With a pending presidential election here in Colombia, I identified with a lot of these and laughed along with Tavares in most cases. For instance, when the Boss decides to inaugurate time and place itself, but realizes that doing so might confuse his voters into thinking that the neighboring country was also responsible for time and place, so he changes his press statement to: "We've done everything that can't be seen, only within our borders." Or later, when he doesn't like the outcomes of an opinion polls, he plans to offer his phone number -- that way the polis can poll him and get it right. Or when after winning the elections, the Boss explains that his main job is eliminating "redundancies," pointing to a knife he has concealed behind his back. 

In between his chronicles, we find Mister Kraus sitting at a cafe, riffing on whatever topic he likes: "Verbal punctuality: A certain politician repeated the same words so many times at the same monotonous rhythm that his colleagues used to set the hour hand on their watches according to the word 'freedom' and the minute hand according to the word 'democracy.'" He also runs into his neighbor Mister Henri every so often, who usually just nods in agreement with whatever Kraus says.

The Boss’s last story, "The Fall," politicizes air itself. Every time the Boss breathes his assistants congratulate him on how well he exhales. They say, "Your Excellency, on cold days like this you don't even need to speak." The Boss realizes that even his breath now has become a public act, so he plans on taking advantage of it, thinking that down the road he could sell it to athletes. The assistants get him to believe that his exhalations have a different color than most people. The boss looks down to watch his breath descend from the fourth floor, when Kraus "exaggerates," and the Boss finally falls. Of course, it was as much Tavares as Kraus.

Only two more to go. Reluctantly, I turned to Mister Henri. Which Henri? Matisse? Henri  Bergson? Thierry Henry, the French forward? Mister Henri, whichever he is, makes conjectures about history, while swilling absinthe. He spins the historical yarns of phenomenon like sneezing, train, earthquakes. Given that I hear nothing of painting, or cutting paper up, I will assume it is not Matisse, and so this is the philosopher. From what I can deduce in these bar-room musings, Mister Henri is an essayist, and this is his caricature. Erudite and alcoholic, Mister Henri seems a type-A bohemian, but his humor, or that of the book, sound much like Mister Valery, or Mister Calvino, and I got bored with this.  

I'm beginning to feel that the Neighborhood series is a bit formulaic. After the first few pages, I could intuit the feel of the next stories. At this time, it's not working for me. I kept checking how many pages I had left, which is not how I felt while reading Mister Calvino when I started all this. Either it's because I'm reading them in tandem, or maybe the fact that I can only think about soccer and presidential elections right now, but I’ve lost my fascination with the series. I'm going to put Mister Tavares on the shelf, until I forget how he writes again. Enough with the Neighborhood. These aren't really novels anyway -- at least not in the sense that I would miss something by not reading them all back-to-back. I feel like I’m speed-reading poetry, and that's definitely not good for verse, which, like cheese, is served best languidly decomposing. I only have one more left, Mister Juarroz. At some point I’ll also read Dalkey’s translation of Jerusalem too, just not for now. I'm already feeling pangs of reader’s guilt. How long is it until the World Cup?