The MHS World Cup of Literature 2022: Round 1 Match — Belarus v Spain
It’s time for another instalment of the MHS World Cup of Literature, which I last ran in 2020. This year, I have fifteen students in my class so in order to make the numbers work in a 32 country tournament, I’m taking part in round one alongside the students.
In round one of this tournament, each of the judges is randomly allocated two countries from the draw that I put together (the students drew out of a hat: old school). They then read stories from those two countries and judge which one is better and will progress to the next round. The stories are all recently published, most of them taken from the pages of World Literature Today and Words Without Borders.
After the students had all drawn their matches I was left with Belarus against Spain to decide between. I’ve read plenty of literature from Spain in the past but just one book from Belarus so far as I can remember (by Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich), so I was keen to see how the stories matched up.
Spain is, of course, one of the largest countries in Western Europe, with a population of 47 million people and a long literary history. Often recognised as the first ever novel, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is one of the most recognised and popular works of fiction ever written. Due to Spain’s great reach as a colonial power, Spanish is the second-most spoken native language in the world after Mandarin Chinese. Interestingly, though, the story that I chose to represent Spain for this tournament is not actually written in Spanish, but Galician. Galicia is an autonomous community in northwestern Spain and Galician is spoken by only around two and a half million people.
Belarus is located at the other extremity of Europe and is a much smaller country than Spain, with just nine million inhabitants. The capital city is Minsk. These days I’m most familiar with the country because of its longstanding dictator Alexander Lukashenko and his support for Putin, particularly with the current war in Ukraine.
So, to the stories themselves… First up was the Spanish (Galician) story, “Voracious” by Emma Pedreira and translated by Kathleen March, published in the March 2021 edition of Words Without Borders. It has a terrific opening couple of sentences:
Mamá will die tomorrow. Or maybe the day after tomorrow, I’m not sure, but I don’t want to stop to think about it.
If that sounds slightly familiar it’s because it’s a tense-shifted borrowing from the opening of The Outsider by French-Algerian writer Albert Camus:
Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know.
Except that Camus, of course, never wrote those words as he wrote in French and that is the translation by Stuart Gilbert, which raises interesting questions about the role of translation in World Literature. Even the title of Camus’ novel, L’Étranger, is variously translated as either The Outsider or The Stranger. There was a very interesting look at the English translation of the opening sentence of the novel by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker ten years ago: Lost in Translation: What the first line of The Stranger should be. I don’t know if Kathleen March read that article, but she seems to agree that it’s a good idea to keep the foreign word Mamá rather than translating it to Mother (or Mom).
Either way, I’m impressed by Pedreira’s opening and that’s an early goal for the Spanish team. Things rapidly start to get confusing from this point, though. The first-person narrator asserts that she “hardly know[s] her” and then more baldly, “I don’t know Mamá.” It seems that she knows her from the biography printed on the inside cover of her books (it seems Mamá is an author) rather from any personal interactions with her. It seems that the narrator has been raised by her father (Papá) alone, which led to some bullying at school and an angry retaliation:
Your daddy is a man–mommy. The insult flew through the air like a dart and stuck me in the face, my angry claws closed in around her neck, three days later the marks were still there.
Instead of the hands-on interactions with her father, her mother is a distant figure: “Mamá’s entire life fits inside the books she wrote and published.” The story is a kind of tale of longing as the daughter tries in vain to find a connection with this distant mother who has never been a part of her life. There’s some poignancy here, but I’m not sure that Pedreira ever quite manages to find the back of the metaphorical net again with this story.
The Belarusian contender is “Chlorophyll: A Reminiscence” by Tatsiana Zamirovskaya, translated (from Russian, not Belarusian) by Fiona Bell, and published in the Spring 2021 edition of World Literature Today. The timing is important as the story seems to clearly allude to lockdown situations during the pandemic:
Ever since the stay-at-home order, Edward dreamed of visiting a botanical garden or at least a park. When he was still working, you couldn’t get him to the park for anything: in the evenings he wallowed, splayed out on the broken couch like a blob of mercury emitting dangerous fumes; on the weekends, he sorted through his clothes, started and finished endless TV shows.
Sounds like a pretty regular experience during the lockdowns we endured for longer than most places here in Melbourne, right? The only thing that particularly stands out is that terrific simile: “splayed out on the broken couch like a blob of mercury emitting dangerous fumes”. That’s good enough for a goal there to draw level with Spain.
Things start to get stranger, though:
There was definitely something going on outside: Edward tried to leave the apartment but said that everything out there was covered in cellophane. At home we had enough food for two weeks — no more.
Okay, the cellophane is pretty weird; we seem to be entering the territory of the surreal or perhaps magical realism, where we’re no longer experiencing the world in the way we expect to. This suspicion is confirmed when strange mould starts growing in the apartment and plants behave in unexpected ways:
The Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which everyone here calls a “ZZ plant,” had the crisp, muscular hands of a magician. As if flicking a fan of cards, it released flickering, silvery-black gnats. They took off with difficulty, sporadically, as if they were about to fly in mini-squadrons to attack a tiny little Poland located somewhere under the vanity.
More fantastic imagery there: that’s another goal to Belarus.
Things start getting really weird, however, when the narrator and his flatmate Edward venture down to the basement, where they find a jungle and the other apartment-dwellers hunting wild animals that seem to have been sent there by the authorities, whoever they are.
Edward in particular seems disturbed by this, but when he questions why they have to kill the animals he gets this response:
“If you don’t kill them, they don’t send more,” said 2A. “We heard they didn’t kill them in the building next door. And what happened? That’s it, they didn’t send any more. They’re screwed over there. If you fumble a kill once, they’ll overlook it. The second time is still more or less fine, they’ll just delay the next shipment. After the third time, they won’t send any more.”
Zamirovskaya here seems to be alluding to the kind of rumours that started flying around during the pandemic when government systems were stretched and nobody was sure exactly what the rules were and how they would continue to survive. She’s using the lens of the fantastic to obliquely comment on the real situation in a kind of allegory.
The ending of the story is pleasingly ambiguous and seems to gesture towards a kind of humanism, a valorisation of human connection when we find ourselves at our limits and afraid of the confusing situation we find ourselves in. That’s one final goal to Belarus and a 3–1 victory that sends them through to the second round.
Interestingly, neither of these stories was big on cultural context; they could have been set anywhere in the world and didn’t provide a window on Spanish (Galician) or Belarusian life. Part of what I want my students to get from this tournament is an appreciation of other parts of the world that they can access through literature, but it’s not always as straightforward as reading about particular customs and settings. Literature wouldn’t be nearly as rich as it is if all we were doing is providing descriptions of our surrounding environment and people. Which isn’t to say it can’t do that, but it isn’t limited to that. These were two very high quality stories that I very much enjoyed reading and thinking about.