This past May, in the buildup to the World Cup, the New York Times’s soccer blog, Goal, ran a roundup of new soccer-related books timed to be released just before this summer’s tournament.
There are some interesting books, even more so perhaps this year because the Cup is being held in Africa for the first time. But I thought it might also be fun to use the idea of the World Cup, now in its final days, to kick off a discussion of some recent (or not-so-recent) books that might otherwise be overlooked. So I started thinking of a list of some of my favorite novels and collections from Argentina, Spain, Nigeria, Brazil . . . and on and on. Why did I do this? No special reason—I thought it might be fun, lord knows books could use more attention these days, and I had some time on my hands at work. But then I ran into countries such as Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, not to mention Paraguay and North Korea. What was I to do? (It would’ve been so much easier if Russia, Turkey, and the Czech Republic had qualified!)
Well, I winged it anyway. So here you go—a completely subjective, idiosyncratic collection of titles from around the world, with some obvious gaps here and there and a few assists from friends to make it complete. Feel free to weigh in with your own selections, too, if so inspired—let’s make this a World Cup to remember.
South Africa: There’s really a wealth of excellent new writing being published from South Africa—most recently, Marlene van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat (Tin House Books), which Toni Morrison championed at this year’s PEN World Voices festival in New York. But here I have to go with Ivan Vladislavic’s wonderfully off-beat love letter to his native city, Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked (W.W. Norton)
Mexico: A little bit creepy, a little bit bizarre: Mario Bellatin’s AIDS allegory, Beauty Salon (City Lights).
Uruguay: Who else but Galeano? His most recent, Mirrors: Stories of Almost Everyone (Nation Books), is just that—stories from the dawn of time to the end of the twentieth century, in Galeano’s inimitable radical, rascally voice.
France: I can’t resist a novel with a soccer subplot, so I have to go with French-Senegelese author Fatou Diome’s story of African immigrants—and footballers—in France, The Belly of the Atlantic (Serpent’s Tail).
Argentina: Tomas Eloy Martinez wrote two amazing novels revolving around Evita Perón (has anyone written a Maradona novel yet?), but The Tango Singer (Bloomsbury) is pure Buenos Aires soul.
Nigeria: I’d be foolish not to mention Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Biafran War saga, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf), but I’m still a bitwonder struck re-reading Ben Okri’s masterwork, The Famished Road (Anchor).
Greece: After a bit of head-scratching, it hit me: Daniel Mendelsohn’s new collection of C.P. Cavafy’s poetry (Knopf)!
England: Geoff Dyer is a literary trickster, the equivalent of a player who can attack from any angle. He calls his latest genre-bending “novel,” Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Vintage), a diptych. Enough said.
USA: Sherman Alexie! His new book of stories, War Dances (Grove), shows off all his winning moves.
Algeria: Aziz Chouaki’s The Star of Algiers (Graywolf). (Also excerpted in Rob Spillman’s excellent collection, Gods and Soldiers: The Penguin Anthology of Contemporary African Writing.)
Slovenia: It’s tempting to resist the “balkanization” of literature here—books, unlike politics and soccer, tend to rise above national labels. But taking our cue from this year’s Cup, I can at least point you to Transcript: the European Internet Review of Books and Writing’s issue of Slovenian voices.
Germany: German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s novella The Book of Words (New Directions) is a haunting allegory of political repression and torture—is it meant to be Argentina?—through the eyes of an acutely sensitive teen.
Australia: I’ve been meaning to read Exterminate All the Brutes author Sven Lindqvist’s latest work of unearthed history, Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land (New Press).
Serbia: Danilo Kis, A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (Dalkey Archive Press): This classic continues to sit patiently—as it has for years—on my bookshelf, waiting to be cracked open.
Ghana: Here’s a chance to dip into the great Heinemann African Writers series: Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born is one of the key titles of the first wave of post-independence African writing.
Netherlands: Moses Isegawa—Uganda-born, Holland-based—wrote his first novel, Abyssinian Chronicles (Vintage), about Idi Amin–era Uganda, in Dutch. Impressive all around.
Denmark: I’ll have to go with Peter Hoeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (Delta), a forerunner of the recent boom of Scandinavian thrillers from Stieg Larsson and the like.
Japan: A friend, an avid reader of Japanese fiction, suggests the free-floating, hallucinatory tales of Yoko Ogawa’s The Diving Pool (Picador).
Cameroon: Mongo Beti’s The Story of the Madman, from the University of Virginia’s Caribbean and African Literature series. Like Armah and Achebe, Beti is pure Old School African Lit.
Italy: I remember reading Antonio Tabucchi’s slim, whispery travel-novella, Indian Nocturne (New Directions), on a flight to India once, and it stuck with me the whole trip.
Paraguay: Paraguayan author Augusto Roa Bastos’s I, the Supreme (Dalkey Archive), like Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch and Vargas Llosa’sThe Feast of the Goat, is a classic of the aging-Latin-American-dictator genre.
New Zealand: I can still recall walking out of the movie theater shattered and disturbed after seeing Once Were Warriors. So let’s say Alan Duff’s original novel of modern-day Maori rage and violence (Vintage).
Slovakia: Czech writers we know—Hrabal, Kundera, Havel, Jachym Topol, Patrik Ourednik—but Slovak writers? Translator Alex Zucker pointed me to a few helpful Web sites, including Transcript and Twisted Spoon Press.
Brazil: I’ve long been under the spell of Brazilian author Clarice Lispector, who finally got her closeup last year with Benjamin Moser’s monumental Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector (Oxford University Press). But where to start? My favorite is her first novel, Near to the Wild Heart (New Directions), but you can join in on a discussion of her final work, The Hour of the Star (New Directions), over at PEN.org now.
North Korea: If at first I thought I’d have to sweat this one out, in the end I didn’t need to look any further than WWB’s own groundbreaking North Korea issue and the selections in Literature from the “Axis of Evil.” Elsewhere on the Web, the complete review offers up their own pointers.
Ivory Coast: Of the spate of recent African child-soldier novels, Allah Is Not Obliged, by the late, great Ivorian author Ahmadou Kourouma (Anchor), is my top choice.
Portugal: Who are some of the new generation of Portuguese writers? Jose Peixoto, author of The Implacable Order of Things (Anchor), and Goncalo Tavares, author of Jerusalem (Dalkey Archive), are two leading lights.
Spain: Will Spain actually win it all this year? They’ll need the fire, the passion, the inspiration that poet Garcia Lorca called duende. New Directions has recently reissued his classic essay collection, In Search of Duende.
Switzerland: If you thought iPods are getting smaller and smaller, check out Robert Walser’s wondrously-produced Microscripts (New Directions).
Honduras: Shall we agree to give this next-to-last open net to the Polish master, Ryszard Kapuscinski , whose The Soccer War (Vintage) covered the conflict between Honduras and El Salvador over a soccer match?
Chile: Tempting to end here with Roberto Bolaño, certainly the new maestro of world lit—how can you beat Savage Detectives (FSG), 2666 (FSG), plus the slew of smaller works that New Directions has been pumping out? But let’s usher in a new generation with Alejandro Zambra’s The Private Lives of Trees (Open Letter), due out, coincidentally, just around the time of the finals.