The din of South African vuvuzelas has barely died away, yet here it is again—the World Cup. For the next month the finest soccer teams in the world will meet on Brazilian pitches, eliminating each other one by one until a final champion is crowned. As always, it promises to be a fascinating pageant, whether or not you’re a follower of the Beautiful Game. Whenever the whole globe decides to take part in something, it’s worth paying attention.
True soccer fans can fill the downtime between matches with some excellent new books, including the sumptuously illustrated 1000 Football Shirts and Eight World Cups, George Vecsey’s personal history of a lifetime covering the sport. But even those not athletically inclined have a way to to show their international spirit and get in on the action.
The crafty folks at Three Percent, an online resource built to promote translated literature, have cooked up a World Cup of their own. They’ve chosen a representative book from each one of the 32 nations taking the field in Brazil and matched them against each other. As the real teams do battle, judges will read the books and determine winners, passing the best along to the following rounds. By the time the national squads have booted, tackled, and sweated their way down to a single victor, the judges of the World Cup of Literature will have also chosen the best book on the planet….
Is it a little ridiculous to pit books against each other this way? Of course. Is the process subject to the whims and foibles of individual taste? Obviously. Is the whole idea that a single book can be “the best” inherently flawed? Absolutely. But is it fun? I say yes. It’s a great opportunity to expose yourself to fiction from the far corners of the world and root for authors, however arbitrarily. Maybe you love their books, maybe you just love the cuisine of their homelands. Doesn’t matter.
The first-round matchups:
- Brazil/Cameroon: Chico Barque’s Budapest vs. Leonora Miano’s Dark Heart of the Night
- Russia/Algeria: Vladimir Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik vs. Leila Marouane’s The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
- Italy/England: Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment vs. Zadie Smith’s NW
- Spain/Australia: Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow vs. Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch
- Colombia/Japan: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores vs. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84
- Switzerland/Honduras: Urs Widmer’s My Mother’s Lover vs. Horacio Castellanos Moya’sSenselessness
- Argentina/Nigeria: César Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter vs. Chris Abani’sGraceland
- Mexico/Croatia: Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd vs. Dubravka Ugrešić’s Baba Yaga Laid an Egg
- Portugal/USA: Gonçalo Tavares’s Jerusalem vs. David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King
- France/Ecuador: Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory vs. Alicia Yánez Cossío’s The Potbellied Virgin
- Chile/Netherlands: Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile vs. Hermann Koch’s The Dinner
- Greece/Côte d’Ivoire: Amanda Michalopoulou’s Why I Killed My Best Friend vs. Ahmadou Kourouma’s Allah Is Not Obliged
- Bosnia & Herzegovina/Iran: Saša Stanišić’s How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone vs. Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s The Colonel
- Belgium/South Korea: Dimitri Verhulst’s The Misfortunates vs. Young-ha Kim’s Your Republic Is Calling You
- Uruguay/Costa Rica: Mario Benedetti’s The Rest Is Jungle vs. Oscar Núñez Oliva’s Cadence of the Moon
- Germany/Ghana: W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz vs. Kojo Laing’s Search Sweet Country
A diverse array of titles, all contemporary and selected to reflect the current literary scene, which is much more interesting in my mind than trying to weigh so-called classics against each other. Moby-Dick vs. Middlemarch would be a whole ‘nother kind of tournament.
Some of the favorites here correlate with the heavy favorites in the real World Cup—Spain, Germany, and Brazil probably have equal chances to win on grass or on the page. There’s more likelihood of a breakthrough for the underdog nations in the World Cup of Lit, though. You have to think the US will be better represented by David Foster Wallace than by its 23-member, Landon Donovanless national soccer squad. (What were you thinking, Coach Klinsmann?) The smaller nations have a fighting chance because of the high quality of their entries, but also because of the capricious nature of the judging. You can’t completely trust those decision makers. I know because I am one.
That’s right, yours truly will be presiding over the final first-round match between Germany and Ghana. I have my own thoughts about Sebald and Laing, but FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has a long tradition of corruption that I’m honor-bound to uphold, so your opinions carry just as much weight as mine, assuming you back them properly. There’s plenty of time between now and June 26th, when the winner of my match is declared, to ply me with inducements of all kinds. I’m partial to dark chocolate and Belgian beer, but a simple cash bribe is always acceptable.
Unmarked bills, please.