Off the Shelves
The Sport of Global Politics
by Peter L’Official
Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (HarperCollins, 2004)
George W. Bush and John Kerry: they share New England roots, Yale, and Skull & Bones. Is there nothing to separate the two? Fear not, voters—there is one surefire and sporting distinction. Adopted son of a football-mad state and former owner of the Texas Rangers, Bush remains allied with sports well-steeped in Americana. On the other side of the arena stands Kerry—Fox News’s favorite Frenchman—who, while a soccer star at Yale, scored a hat trick in a game against their "Auld Enemy," Harvard. To prefer soccer, that most "socialist" of sports (according to Jack Kemp) to football or baseball would seem vaguely unpatriotic—no, downright traitorous. Isn’t soccer what they play in Old Europe? Indeed. Sporting preference may seem a trivial method of distinction between these two men, but in light of Franklin Foer’s entertaining treatise, the battle line in the culture wars might now lie on a field, between Bush’s Old Glory and Kerry’s bleu, blanc, et rouge.
Foer’s assignment is attractive enough: travel to the meccas of world "football"—England, Brazil, Italy, Spain, and some lesser lights (yes, America included)—to study globalization’s impact on both the sport and the increasingly interdependent identities of the countries that play it. The "theoretical" aspect of Foer’s subtitle is a bit disingenuous, since he does not cultivate a theory so much as use soccer—arguably the most globalized institution on the planet—as a prism through which to consider the implications of the global economy on the nations and peoples that support a sport "often more deeply felt than religion." Soccer purists believe multinational conglomerate football clubs like the illustrious Real Madrid and Manchester United threaten to stamp down on local cultures with the Adidas-studded boot of capitalism. Foer is not as cynical. He believes that local cultures have not only withstood the fluid assault of these free-market footballing galacticos but they have also launched their own rapid counterattacks, which he suspects "actually increased the power of these local entities—and not always in such a good way."
Foer’s reportage engages first with this darker side of the "beautiful game" at Red Star Belgrade, a Serbian club whose supporters enacted the most gruesome realization of sports as a metaphor for war: terrorizing Muslims and killing at least 2,000 men and women. Rabid hooliganism—with consequences thankfully not as tragic as in Serbia –trouble England and Scotland. Ever since Chelsea FC was purchased by a billionaire Russian-Jewish oil oligarch who wants to import talent, the team’s xenophobic supporters now face—heavens no! cosmopolitanism!—a mixed team of black players and white, hailing from Iceland to le Côte d’Ivoire. Glasgow merely nurses the most virulent crosstown rivalry in all of sport, between Irish Catholic Celtics and Protestant Rangers. Americans lucky enough to watch European football receive it relatively pure, with the tribalism tuned down with a turn of the knob: "Look, Ma, everyone’s singing along together!" What you can’t hear is half of Glasgow singing, "We’re up to our knees in Fenian blood."
A senior editor at the New Republic, Foer’s research is thorough, and he writes with a reporter’s precision, but he lacks the poetic mysticism of Eduardo Galeano or the bittersweet humor of Joe McGinniss, both magnificent soccer scribes. Many chapters, like that chronicling the adjustment of a Nigerian player to Ukranian society, show patient buildup and shrewd reporting but fail to provide adequate emotional payoff. One might say Foer needs to work on his finishing. Occasionally, Foer does summon and channel the passionate intensity of a football devotee into his language. The soccer-mad will appreciate this effort. And like a true fan, his most focused, stirring prose comes when writing about his favorite club, FC Barcelona.
Foer writes reverentially about self-conscious, sophisticated Barça—a stronghold of Catalan nationalism during Franco’s regime—their "modernist aesthetic" and leftist politics, and their refusal to plaster advertisements on their jerseys. Foer saves for Barça his cleverest chapter title: "How Soccer Explains the Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie Nationalism." But his most enduring image remains that of Iranian women, long banned from Tehran’s 120,000-seat stadium, sneaking into the venue disguised as men: defiance immortalized as "the football revolution…, the moment when the people first realized they could challenge their tyrannical rulers." It is an image of an Islam both Bush and Kerry would do well to note, regardless of sporting preference.
From Russia With Love (and Hate)
by Michael Calderone
Eds. Mikhail Iossel and Jeff Parker, Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States (Dalkey Archive Press, 2004)
Having just returned from a month-long stay in Russia’s southern capital, Rostov-on-Don, I feel obliged to clear up some misconceptions. There are no bread riots or endless lines outside bakeries; Coca-Cola is served everywhere; lazy sunbathers flock to the warm Russian beaches; and black-market denim dealing is a thing of the past since the Diesel store opened. "New Russia"—as the media often dubs it—is shedding its Soviet skin.
Although the cold war has ended, and East is meeting West through the global economy, there remain countless stereotypes and misconceptions on either side of the Atlantic. In Amerika: Russian Writers View the United States, twenty-seven essayists take a crack at understanding the world’s remaining superpower. According to them, America is a "utopia," "a land of fools," and everything in between. The book’s title is taken from the Russian pronunciation of America, with a strong "k" sound, reflecting upon contemporary Russian voices, compelling in both praise and derision of their cold war adversary.
However, it is impossible for these writers to observe the United States without looking inward at Russian history and culture. They have lived through communism, perestroika, and presently a democratic, albeit authoritarian, government. Although President Putin—the man whose "soul" was viewed by Bush in their first meeting—has become increasingly controlling, tightening the reins on big business and media, he still remains popular at home, while Bush is often maligned for exercising his presidential authority.
Not surprisingly, there is hostility directed toward the Bush administration, with foreign-policy decisions categorized as foolish, arrogant, and directionless. It can be debated whether this criticism stems from careful analysis of the war on terror, knee-jerk anti-Americanism or hyperpower envy—certainly some Russians yearn for their country’s imperial past. Regardless, the book addresses the conflicted nature of American power in a world that now lacks an equal counterpart. For America "to be a superpower and never demonstrate its superpowerness—is nonsense," writes Vladimire Tuchkov. He realizes that the United States has the military might to do as it pleases but insists that "the world is not as simple as the current American president imagines it to be."
In analyzing current American foreign policy, most writers hark back three years to 9/11 and seize upon it as the pivotal moment, a paradigm shift in world politics. Indeed, much of the world felt bereaved, but there was also a feeling of astonishment, not solely at the barbarism of the acts, but that such a catastrophe could befall New York City. In Amerika, the city is sometimes surreal, awe-inspiring, a metropolis that offers unlimited possibility and staggering difficulty. "I think September 11 was a vision dreamed up not only by the maddest of movie directors," write Sergey Leybgrad, "but by all of us who had quietly envied America its American dream and American dignity, which to justify ourselves we called ‘obnoxious,’ or ‘individualistic.’"
America as myth, a fantastical dream, is the leitmotif, especially considering that some essays were written not from first-hand experience but as result of the influence of movies and media. A confluence of cultural factors shape these writers’ views of a country they have not stepped foot in. For others, the American dream of pleasure and possibility is either reinforced or shattered upon arrival. "Traveling to America cannot not change your life," writes Artur Kudashev, who admits that "of the eight people making up our group, after returning home seven decided to leave Russia forever."
Simply because Americans enjoy more creature comforts than the average Russian does not necessarily mean America is a more desirable place to live. "Russia today is a whole lot more fun and interesting," writes Aleksey Mikheev. "At the very least, we don’t have [America’s] paranoid political correctness and all those idiotic petty prohibitions, like the one that says you can’t drink beer on the street." Drinking tall cans of Baltika beer in Gorky Park, discussing the pressing issues of war, commercialism, and art with young Russians, many of whom speak exceptional English—to describe contemporary Russia simply as "interesting" is a vast understatement for this rapidly changing and evolving country. Perhaps twenty-seven American writers should embark on the same project and compare notes.
The Business of Writing
by Rachael Rakes
Dubravka Ugresic, translated by Celia Hawkesworth, Thank You for Not Reading: Essays on Literary Trivia (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003)
Dubravka Ugresic’s new collection of essays, Thank You for Not Reading, meanders over more ground than its packaging lets on. Dalkey Archive bills it as a "biting critique of book publishing." In reality it’s a gloomy collection of observations on being a writer and reader of literature (as opposed to trash) in the present market-
driven literary scene.
According to Ugresic, as recent cultural trends have moved toward the uncynical, unsubtle, and unironic, trade literature has followed in its path. Popular, mass-market writing succeeds over the literary or the intellectual. In the quest for marketability, editors are forced to consider an author’s physical appearance—their age and style of dress—or the adaptability of their writing for film and television. The kind of writing engendered in this environment is familiar to Ugresic. As a Croatian who grew up in communist Yugoslavia, it reminds her of the type of writing that succeeded in the Soviet Republic:
Contemporary market literature is realistic, optimistic, joyful, sexy, explicitly or implicitly didactic and intended for the broad reading masses. As such, it ideologically remolds and educates working people into the spirit of personal victory, the victory of some good over some evil. It is Socialist Realist.…The American bestseller How Stella Got Her Groove Back has roughly the same healing effect on the American black oppressed female proletariat as Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother once had on the Soviet one.
The censors are still around, too, only the market’s are a bit subtler than Stalin’s: "Writers who were unable to adapt to the demands of the ideological market ended tragically: in camps. Nowadays, writers who cannot adapt to commercial demands end up in their own personal ghetto of anonymity and poverty."
The comparison between Soviet censors and the invisible hand seems apt but is ultimately irresponsible. Ugresic illustrates the similarities by jesting that Stephen King would have done remarkably well as one of Stalin’s "engineer(s) of human souls." By making synonymous a catastrophic ideological political structure with what is essentially the writer’s condition of alienation, Ugresic’s jab comes off as mere resentment of King’s success. Stephen King’s writing is wildly popular, makes tons of money, and is less intellectual than hers. The comparison provides a platform for Ugresic to share her self-pity—that of the unrecognized writer. The degree to which she takes this is a bit surprising, as her last novel, The Museum of Unconditional Surrender, was published by New Directions and lauded by Susan Sontag. It also happens to be great literature—but that doesn’t fold into her treatise here:
She witnesses the London Book Fair opening with Joan Collins, the most celebrated author at that year’s event; she watches Joseph Brodsky get trampled in the New York Times Book Review, while alongside him Ivana Trump is praised for her autobiography’s grasp of Czech history. This point, the inequity of it all, great writing lost to all and trash succeeding, appears in essay after essay and steadily weighs down the playfully anxious prose.
Read apart, many of the pieces have a Bulgakovian intensity (she prefaces that many were written "under the mask of an East European grumbler confused by the dynamics of the global book market"). Ugresic frantically begs us to pay attention to her plight. Read as a complete manifesto, the writing becomes tedious and unrewarding. The first few articles are barbs at celebrity writers, fiction-writing manuals, philistine editors, craven agents and other horrid truths about the current marketplace. As we trudge deeper, Ugresic gradually gets more and more personal. She compares the plight of Eastern European writers and professors with that of their American counterparts, and spends a lot of time on her experience as a female Croatian writer coerced out of her home country. Whether this is the grumbler speaking or Ugresic, the tone is irritatingly condescending, as though the reader is presumed to be more successful than the author.
The essays that do take on the global publishing industry consist of mostly covered points, echoing Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books and Jason Epstein’s Book Business. Unlike either of those works, these ruminations do not add up to a greater conclusion. The collection meanders from the role of women in literary history to Ugresic’s experiences of being nudged out of her home, the former Yugoslavia, and the experience of exile, and finally touches on the world of publishing.
This problem is really an issue of marketing, which is the case in point of Ugresic’s subject matter. What we have here is a collection of essays written over a five-year period about topics as broad as culture and history, loosely bound together by an author’s sense of self-pity. But it’s packaged as a new critique on the state of book publishing—a much more saleable topic.
In the Time of Amin
by Peter Hamby
Moses Isegawa, Snakepit (Knopf, 2004)
With Moses Isegawa’s hefty but galloping debut, 2000’s Abyssinian Chronicles, critics were quick to pepper their reviews of the 462-page Ugandan epic with comparisons to Salman Rushdie and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The novel, like Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, traces one man’s voyage through decades of postcolonial upheaval, replete with corrupt politics, civil war, displacement, disease, and a few doses of magical realism. Isegawa’s book lacked the artistic punch of its predecessors, but the novel’s impressive breadth and its unwavering denunciation of dictators like Milton Obote and Idi Amin made the book a strong achievement nevertheless.
Four years later, with the publication of Snakepit, little has changed for Isegawa. The author once again returns to the familiar backdrop of 1970s Uganda to tell the story of three men angling for power in the corrupt free-for-all that characterized the country under the Amin regime.
Bat Katanga, fresh out of Cambridge, comes home to Kampala eager to use his European credentials to find prosperity as a state bureaucrat. General Bazooka, Bat’s boss, is a paranoid but power-hungry army mafioso desperate to earn Marshal Amin’s respect. Meanwhile, a vagabond British expat named Colonel Robert Ashes has already won Amin’s ear and friendship through his reputation as a ruthless mercenary and fortune seeker. As the three men jostle for clout in the young country, their paths become entwined through their decadent and shadowy deeds, the kind of behavior required for survival during the Amin years. "The reason why the country had gone to the dogs," Isegawa writes, is that "it was full of dogs." He offers a nightmarish vision of a country racked by bribery, xenophobia, and cold, capricious violence.
Unsurprisingly, Isegawa fled to Amsterdam in 1990 to escape the rot left by those decades of depravity. His treatment of Amin, who lost power in a coup over 25 years ago and died last year while in exile in Saudi Arabia, seems to be a deeply personal matter. While Amin was an omnipresent force in Abyssinian Chronicles, the despot was never afforded time as a speaking character, as he is in Snakepit. Here, he serves little narrative purpose other than to give the author a free opportunity to ridicule the man at every step: Isegawa relentlessly portrays the bloated dictator as a man obsessed (whether in truth or in slander) with cocaine, astrology, and bad Hollywood drama. Amin exists only secondhand, mostly through the vantage point of the similarly evil Colonel Ashes, so—perhaps thankfully—we don’t have the opportunity to get into his head. Still, Isegawa’s stinging attitude toward Amin borders on vendetta. It is a deserving grudge. After all, Amin is credited with 500,000 Ugandan murders during his eight-year regime.
Otherwise, Snakepit refuses to spare many words. Isegawa’s writing is sharp and simple, and the story moves quickly despite his sometimes mundane observational tangents. Isegawa succeeds, however, in turning briskly from any hint of boredom to a world of chaotic unrest in a few deft strokes. The world of which he writes allows for such turns. This is a country where the nouveau riche collect BMWs one day and find themselves in a grimy basement prison the next. Innocent people are murdered in bathtubs. A devoted wife is brutally tortured in front of her husband simply for the pleasure of watching him cry. Homes are burned, but not before soldiers smear their own excrement on the walls. In Snakepit, all of this becomes commonplace. Under the Amin regime, much of it was.
"Uganda was like a madwoman of untold beauty," Isegawa laments in one of the novel’s stronger moments. "Efforts to save her were bound to be doomed. Lovers would come and go, breaking their backs trying to free her from the bonds of hell, but it would eventually be left for herself to break the chains." Isegawa hasn’t changed the scenery much since his debut, but he remains a keen and indispensable observer of a particular time and place. The book is guiltily entertaining, and despite its gloom, Isegawa’s nihilism deserves recognition on the postcolonial bookshelf, if only to balance the naively romantic (and often white-washed) voices of Kuki Gallmann-esque African pop-lit that continue to litter the stacks at Barnes and Noble. While Uganda today is a relative success story—it has a stable democracy and the continent’s strongest AIDS program—a novel like Snakepit refuses to let us forget that today’s progress did not arrive without some very cruel sacrifices.
by Scott Hightower
Pure Pagan: Seven Centuries of Greek Poems and Fragments, selected and translated by Burton Raffel, introduction by Guy Davenport (Modern Library, 2004)
Perhaps the dog days offer many some time for mindless trash beach reading and some convention watching. Downtime is often tucked in with a vantage for voyeurism, balloons, and gaudy grandeur. Or, perhaps led by their quandary over the heightened national security alert, many pick up a copy of the hot sell of the summer—The 9-11 Commission Report.
This summer, one of the most arresting books that crossed my desk came to me in the form of a request for a review. Modern Library was releasing a new collection of ancient Greek poetry selected and translated by Burton Raffel with an introduction by Guy Davenport.
Perhaps I had been watching too much CNN coverage of the proposal to amend the constitution to exclude gay marriages, the publicity bouts of Michael Moore, or the presidential campaigns. I even recall thinking that a bit of campy Greek poetry with a couple of tawdry satyrs might fill that summer yearning for a spot of beach trash reading. (Even though I have a penchant for things pagan, I elected to pass on the earlier summer offering of Troy.)
It’s not that I am without facility in reviewing such a book. I thought of tangents that might serve: Pasolini’s wonderful film Medea, starring Maria Callas in the title role. (I often show it in classes as a window into the ancient world.) I also include in one of my lectures on literary style the shift of taste from Athens and Homeric to Alexander the Great’s bustling city of Alexandria and the later, more anti-epic, human style.
For academic extrapolation, I thought I might extract from Linda Dowling’s wonderful study Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford, with its theories of martial valor, its metaphysics of community, aesthetics and effeminacy, and its clarity, found in such passages as "certain rights of full citizenship derive directly from [one’s] willingness to die [for one’s country]." Her arguments squarely center on a social anxiety that seems to be resonating all over the macho competing presidential campaigns: This anxiety "regards any signs of ‘effeminacy’ as evidence that the deepest mental or spiritual foundations of the polity—the willingness and ability of its citizens to defend it even unto death—are threatened with collapse."
When my copy of Pure Pagan arrived, I was in for a surprise. Nothing campy or brimming with anachronistic vulgarity. The book is one of clear short poems—poems wise and witty and full of humor and philosophical ruminations on everyday life. The translation is terrific. Two thousand years could detract. But here the resonations are never impeded—tombstones, travelers, bacchanalian party preparations, songs from kitchens and bedrooms, of arms bearers.
The lines are remarkably fresh and inviting. In one, Hermes, the patron of travelers’ justice, offers comfort:
Here I stand
At the crossroads,
Next to the windswept trees,
Near the gray cold beach.
I offer tired travelers rest.
The water I offer
Is cold and pure.
In a very different poem, where someone speaks from the grave, the voice (Charidas’)—on hearing that the mourner above is without hope—in dark comedy notes, "But I can tell you good news, too:/Meat is cheap, down here."
In another, the epigraph from a heroic warrior’s tomb is as unambiguous as it is moving:
Amyntor, Philip’s son, lies in this Lydian soil.
His hands were full of iron war.
No sickness led him into the darkness:
He died holding his shield over a wounded friend.
In another poem, the lesson of vanity even reaches further. The Greek notion of justice is still straightforward, while the verse itself is as lyrical as it is didactic:
To learn just who you are
Look at tombs as you walk.
They hold the bones, the powdered dust
Of kings and tyrants.
Of men glorying in their gold and their glory
And their beautiful bodies.
And when the time came
What protected them against death?
Nothing. Everyone living dies the same death.
Look at tombs and learn just who you are.
It would be easy to go on about manliness, warrior ideals, and ideals of martial and civic virtues. Democratic. Republican. Projections of loathing and fear. But the Greeks—our own pagan predecessors—cheerfully adjure us from their poetry and across two thousand years: our gravest dangers lie in the weakness of our ideas rather than our defenses.
Scott Hightower is the author of two books. Part of the Bargain, his third collection, received the 2004 Hayden Carruth Poetry Award and is forthcoming.