Roving thoughts and provocations

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A Game Without Rules

Marc Riboud/Magnum Photos
London’s Wembley Stadium, 1954

In 1904, three years after the first Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to the French poet Sully Prudhomme, the English Football Association chose not to participate in the formation of an International Football Federation (FIFA). They could not see the point. Nor in 1930, the year in which Sinclair Lewis won the Nobel, did England participate in the first World Cup: the English objected to the prospect of a ten-day ocean crossing to Uruguay to play teams that meant nothing to them. The first international football game, they pointed out, had been between England and Scotland, in 1872—a time when Alfred Nobel was still focused on improving his dynamite. Who needs Argentina or Brazil when you have Scotland to play?

I am not the first to draw attention to parallel processes of internationalization in sports and literature. As with many analogies, it is the combination of similarity and difference that is illuminating. For all the different styles of play in different countries and continents, football is a game whose rules can be universally applied. North Korea plays Mexico with a Swedish referee and despite one or two contested offside decisions a result is recorded and one team can pass to the next round without too much discussion. But can we feel so certain when the Swedish referee judges poems from those two countries that he will pick the right winner? Or even that there is a “right” winner? Or even a competition? The Mexican did not write his or her poems with the idea of getting a winning decision over the North Korean, or with a Swedish referee in mind. At least we hope not.

The interesting thing, then, about the English refusal to participate in the early World Cups is that, although there was no real obstacle to measuring themselves against teams from far away, they did not feel that this competition for notional world supremacy was what the sport was for. What mattered was familiar communities confronting each other in the stadium—that would give meaning to the game.

Vice versa, what is fascinating about international literary prizes is that the obstacles to choosing between writers coming from different cultures and working in different languages are so evident and daunting as to render the task almost futile; yet such is the appetite for international prizes and for winners that people do everything possible to overlook this. So what is the underlying purpose of these prizes? To what extent are novelists—like athletes in the Olympics, or soccer players in the World Cup—being asked to contribute to the building of a vast and for the moment largely imaginary global culture? In what way does this change the kind of literature that gets written, and the way it is written and talked about?

Rudyard Kipling in his study, c. 1895

In late October, these questions were the subject of Towards a Global Literature, a conference of writers, translators, and literary scholars that I and my colleague Edoardo Zuccato organized at IULM University in Milan. In the opening presentation, David Damrosch, head of Comparative Literature at Harvard and founder of the World Institute for Literature, rather unexpectedly focused on the work of Rudyard Kipling. Based in Lahore, the twenty-year-old Kipling had started out writing for the local Anglo-Indian community, publishing his short stories in the city’s newspaper. Later, as he became aware of a wider readership in England and the United States, he developed all kinds of strategies for making his fiction more accessible to readers who would know little of India; gradually, Damrosch suggested, discovering and “explaining” India became a central part of Kipling’s work.

Thus begins the development of a kind of literary fiction that is largely detached from debates internal to a nation and presented instead as an opportunity to discover a distant community and a sense of our place in a larger world. One important stop along this road toward a literature of international exchange was the explosion of South American magical realism, which enjoyed its defining moment with Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the work of Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Isabel Allende, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, and others, magical realism offered Americans and Europeans an account of South America in which it was honestly hard to see much difference in spirit or atmosphere between the dozens of countries and communities of this vast continent.

The Mexican novelist Jorge Volpi, who is very much in favor of internationalization, nevertheless points out how difficult it had become at the height of magical realism for South American writers to get themselves published if they didn’t subscribe to this highly stylized vision of literature. At the IULM conference, he explained how in the 1990s a group of Chilean writers formed the so-called McOndo group (an ironic reformulation of Macondo, the central location in One Hundred Years of Solitude), complaining that by gaining the approval of powerful readerships abroad, magical realism was preventing South American writers from recounting the more prosaic truths about the continent.

Volpi himself belongs to a Mexican group known as Crack, which also came into being to oppose magical realism—though this does not mean he writes realistically about his native Mexico. On the second evening of the conference he gave a reading from his recent novel Season of Ash, which is set in Russia, a country the author confessed to knowing hardly at all; the novel follows the lives of scientists and politicians in the last phases of the communist collapse, and in particular explores the way Russia had persecuted scientists researching into the human genome, since they felt that such research undermined a Marxist view of history. Another young South American writer following a similar strategy, Volpi remarked, was Andrés Neumann whose huge recent novel Traveler of the Century is entirely set in eighteenth century Germany. In this kind of fiction, then, the novelist ‘explains’ not his own country to a distant western reader, nor a country he has visited extensively to his home readers; rather he opens up, or fantasizes, a country he barely knows, for the benefit of a worldwide public. It was interesting, in the discussion that followed Volpi’s reading, to see that the most enthusiastic were the academics, in particular Damrosch and the Belgian academic Theo D’haen, while the most perplexed were those who had an investment in a literature radically situated within the writer’s own community, in particular my colleague Edoardo Zuccato, who writes poetry in Milanese dialect—and, I confess, myself.

Magical realism was not, of course, confined to South America. Among others, a number of Anglo-Indian authors used their own versions of the style to create a new vision of India for international readers; one of those authors was so spectacularly out of touch with the nation he was supposedly presenting to the West that the violent reaction to his Satanic Verses after its publication in India caught him entirely by surprise. On the second day of the conference, Francesca Orsini, a scholar of Hindi literature (and an Italian academic working at the University of London), posed an interesting question: There are many important books written in the languages of the subcontinent and then translated into English, among them Bhalchand Nemade’s Cocoon, Vinod Kumar Shukla’s The Servant’s Shirt, Geetanjali Shree’s Mai, and Krishna Sobti’s The Heart has its Reasons. Why do they not have the same international success as works by Anglo-Indian authors like Rushdie, Vikrim Seth, and Arundhati Roy? Translation, she remarked, could make a novel available, but the real exoticism of the truly foreign text remained a barrier to most readers.

Lebanese writer Hassan Daoud, 2004

Zuccato, the Milanese poet, might have been answering her question, when he made an impassioned attack on the whole concept of post-colonial literature. He suggested that those postwar writers in Africa and India who had chosen to write in English and French for the international community had not only given us a superficial and easily consumed exoticism; in doing so they had made it less likely that a Western public would make the effort to read those working in the local languages and offering something that would be genuinely “other” from the Western novel package we are used to. The Milan-based literary agent, Marco Vigevani, rather confirmed this when he pointed out the situation of Arab language writers such as the Lebanese Hassan Daoud and the Egyptian Makkawi Said who work in traditional genres that mix poetry and prose that have no Western corollary. Prominent in the Arab world, these writers get almost no attention in the West because nobody has any idea how to read them even when they are translated.

What I found fascinating, as this discussion bounced back and forth, was that no one seemed to accept the idea that it might be enough to address one’s own community, that perhaps it was not strictly necessary to appear in this global space or contribute to its formation. Why should the literary world allow itself to be hijacked by this larger project?

The ideal of a single world community is an entirely honourable thing, but when literature (like football) becomes an instrument for creating that community, then there are other implications that may not be so attractive. Bas Heijne, a Dutch essayist and critic, gave one of the most interesting talks of the conference, suggesting that globalization invites us to see our own cultures as foreign and minor and even proposing that as English dominates the international literary scene, fiction is becoming more and more self referential and less genuinely engaged with any society. However, despite Heijne’s fascinating presentation, none of his own considerable body of work is available in English. Who would translate a Dutch essayist? In one discussion someone threw in the ominous prediction, fielded in David Crystal’s book Language Death, that by 2100 between 50 percent and 90 percent of the world’s languages will disappear.

Was the IULM conference itself part of this process? With speakers from many countries, all the sessions and discussions were in English. Some later complained that the novelists present who do not write in English, Peter Stamm and Jorge Volpi, should have read at least something in their native languages and not exclusively in English translation, though the writers themselves seemed happy enough to read in the language most widely understood. Some of the English participants found the accents of those speaking English as a second language hard to handle. Some of the non-academics found the academic jargon of one or two high-powered professors incomprehensible, even though they shared the same tongue, while an Italian doctorate student told me she found the academics easier to understand, because Italians are all too used to scholarly jargon; it was the colloquialisms and accents of the non-academic native English speakers she found impossible.

Yet curiously, despite all this trouble communicating, everybody declared the conference a success. They seemed happy simply to be there, to meet others from other countries and environments, to try to fathom what is changing with the ever more rapid circulation of literature worldwide. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s not important really to understand, but simply to feel one is present and participating in the huge new community that is forming.

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