The MHS World Cup of Literature: The Draw

Blair Mahoney
Jul 25, 2018 · 10 min read
Let the voyage begin! (photo source)

The draw has been completed and these are the match-ups for the first round. I’ve included a brief look at the literature of each of the countries for each of these matches. Who do you think will be the favourites to proceed to the next round?

  1. Australia: ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’ — Cate Kennedy vs Egypt: ‘Scenes from the Life of an Autocrat’ — Basma Abdel Aziz. As you might imagine, Australian literature is something I’m pretty familiar with, and I have read Cate Kennedy’s work before. Egyptian literature is more of a mystery to me. When it comes to that arbiter of literary merit, the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s one-all, with Patrick White winning in 1973 and Naguib Mahfouz winning in 1988. Egyptian literature has a very long lineage, of course, as does the oral tradition in Australia, although written Australian literature is more recent. Both of these countries were knocked out of the first round of the football World Cup, so one will advance further here. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi?
  2. Argentina: ‘A Perfect Wife’ — Angélica Gorodischer vs Phillipines: ‘Equations of State’ — Kristine Ong Muslim. If this was a football match it wouldn’t be very close, but we’re dealing with literature here. Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges is one of my all-time favourite writers (and specialised in short stories, which are our focus here). I’ve read quite a few other Argentinian writers as well, but I know essentially nothing about the literature of the Phillipines, so they’re a dark horse here. You can check out more about Phillipine literature from The Culture Trip: The 10 Best Books in Philippine Literature.
  3. Kenya: ‘Secondhand Wife’ — Ken N. Kamoche vs Malaysia: ‘Doppelgänger’ — Dipika Mukherjee. Two more countries here that I have limited familiarity with their literature. I have read A Grain of Wheat by the great Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o but not much else when it comes to Kenyan literature. Interestingly, Ngũgĩ, after writing his first books in English made a conscious turn towards writing in Gikuyu as part of a process he called ‘decolonising the mind’. Names that I’m familiar with in Malaysian literature include Tan Twan Eng And Tash Aw, both of whom write in English and have been long listed for the Man Booker Prize.
  4. Greece: ‘The History of Grains’ — Gianni Skaragas vs Italy: ‘Anyone Can Be Replaced (an excerpt)’ — Peppe Fiore. Okay, we’re talking serious literary heritage when it comes to these two countries. I’m familiar with Homer, of course, and a number of the Ancient Greek philosophers, but when it comes to modern Greek literature I haven’t read much. The big name in twentieth century Greek literature is Nikos Kazantzakis, who is most famous for Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ. I’ve been to Italy three times, including earlier this year, and I was reading a lot of Italian literature as preparation/background. A name not so familiar to anglophone readers is Leonardo Sciascia, but the Sicilian writer, known for writing about the Mafia, has become one of my favourites. I’m also a big fan of Nobel laureate Luigi Pirandello. My wife’s family comes from Italy and I love the country, so I’m hoping they’ll progress…
  5. Russia: ‘Annus Mirabilis (Anus Horribilis)’ — Aleksey Lukyanov vs Taiwan: ‘Birds’ — Wu Ming-yi. From a geopolitical point of view, people might have been hoping for a contest between Russia and the Ukraine, or Russia and the USA; maybe it’ll happen in coming rounds if they make it through. Russia were surprising underdogs at the football World Cup, but they’re definitely heavyweights of world literature. Writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov are legendary and Taiwan, with its more recent history (and controversial status as a separate country — China must be fuming that Taiwan is represented here and they aren’t…), is definitely the underdog here. I’ll outsource to Culture Trip again for some hints on who you might check out from Taiwan: 6 Taiwanese Writers You Should Know.
  6. Ukraine: ‘The Demon of Hunger’ — Tania Malyarchuk vs Iraq: ‘Approaching Zainab’ — Luma Sarhan. I thought I would be blank on Ukrainian writers, but if you include those who were born in places located in present day Ukraine then there is a star-studded line-up of writers I love, including Mikahil Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Roth, Anna Akhmatova, Irene Nemirovsky and more. Wow. Iraq is a place with ancient history going back to Babylon, but another one that’s more of a mystery in terms of modern literature. Luckily Lit Hub has some recommendations: The Best Contemporary Iraqi Writing About War.
  7. France: ‘The Cadillac’ — Sylvie Weil vs Ethiopia: ‘It’s All the Same’ — Bewketu Seyoum. Can France go back to back as winners of both the football World Cup and World Cup of Literature? France is another literary heavyweight and has won more Nobel Prizes in Literature than any other country. I’ve read works by their two most recent winners, JMG Le Clezio and Patrick Modiano and other winners include Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre (although he declined the prize). Here’s a list of 12 French Classics Every Book Lover Should Read. Ethiopia might seem to be up against it, but this contest isn’t about the history it’s about these particular writers. One of the stars of current Ethipoian literature (apart from our entrant Bewketu Seyoum) is Dinaw Mengetsu, who is based in the US and has won a number of awards for his writing.
  8. Israel: ‘Made Flesh’ — Alit Karp vs Finland: ‘The Catacombs’ — Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen. The modern state of Israel is another relatively recent one, but their writers, such as SY Agnon, AB Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman and Etgar Keret, have made quite an impact. You can read more about Israeli literature here. The name that springs to mind for me when it comes to Finnish literature is Tove Jansson, creator of the Moomins. She actually wrote in Swedish and also wrote some beautiful novels for adults. This is Finland have a list of people’s favourite Finnish books if you would like to widen your scope.
  9. Denmark: ‘Labrador’ — Daniel Dencik vs USA: ‘The Binding of Isaac’ — Stephen Mitchell. Denmark has a strong literary tradition and probably the shining light is Hans Christian Andersen. Beyond his famous fairytales there’s the work of Karen Blixen (who also wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen) and modern writers like Peter Høeg. And what can you say about the USA? I’ve probably read more novels from America than any other country and they bestride English-language publishing like a colossus. There are too many names to mention, but how about you consider checking out the work of poets Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath, or the novels of Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich, just to stick to some notable women of letters?
  10. Morocco: ‘Prosopopoeia (an excerpt)’ — Farid Tali vs Slovenia: ‘Anton’ — Polona Glavan. Two more countries that I’m yet to the discover the literature of! Moroccan writers that I’ve heard of at least include Tahar Ben Jelloun and Laila Lalami. Culture Trip comes to the rescue again: Ten Contemporary Moroccan Writers You Should Know. I haven’t even heard of any of the authors on this Culture Trip list of An Introduction to Slovenian Literature in 12 Works. This match-up will be an interesting one.
  11. India: ‘The Tale of a Coward’ — Premendra Mitra vs Hungary: ‘Danube 1954’ — Zsuzsa Selyem. Okay, India is a place I’m more comfortable with. I wrote my Master’s thesis on the novels of Salman Rushdie and my aborted PhD was also looking at Indian writers in English, including people like Arundhati Roy and Vikram Seth. Of course Indian literature is a lot more than just that written in English. India has 122 major languages and many of those have their own rich literary traditions. How can Hungary compete against the second most populous country in the world that has so many languages? Well, Hungary has just the one official language, but it’s reputedly the most difficult language in the world to learn. Hungary is also a superstar when it comes to contemporary literature. I’ve been blown away by authors like László Krasznahorkai and Imre Kertész (winner of the Nobel Prize), but there are plenty more writers to check out. And then there’s the amazing film director Béla Tarr (who has adapted several books by Krasznahorkai). My heart is torn over this contest!
  12. Brazil: ‘The Green Ball’ — Lygia Fagundes Telles vs Austria: ‘Typhoid (an excerpt)’ — Klaus Hoffer. Brazil is another big country when it comes to size; can they repeat their great success in the football World Cup when it comes to literature? Big names of the past include Machado de Assis and Clarice Lispector (whose work I have loved). Check out some more names here: The 10 Best Brazilian Writers. I love the city of Vienna, which fostered a rich literary scene in its cafes. Austrian writers I admire include Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Robert Musil, Joseph Roth and Hermann Broch. You can read more about Austrian literature here.
  13. Mexico: ‘The Objects’ — Yuri Herrera vs Belgium: ‘The Tenants’ — Anne Richter. Yuri Herrera is one of the few contestants here that I’d read already. There are lots of great contemporary Mexican novelists, including Valeria Luiselli and, going back further in time, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo. Book Riot has a list of 11 Mexican Authors to Read Right Now. I have a soft spot for Belgium, too. Mostly for its amazing beer (and waffles and chocolate and frites in mayonnaise), but also for its literature. That goes back to my childhood and the works of Hergé, the author of Tintin, but also extends to Willem Elsschot’s wonderful short novel Cheese. Here are some classic authors and works you might wish to know.
  14. Norway: ‘Dreamwriter (Autobiography)’ — Gunnhild Øyehaug vs Singapore: ‘Eyes and Ears’ — O Thiam Chin. The contemporary star of Norwegian literature is Karl Ove Knausgård, but they have plenty of other great writers, including Knut Hamsun. Writer Dea Brøvig picks her top 10 Norwegian novels. Singapore is another country that I’ve travelled to, but I’m not so familiar with the writing that’s come out of there. Luckily, Culture Trip comes to the rescue again with An Introduction To Singaporean Literature In 6 Authors.
  15. Iran: ‘The Shipwrecked’ — Moniru Ravanipour vs Greenland: ‘The Grouse Hunt’ — Iben Mondrup. I’m not sure how much thought the people of Iran give to Greenland on a regular basis, but they’ll be taking them on in this match. Persian literature is one of the world’s oldest. My main literary introduction to Iran was in the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi (including Persepolis). Author Kamin Mohammadi includes Satrapi in her list of top 10 Iranian books. Greenland, an autonomous country that forms part of the Kingdom of Denmark, is the contestant with the smallest population (around 56,000) in this competition. How will they fare against the much bigger Iran? Well, you might get some clues from this article: How Greenlandic Writer Niviaq Korneliussen Is Putting Her Country on the Literary Map.
  16. New Zealand: ‘Home’ — Alison Wong vs Peru: ‘Cyber-proletarian’ — Claudia Salazar Jiménez. It feels appropriate to me that the country I was born and grew up in should be represented by a story called ‘Home’ and by a Kiwi who lives in Australia. Also appropriate for the country that was first in the world where women gained the right to vote, the most famous New Zealand writers are probably a quartet of women: Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme and Eleanor Catton (the last two were winners of the Man Booker Prize). New Zealand also has some wonderful Maori literature, with writers like Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace being standouts. Here are 10 Books to Read Before Visiting New Zealand. The giant of Peruvian literature is Nobel Prize-winner Mario Vargas Llosa. Beyond his work I’m a little stumped, but here is An Introduction to Peruvian Literature in 7 Writers. New Zealand actually faced Peru in a qualifier for the football World Cup and lost that one. Can they do better with literature? Fingers crossed…
  17. Germany: ‘We Were the New Era’ — Andreas Baum vs Bangladesh: ‘Beloved Rongomala (an excerpt)’ — Shaheen Akhtar. Germany is another of those countries that’s a heavyweight in both football and literature. I’ve been reading some of the work of their most famous writer, Goethe, this year and they have more than enough big names to populate a football team, with the likes of Günter Grass, Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald. Here is a list of 10 German books you have to read before you die. Bangladesh is seemingly up against it then. Shaheen Akhtar’s story is from the May 2013 issue of World Literature Today, which showcased ‘Bangladesh on the World Stage.’
  18. Lithuania: ‘The Blockage’ — Žydrūnas Drungilas vs Montenegro: ‘Leaving’ — Slađana Kavarić. The British Council has an ‘Introduction to Lithuanian literature’, which is just as well, as I didn’t know anything about it. The same can be said for Montenegro, which only gained its independence in 2006. Luckily, World Literature Today is on the case: From Turmoil and Diversity: Contemporary Montenegrin Prose Writing.
  19. South Africa: ‘The Prisoners of the Past’ — Deena Padayachee vs Chile: ‘#Moving’ — María José Navia. Our final match of the first round pits South Africa against Chile. The biggest name in South African literature would have to be Nobel Prize-winner JM Coetzee, although he is now an Australian citizen and has been resident in Adelaide for many years. He is one of my favourite writers, but you can find about some other South African writers here. Chile has their own Nobel laureate in poet Pablo Neruda, though, as well as other renowned authors like Roberto Bolaño and Isabel Allende. This match could be a classic.

Look out for the next post to find out who makes it through to the next round!

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