Monday, 26 May 2014

'Papers in the Wind' by Eduardo Sacheri (Review)

With the 2014 FIFA World Cup a matter of weeks away, it's no surprise to find several football-themed books on the market, and I was lucky enough to receive a review copy of one recently.  It's a novel which looks at football from a slightly different angle, but in the end it's just as much about friendship as about the beautiful game...

Eduardo Sacheri's Papers in the Wind (translated by Mara Faye Lethem, review copy courtesy of Other Press) is set in Avellaneda, just outside Buenos Aires, and follows three friends (Mauricio, Ruso and Fernando) with a passion for life - and the local football team, Independiente.  The novel starts with the three mourning the death of Fernando's brother, Mono, a former junior footballer who later became successful as a systems analyst.  As they sit in a café, taking in the reality of their friend's passing, they begin to ponder the future.

Their main concern is for the future of Mono's daughter, Guadalupe, and they're right to be concerned as Mono sank all his money into buying a young football talent, one loaned out to a team in the lower divisions:
Ruso sounds excited when he adds, "That's awesome.  That he plays first-string I mean.  That he feels secure in his spot.  For his confidence, and all that."
Bermúdez looks at him as if he's not sure he should respond.
"The thing is, kid, you have no idea just how awful his replacement is."
p.19 (Other Press, 2014)
The contract of Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga, then, looks like US$300,000 down the drain - unless the friends can think of something fast...

While football is the topic around which the novel is constructed, the true focus of Papers in the Wind is friendship, in particular the importance of keeping in touch with childhood friends.  The three main characters are very different people, and if they had met as adults, they probably wouldn't even have given each other the time of day.  Fernando is a teacher on the wrong side of town while Mauricio is a lawyer with his sights on the big time (and any attractive secretaries who come his way).  As for Ruso, let's just say that he's a small-business owner who really shouldn't be let anywhere near a small business...

None of that really matters, though, because the three boys grew up in the same neighbourhood, kicking a ball around in the street and watching Independiente play every weekend.  These are friends who will fight for each other - as Ruso proves on a visit to Mono's uncaring specialist:
"Are you a doctor or what, you little son of a bitch?  Don't you see, don't you realize that Mono is sick, asshole?  That he's afraid he's gonna die?  Or do you not give a shit?  You didn't even look at him, asshole, you didn't even look at him!  Don't you realize what he wanted to ask you?  Didn't you realize, moron?  What?  You - you've never been afraid?" (p.165)
If the doctor hasn't had much experience of fear in the past, Ruso soon helps him to catch up in this department.

However, as most people know, modern football has a way of corrupting those who become involved in the business, and trying to sell Pittilanga to get Mono's money back is going to test the ties of our three friends:
"What I'm saying... what I'm saying is that soccer is a lie.  That it's all a farce.  That it's all business.  The players, the managers, the journalists.  Even the hooligans are on the books.  All about the benjamins.  They all do it for the money." (p.443)
The beautiful game has a dirty underbelly, and as Fernando, Ruso and Mauricio get drawn into the world of negotiations and bribery, they realise that it's impossible to come out with their integrity intact.  A bigger problem, though, is that there's always the temptation for one of the three to start acting behind the others' backs...

Papers in the Wind is a nice, easy read, and it's a story which draws you in, a definite page-turner.  The story has two alternating strands, one set in the present, and one relating the events leading up to Mono's untimely death.  The flashbacks help to set the scene for the later events, also shining a light on the nature of the relationship shared by the four young men from the suburbs.

There were a couple of minor issues I had with the book.  The first is to do with the strand dealing with Mono's illness, which, while initially interesting, later became far too slow, bogging down the main storyline.  It's an important side to the story as it helps show the strength of the bond the men share, but towards the end it really dragged, and I was skipping through it as quickly as possible to get back to the main event.

The other issue is one which will only be shared with a minority of readers out there, namely British-English speakers with a passion for football.  You see, this translation is in American English, and while that usually only poses minor concerns, the moment the book starts to mention 'soccer' in any depth, it really is a different language.  Some examples I noted down are 'field' (pitch in British English), 'wall pass' (one-two), 'goal area' (penalty area), 'demoted' (relegated), 'light towers' (floodlights), 'lateral defender, left side' (left-back) and 'an off-mark shot to the goal' (a shot off-target).  For people like me, that all makes for painful reading ;)

Luckily, though, Papers in the Wind is more about the people than the game, looking at how sport can have a corrupting influence once large amounts of money are on offer.  As you watch the best in the world this (northern) summer, don't forget that for every Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi, there's a Mario Juan Bautista Pittilanga hoping that his contract is going to be renewed at the end of the season - and a middle-man counting his dollars, who might just make it happen...